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Shifting the narrative: rethinking digital education in an age of student mobility with Professor Siân Bayne

Professor Siân Bayne shares her thoughts on the future of digital education in advance of delivering this year’s Drapers’ Lecture.

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Siân Bayne is Professor of Digital Education and Director of Education at the Edinburgh Futures Institute. She directs the Centre for Research in Digital Education, based at the University of Edinburgh, where her research focuses on higher education futures, interdisciplinary approaches to researching digital education, and digital pedagogy. She led the Near Future Teaching project to design a values-based future for digital education. Siân delivers regular keynotes on the future of digital education, publishes widely and has conducted research funded by UKRI, Erasmus+, AdvanceHE and NESTA.

The annual Drapers’ Lecture is one of the most prestigious events in the Queen Mary calendar, and this year takes place online next Wednesday, 24 March, at 6.30pm. Register now.

Covid-19 has had a massive impact on how we work and study. What do you see as the biggest trend with regard to digital education emerging within universities? And what impact might this have?

I think there are some interesting, interconnected issues coming out of the last year which I’d like to address in my talk. Some of the positives are a shift in understanding about how we might design teaching for highly mobile students, and what I think could be a longer term shift away from the ‘campus-centrism’ that has defined a lot of our teaching in traditional universities. There are openings now for re-thinking hybrid methods in a way which enable students to move around more, to have more flexibility in how they engage and to broaden our sense of what constitutes the university community.

I also think that with the intense work we’ve done to re-purpose a lot of our teaching for online delivery over the last year, we have shifted the general discourse away from the kind of catastrophising language that often comes out of media, government and industry predictions and position statements in relation to educational technology – the ones that promise ‘disruption’, ‘revolution’, ‘the end of the university as we know it’ and so on. That language tends to place university teaching in constant deficit mode and assumes that what we do as universities is overly determined by technological change. What we have now is sector wide, experienced innovation in teaching and learning which I think in the medium term will help us shift the narrative around the role of technology in universities to something much more positive. I hope so anyway.

On the downside, I do think there has been an intensification of existing trends toward unbundling, platform-dependence and overall increased influence of the ‘edtech’ industry to shape and define higher education and the teaching we do. So we need to continue to build our critical understand of that and what it might mean for us longer term – we need to make a clear case for a future which places academic rather than commercial values at the heart of how we teach.

How important is it that students have a role in developing the future of digital education?

It’s essential – students should be at the heart of this, and my talk will in part reflect on methods we developed in my own university to co-design and co-create the future with them. 

You are currently leading a project at the University of Edinburgh to look at the future of digital education over the coming decades. Can you tell us more about this work? Has anything surprised you from your findings?

Yes, I led a project between 2017-19 on this, which has defined a set of values and future direction for how we think about, and plan for, digital education over the coming decades – I will be talking about this in my lecture. One of things that has surprised me is how well the project findings have held up over the last year – because the vision we defined was values-based and co-created, I think a lot of what has happened over the last year has confirmed its robustness rather than anything else! I am pleased about that.

Why is it important for digital education offerings to align with values?

I think if institutional decisions are strongly values-based – and the values align well across the very diverse community of scholarship which defines a university – they are much more likely to be successful and lead to good outcomes. Otherwise there is a risk that we become driven by technological change and the rapidly evolving tech landscape, without having defined our own version of what we want our technological futures to look like.

As lockdown restrictions start to ease, is there any advice you would share with universities considering the balance of online and in-person teaching?

I think it’s important to plan for new ways of doing things, based on what has worked well over the last year. It’s a chance to re-set a bit and think newly about what our students will most value over the coming years. I suspect that in many instances that will be more flexibility, more ‘post-digital’ thinking about student mobility, less campus-centrism. I will be talking more about what this means in the lecture.

The Drapers’ Lecture series exists to give new perspectives on learning and teaching from a variety of viewpoints. This year’s lecture takes place on Wednesday 24 March at 6.30pm. Register now.