IT in Education: Welcome to Dunce’s Corner

Written by Rahiel Nasir, Freelance IT Journalist Published 2016-04-12 08:06:15

You can’t take the education out of IT but it seems you can take the IT out of education.

So there I was wondering what the education sector needs when it comes to information technology when my inbox pings and I think I have the answer. It’s from the Higher Education Commission (HEC) which is run by Policy Connect, a network of Parliamentary groups, research commissions and forums working to inform and improve UK public policy.

Following a 10-month inquiry into what the data revolution could mean for HE and students, the commission published its findings in a report in January 2016.

As part of its conclusions, HEC said: “Universities are crying out for guidance on better data management and need support to help their staff and systems capitalise on all the benefits that good data analytics can offer.”

Data and analytics. Now that strikes at the very heart of all things IT. I’ve even heard that there are centres up and down the land that specialise in handling the stuff.

Sadly, it seems HEC hasn’t.

As I start making my way through the 70 or so pages that make up the report, I am waiting for the moment I read about how the IT industry will play its part in helping HE institutions understand and capitalise on their ‘Big Data’.

I’m only half way through the foreword but I think I might be getting close when it says: “We recommend that institutions should immediately review their internal data management approaches and take steps to ensure good quality and management of data.”

Great! Shall we now talk about how IT experts can play a part in helping HE institutions understand and capitalise on their ‘Big Data’? Not yet it seems.

The report continues: “The HE sector has always been a data-rich sector, and universities generate and use enormous volumes of data each day. However, the sector has not yet capitalised on the enormous opportunities presented by the data revolution, and is lagging behind other sectors in this area.”

Interesting. But there’s still no talk of IT.

“Unless institutions and university staff are data-capable and equipped with the resources and skills to manage data well, HE will not be able to catch up and students will miss out on many potential learning and support benefits.”
Yes! Surely this is it, the cue for IT to come and save the day? No.

According to HEC, while the HE sector needs to improve its data capability and data management procedures, it believes HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency), Universities UK, and Jisc should work together to lead on all this. (And as many of you probably know, the latter is the education sector’s not-for-profit organisation for digital service and solutions. Jisc is also responsible for Janet, the UK’s national research and education network.)

Not once in the report are any specialist technology companies mentioned. And in the list of contributors to the inquiry’s evidence sessions, interviewees and writers, there was not one representative from the IT industry let alone the data centre sector.

So how can you talk about data, the raw material of information technology, without mentioning the IT industry?

HEC’s inquiry was co-chaired by Lord Norton, a Conservative peer who is also Professor of Government at the University of Hull, and Sarah Porter, an independent advisor and researcher in higher education who is perhaps better known to some in the IT industry as a former head of innovation at Jisc.

I asked Sarah why HEC’s report didn’t include opinions about leveraging Big Data from IT industry experts.
She told me that ‘Big Data’ is a very broad term, and that the commission made an early decision, following input from experts, to focus its inquiry on the impact of Big Data on students and learning.

She said: “There are also a number of reports that investigate the impact/potential of big data, but nothing major in the UK that focused on the HE sector and on students.

“[Our] report focused in the main on the issues and implications for students, e.g. ethical issues. Accordingly, most of the evidence received by the commission and included in the report came from within the HE sector.”

Sarah said that HEC issued a call for evidence in June 2015 which was open for submissions for three and a half months. “This was publicised and circulated through our networks and beyond during this this time. As noted, we mostly received responses from within the HE sector itself, although we did receive submissions from two education technology companies.”

She added that IT industry experts had the opportunity to respond to the report compilers during this time. So given the lack of any evidence in the final report, I can only surmise that the IT industry has itself to blame.

That would appear to be at odds with Sarah’s views that the IT industry has “very important” contributions to make by working with and through educational providers, especially universities, as well as with other agencies as appropriate.

What’s more, one of the issues noted in HEC’s report was the importance of higher education institutions sharing resources to help overcome the costs and fears over vendor ‘lock-in’.

What is therefore conspicuous by its absence in all of this is a lack of reference to LONDON4, the UK’s first national shared data centre for research and education organisations that is now run by VIRTUS. Why is that?

Coming soon: ‘IT in education: part II – sharing and caring in Slough'