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Digifest 2021: edtech student support lauded

During the pandemic, UK universities have used edtech solutions to support students while an expected uptick in transnational education is an “opportunity” for educators, speakers said at Jisc’s Digifest conference in March.

Digital leaders are now able to find ways to use technology to really make a difference in student wellbeing, speakers at Digifest said. Photo: Unsplash

"When I think about the degree to which mental health and wellbeing is talked about now compared to pre-pandemic, it's really quite a sea change"

Esther Wilkinson detailed how Jisc has assisted universities reach international students beyond borders of the UK during the pandemic.

As head of international at the organisation, Wilkinson explained how it developed the Global Education Access Framework over 2020 to simplify the process of identifying suitable connectivity solutions for students stuck overseas.

The final framework – launched in September – includes two procurement lots, one specifically for China using the Alibaba cloud as the preferred supplier, and the Global lot, which uses Cloud Coco as the main provider.

“The number one pressing issue on US campuses… is mental health and wellbeing of students”

“We have to work with the National Cyber Security Centre to ensure and assure security of solutions,” she said.

“We have lots of concerns about ethics and academic freedom with respect to the content that was being accessed, which were and continue to be addressed as a sector not just in China, but for many other parts of the world.”

At current estimates, Jisc is able to support about 21,000 students based in China, she added.

“Our largest user, an early adopter of the solutions University College London has observed a combined bandwidth of 2.7 gigabits between China and the UK with the largest single peak of one gig, some of which will reflect synchronous teaching,” she explained.

“All of the universities that we’ve spoken to have a significant problem obtaining student feedback, particularly because it’s now remote, different timezones. But also culturally, students don’t tend to complain unless something significant is a significant problem.”

The framework solution supports both transnational education online as well as students domiciled overseas, she added.

John O’Brien, president and CEO of EDUCAUSE highlighted mental health and wellbeing as a key aspects where edtech has helped students in need.

“When I think about the degree to which mental health and wellbeing is talked about now compared to pre-pandemic, it’s really quite a sea change… If we’ve learnt one thing from the pandemic… it’s that everyone needs to support everyone.

“[In the US] when we ask college presidents or rectors what is the number one pressing issue on campus, most recent survey says that that number one issue is mental health and wellbeing of students. The number two issue is the mental health and wellbeing of faculty and staff.”

While technology has previously been seen as a “culprit of isolation and loneliness and contributing to lack of wellbeing”, digital leaders are now able to find ways to use technology to really make a difference in that area, O’Brien suggested.

A Jisc report from earlier in 2021, highlighted that studies have “shown some promising findings around the effectiveness of app-based interventions for depression and anxiety in student populations”.

It noted edtech apps, tools and platforms such as Fika, UNIHEADS, Togetherall and more that UK universities had applied to mitigate mental health and wellbeing challenges.

And technological solutions are not limited to higher education only, speakers reminded.

VocTech – technology for vocational education – is an enabler for “more flexible, engaging learning experiences”, said Louise Rowland deputy chief executive of Ufi VocTech Trust.

“The very best in voctech has its routes in human-centred design”

“The potential and purpose of digital technology is about supporting learners, teachers, trainers and organisations in creating an environment for better learning outcomes. It isn’t a replacement for human interaction, indeed the very best in voctech has its routes in human-centred design.”

Jisc has also released a UK higher education strategy 2021-2024 to help providers meet the global demand for education that “will accelerate over the next 20 years”.

“The sector’s recent digital achievements have been emphatic and swift with many examples of highly effective and innovative approaches to research and online and blended learning,” the report reads.

“An opportunity now exists to evolve how UK universities support students, academics and professional staff,” it continues, detailing priorities in: Empowering culture and leadership; Reimagining learning, teaching and assessment; Reframing the student experience; and Transforming infrastructure.

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