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On a difficult day for Higher Education with the Comprehensive Spending Review slashing public funding for the Sector by unprecedented amounts there was an interesting counterpoint in thinking about the future in a session on the challenges to academic practice presented by the rise of digital technologies.    Described as a fundamental change in academic and student practice the session delivered a wide range of different perspectives on digital scholarship, digital libraries and digital literacy. 

It was particularly interesting to hear very different perspectives from personal academic practice, through case studies in Africa, to the thoughts about information literacy vs digital literacy.   A couple of comments particularly got my attention. Firstly that new entrants to the whole e- and distance learning sector are ‘born digital’ with no legacy processes or practices from the non-digital age.  They have set themselves up to work in that environment, don’t have the baggage of courses that have been presented for six years or more and still show their history from the days of ‘your course materials are in the box’.  They are flexible, agile and a serious competitor.

The other comment particularly made me reflect on this whole area of the digital user experience – that there was as yet ‘no perfect storm of demand’ for changes in student and academic practice to embrace the digital agenda (or rather to replace current academic and student practices).  Reflecting on that comment it seems that students ‘buy-in’ to an academic set of practices that maybe they see as being the hallmarks of a university education.  They accept the particular model of learning even though (or maybe because) it may be very different to how they learnt at school.  Although students may be active users of twitter or facebook that hasn’t yet filtered through to an insistent demand that university practices should move to those environments.

But – now the numbers (and percentage) of younger students at my institution is growing quickly (and likely to grow further still) – and in the future those students might be paying more and are likely to be more demanding in getting a quality experience – are we going to see a change in their expectations about what a course looks like?  How assessments and support are provided? How they engage with tutors, or work collaboratively with their fellow students?  Is this an area where research is being undertaken to shape what future learning systems might look like?

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January 2021

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