Amazon Web Services: digital innovation in higher educationIs the pandemic pushing us towards a more modern curriculum?

Is the pandemic pushing us towards a more modern curriculum?

There have long been calls for university curricula to adapt to the needs of a wider range of learners and outcomes. As the pandemic has shifted more learning online, will this evolution accelerate? 

Prior to the Covid-19 crisis, there was already recognition among universities that curricula needed to become more flexible. Institutions had begun to build shorter courses, stackable credentials and lifelong learning strategies designed to meet future skills needs, but the past year created a newfound urgency for these offerings to take shape.

At a recent webinar hosted by Times Higher Education, in partnership with Amazon Web Services (AWS), panellists discussed how universities can modernise the curriculum as part of their digital transformation.

Jane Baker, vice-president of higher education qualifications at Pearson, said that during the pandemic demand had grown for more modular, flexible and remote working patterns. “Students have welcomed the flexibility [that studying remotely has] given them, they can learn at their own pace,” she said. “But they still value person-to-person contact, so the challenge is how we build tools for collaboration if we move to a more remote learning model.”

Baker pointed to recent policy announcements such as the UK government’s Skills for Jobs white paper, which calls for learning to be more closely linked to employers’ needs. To achieve this goal, students must immerse themselves in practical skills, a task that could prove challenging if learning is increasingly online.

However, technology has opened up opportunities for many. Catherine O’Connor, professor for higher education, learning and teaching at Leeds Trinity University, remarked how experiences that might have warranted a field trip in the past can now be designed remotely. “We’re no longer limited to working with employers in Leeds as we can arrange for a student to work on a remote project with a company in London,” she said.

But there is still a central role for the on-campus experience that cannot be replicated by technology, O’Connor added: “Students really value the campus experience, those ‘round the edges’ bits that shape university experience. It’s about how you build a community so students feel connected.” 

Christina Cole, programme lead for AWS Educate in EMEA, argued that more widespread adoption of technology, in particular cloud-based platforms, had supported universities to deliver better outcomes for thousands of students. “It can support and accelerate personalised learning, enable flipped classroom approaches, even provide reminders for assignments or chatbots if students need help,” she said. The data produced by these platforms enables institutions to tweak programmes and better understand how students learn, she added.

Teesside University was an early adopter of technology solutions, loaning iPads and offering small grants to help overcome digital poverty so all students could get online. But Mark Simpson, pro vice-chancellor of learning and teaching at Teesside, admitted there were still aspects of digital transformation to conquer. “As a sector, we’ve done incredibly well at flipping learning online, but it tends to be either classroom or online, where everyone is on the same platform. In the future, some students will be online and some on campus, so if we want students to collaborate, we need to find a way to blend these two things together,” he explained.

With the labour market likely to transform after the pandemic and external factors such as increased automation impacting jobs, panellists agreed that using technology to support lifelong learning experiences was critical. “Students increasingly want a menu of learning options throughout their lives and the pandemic has accelerated this,” said Baker.

Simpson agreed, remarking that “many different types of learners will seek different pathways through higher education, compared to this idea that it’s something you do at the start of your professional life before you move on”. Shorter courses and stackable credits that can be more easily personalised and delivered using universities’ digital platforms will be crucial to fulfilling those needs.

Maintaining campus learning will be crucial to helping students develop those all-important soft skills that employers want, the panel concluded. “Conversations outside disciplinary areas is where the magic can happen and we can build leadership skills,” said Simpson. “We need to create those spaces for that to happen.”

Find out more about Amazon Web Services’ work in the public sector.

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