Emerging e-learning technologies in higher education

  • 21/09/2020
  • 13:23
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The 4th Industrial Revolution is blurring the boundaries between the physical and digital worlds as it continues to transform the education sector. Areas of current growth give us an indication of future trends.

There are two main areas emerging in the industry: artificial intelligent (AI) driven platforms and virtual learning environments (VLE). Newer VLEs are a combination of both virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), and the latter expects a global growth of at least $177.4 billion by 2022. If we look at specific continents the percentage of increase is also staggering. In 2016, the UK’s VR market value was estimated at £46.4 million. This grew by 390% in four years, bringing it to approximately £354.3 million in 2020.

Due to the unique academic branding and marketplace orientation of higher education institutions, VLEs must be tailored to their specific style. This is why the ‘buy-build’ strategy is commonplace, where existing platforms are used and adapted for the universities in question. An example of this is the Bloomsbury Learning Exchange (BLE). This is a digital education service which provides a VLE for six higher education institutions in Bloomsbury, central London. Many VLEs are based on learning management systems (LMS) like Moodle, but with over 68 million users worldwide, you can understand the need for customisation.

Knowing which platform to use is key. Jisc – the UK higher education not-for-profit organisation for digital solutions – helps institutions to understand what their technology needs are. The organisation emphasises the need for digital leaders when driving the vision of a VLE so that academic staff can be supported in its use and implementation. This fundamental step helps to prevent many of the issues that both academic staff and students face when using new digital platforms.

Best practice leaders

The universities which implement collaborative best practices are leading the VLE era. In Sheffield Hallam University, academic staff work with their students in a partnership to develop their e-learning approach. This is where organisations like Jisc acknowledge their success and help to disseminate similar best practices throughout the educational landscape. By using these modelled approaches, ongoing IT support, and staff training, universities give themselves the best chances of improving their students’ learning experiences.

Another innovative approach comes from the University of London Computer Centre (ULCC). They use ‘swap days’ to showcase best practice. The ULCC shares its own Moodle service called ‘Bloom’, with a group of UK higher education institutes, and provides a progressively managed VLE service. This allows institutes to learn from each other by empowering staff to learn new skills and successful strategies.

Then there is the unavoidable truth of ROI. As of April 2020, it’s estimated that most universities face a cost of at least £10 million to produce five or six contemporary online degrees (O’Shea, 2020). This creates £1 billion in costs across the sector, and the full ROI can only be known once registration for the current academic year (2020-2021) is complete and offset by reported revenue. Certain practical classes – like those including laboratory skills – cannot be fully replicated online, and the only solution is ‘blended learning’, where both online and on-campus modules are offered. The broadening of life experience from social interaction is a key element of all higher education courses, and to retain high-calibre students, this must be included within their programmes of study.

Innovative futures

Analytics are a cornerstone of the e-learning movement. Students’ personal information allows VLEs to provide targeted support as well as additional services and performance monitoring. This helps institutes to move away from a ‘one fits all’ model and offer a platform which suits the diverse needs of students in both domestic and international settings. Both academic and non-academic variables need to be considered when providing dynamic educational platforms, and an institute’s analytical strategy improves its competitiveness in an ever-changing landscape.

Current research shows that less than 50% of universities are using this type of data to improve their VLEs. The main predictor of success in the future will be how this data is leveraged, and how it’s linked to the adaptive learning processes built into each e-learning platform. The University of Bradford School of Management has used the Blackboard VLE platform to deliver its highly rated distance learning MBA for the past six years. This platform helps to serve students from 90 different countries, and the collaborative tool helps to drive the institute’s career-changing education. The benefits include the strengthening of student’s identity and connection with their degree course and institute.

Beyond the classroom

Since free web tools also form a part of daily student life (I.e. YouTube, Google, WordPress etc.) the VLE spectrum is connected to non-higher education regulated resources. This has led the e-learning environment to require protocols that safeguard its standards. In short, the VLE is no longer a ‘walled garden’. It’s recommended that higher education institutions structure their community of lecturers and students with clear expectations in mind.

It’s common for students to try new tools. Innovative VLE systems like PEARL (Personalised e-Assisted Responsive Learning) is an excellent example of this. The cloud-based learning system also signals the direction that all similar platforms are taking. Not only do such platforms give students and tutors access to the learning resources they need, but they also encourage users to explore employability-orientated training. These facilities link to professional talent pipelines and apprenticeship matching, which empowers career-focused study.

VLE talent

The best VLEs reflect the individual ethos of the institution using them. They must be made to measure, and this relates to how talent is hired. At the core of the e-learning professional skillset, you’ll find the Shareable Content Object Reference Model, or SCORM. This is the set of technical standards that governs all e-learning products. SCORM standards tell programmers how to write code so that it has maximum usability. E-learning professionals can learn how to implement and update any LMS as long as they are experienced with this approach.

The second area of experience required relates to project management. Since e-learning technicians will be involved in nearly all aspects of the learning management system (LMS) and VLE lifecycle, it’s ideal if they have experience of managing small to mid-sized projects. This then links to delivering project management documents, as well as conducting necessary risk assessments.

Since the vast majority of e-learning content is delivered via portable digital devices, the experience of implementing UX best practices is also an advantage. Finally, the e-learning professional must be flexible as they face the ongoing challenges from one of the world’s quickest growing and competitive industries. They must be able to transfer their knowledge to teachers and students alike, so that a shared VLE vision is driven with the same progressive nature that gave birth to its rise.

Progressive collaboration

The key focus in higher education is blending academic approaches with in-demand skills. A great example of this is the Google Cloud Fundamentals course. As one of the most popular online training courses in the world, it offers a wide variety of benefits to students studying in many disciplines. Since all areas of industry will become interconnected with big data and machine learning, it’s also vital that new generations of graduates become familiar with the processes. The core principles include: cloud platform basics, Google cloud products, machine learning approaches, data analytics and many more tools of the 4th Industrial Revolution.

Many companies are playing their part in the post-pandemic era and collaborating with online education providers. Big hitters like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, are offering their support, as well as rising stars in the edtech (educational technology) industry. Developing Experts, a leading edtech company, has been offering their platform to over 1,000 UK schools, and 3,000 in China. They focus on the science curriculum and help future generations to explore STEM subjects (science, technology, engineering and mathematics).

Edtech focus

In 2019, UK edtech companies attracted over £219 million in venture capital investment, and 2020 is set to hit new records. Companies like Accenture and IBM are working with edtech providers like Udacity and upGrad, which is good news for the job market. Not only does this mean that the existing workforces are more able to upskill, but that job changers and new entrants to the job market also have more access to the skills they need.

The market growth of the UK edtech sector is on track to reach £3.4 billion by 2021, and this indicates the rising interest that companies have in developing and attracting the best talent. This is benefiting the UK’s industries by offering candidates to the chance to gain the skills they need to excel, and the edtech sector is here to support them.

For deeper insights into the virtual learning world, read the first and second blogs in our online learning series or contact our team today.