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Disruptive technology trends in further education

An important part of the Capita UNIT-e partnership with Collab Group is the opportunity it provides to shape the debate around the use of technology within the FE and Skills sector.

We’re delighted to be meeting Collab Group members later this month where the UNIT-e team will be looking ahead to technology trends that may disrupt and re-shape the FE and Skills sector in the coming years. We’ll be joined by colleagues from Barrachd, part of Capita Consulting, who’ll be discussing the increasing use of AI and digital assistants.

Ahead of the briefing we asked Nick Waters, senior analytics consultant at Barrachd, what is AI, really?

According to Nick, definitions vary, vastly. This is because Artificial Intelligence doesn’t describe a single technology but is often used as a catchall term to describe a range of technologies - from algorithms to machine learning. However you define it, those applying advanced analytics, cognitive services, machine learning, or predictive and pattern-based planning are driving better decisions and identifying trends before they even know which questions to ask.

While early adopters of AI benefitted from its rapid evolution, the bigger impact will be felt by AI’s availability to the masses. And this democratisation of AI is happening now. The cost and the necessary skills to implement a successful AI project might once have been prohibitive, but today the technology and the knowledge to get started might be more attainable than you’d think.

Identifying the right opportunity for AI and advanced analytics is key. So first, it’s important to answer some important questions: Where could AI solve problems? Where do you have a mass of relevant data (after all AI depends on the information you feed it)? And what do you want to achieve?

The answers for FE colleges and training providers quite often lie in the student experience, engagement, retention or wellbeing - all well primed to take advantage of this technology - while improving work force productivity and providing teaching staff with informed student insights allows for a more personalised and improved teaching experience.

In fact, the application of AI in education often falls into two distinct areas. Learner-facing and teacher-facing AI, although system-facing AI tools are also developing to help make or inform decisions by those managing and administrating colleges. These applications range from organising timetables to predicting inspections. One interesting deployment comes not from a seat of education, but from its regulators. Ofsted has employed ‘supervised machine learning’ to decide when colleges will be inspected. Could this be turned on its head to help colleges predict when an inspection will take place too?

More commonly, AI in education focusses on the learner. The data is ripe and plentiful. Every time a student interacts with their college or training provider – when they go to the library, use Wi-Fi, or smart cards; when they log into their virtual learning environment or submit assessments online – they leave behind a digital footprint. Learner analytics uses this data, alongside historical data, to improve both learning and teaching. By fusing this interaction data with demographic data, entry routes and other sources, colleges can predict which students might need support and offer intervention.

The chatbot - or digital campus assistant - is another form of AI that is being developed to support both students and teachers alike. These digital assistants can be designed and deployed to enhance a range of services used by students, teachers and support teams across FE institutions.

People have always been at the heart of the education system. And in developing AI for education, people - and the consequence that technology will have for staff and students alike - need to remain a central focus. When successful, AI will augment people and services, not replace them. The potential to level-out opportunities, widen participation, ease workloads and fuel collaboration is vast. And it’s already underway.

We look forward to sharing some of the ideas from our future technology discussion in the coming months. In the meantime, find out how Collab Group Scotland member, Edingburgh College are responding to students’ needs by using Capita UNIT-e to simplify enrolment.

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