CourseraHelping universities learn, change and grow with digital transformation

Helping universities learn, change and grow with digital transformation

Teaching soft skills, re-evaluating assessment and engaging with industry were among the priorities noted by a panel of experts at the 2020 THE World Academic Summit

In a panel session at the Times Higher Education World Academic Summit 2020, academic and industry leaders from across four continents met to discuss best practice for digital transformation policies and the resources that have proven most effective since campuses were forced to close or reduce their capacity to teach in-person.

Rorden Wilkinson, pro vice-chancellor of education and student experience at UNSW Sydney led the conversation by saying that it was clear students were “responding well” to working online, but that a key focus going forward would be the teaching of soft skills. “Making sure that students authentically network and collaborate” was important when limited to digital communication platforms, he explained. “The two things we have to work out in tandem are: how do we assess and how do we record those skills in our students?”

Loretta O’Donnell, vice provost of academic affairs at Nazarbayev University, agreed that moving to online learning had opened up new opportunities to incorporate soft skills into the curriculum. Improving graduate employability is a major focus for emerging economies such as Kazakhstan’s, and feedback from employers in the region highlighted soft skills alongside “clear communication skills” as being desirable, she said.

The digital transformation has also allowed the institution to re-evaluate its assessment system, moving away from traditional examinations and towards “more online group work and projects, video and narrations – it’s pushed us harder and faster in the direction we would have gone anyway”.

For Isak Froumin, head of the Institute of Education at HSE University, Russia, online learning had also helped widen access for students. “Despite all our students can talk with the whole world. They can attend lessons in other campuses [and] have broader opportunities for multidisciplinary learning,” he said. Whether or not that would have an impact on employability, however, was “too premature” to say.

He was also sceptical about the lasting effect of the cultural shift seen so far: “I’m afraid that many leaders think about digital transformation as [an] inevitable evil...our professional community is not yet ready to live with this new reality.” At the same time, he predicted that in one or two years, all Russian university courses would incorporate some online learning elements.

The panel agreed that in the coming months, universities would need to consider how practical learning requirements such as laboratory experiments and field trips could be met in a digital space.

Leah Belsky, chief enterprise officer for Coursera, said that it was a good time for university leaders to engage with tech start-ups and entrepreneurs for this reason. “There’s a tonne of investor money going into this space,” she explained. “It’s an exciting moment where [educators] can step back and ask: ‘What would I ideally have as part of my blended-learning programme?’”

Since universities shifted to online teaching in March, Coursera has been working to help staff and students adapt to digital learning. “Right now, the conversation is about how to complement and supplement the curriculum. The next step is how to go beyond that,” she said.

Watch the panel discussion in full either above or on THE’s YouTube channel.

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