April 3rd-4th 2023 showed the we gathered to revisit our enduring relationship with universities in Germany, as we collaborated with colleagues in German U15, Universities Scotland and the Scottish Government in Germany to continue our shared conferences on Digital Learning & Teaching. The theme of this year’s conference was Sustaining Connections, the Participatory and Intercultural Potential of Digital Learning. If you want to see what went on as it happened, have a look at #U15UniScot2023 on Twitter. Let’s dive in!
We were pleased to welcome many delegates from Germany, as well as universities across Scotland, to a very sunny Craiglockhart campus. For some this visit also was a poignant reminder that Scotland’s involvement in the Erasmus exchange programme is drawing to a close, and as European Students will be leaving Scotland, others may have a harder time coming to take their place. “Joint working is the only way we will work out the new world we are in, our future lives, future workforce”, as Professor Liz Bacon highlighted, and staff and students in attendance leapt at the opportunity to share their observations on the future of intercultural learning in our increasingly digital world. As State Secretary Dr Jens Brandenburg stated during his opening address, “Science Thrives on academic exchange and international collaboration.”
Unsurprisingly, much of the discussion around digital learning drew links to new developments with AI and Chat bots which are a big concern for many, as we try to ensure that the education we offer provides “student self-formation, transformational relationships, not just assessments and getting a degree”, as student panel-member Joe Noteboom of the University of Edinburgh highlighted. The connections we find ways to sustain with this conference clearly are not just international but trusting relationships between educators and students, and students with their peers as was pointed out by Leonie Ackermann of the German Student Association FZS, student panel-member Ann-Kathrin Thiele of JGU Mainz, Prof Silvia Reuvenkamp and Dr. Tanya Lubicz-Nawrocka.
We are increasingly aware that digital inequality is a pertinent issue, particularly as cost of living issues impact on people across society. Familiarity with, and access to, new resources which enhance students’ learning process is a potential area of further division. The lessons which students can take from embracing AI and Chat bots in their studies, such as criticality and decision making, can be demonstrated in other forms of authentic assessment which are open to all: those which allow students to exercise agency to frame their learning in an area of their practice and their social context, as was so well demonstrated by Prof Kathie Lasater and Dr Catherine Mahoney at our School of Health & Social Care’s Rethinking Assessment seminar on April 20th.
Digital inequalities don’t just affect students, however. Provocation from ENU’s Dr Louise Drumm during the conference highlighted that if we move to adopt new technologies, there are costs to maintain these amid existing financial pressures which affect HE institutions variably, as well as costs to the planet with the energy usage to run data centres which are vital to these services which use a lot of centralised computing power. We often think of digital technologies as the remedy to solve our ecological issues with reductions in global travel but these technologies still require infrastructure, are often difficult to recycle when they are no longer supported by suppliers, and do not often integrate in ways which minimise the amount of monetary, physical and energy resourcing required for implementation. Those technologies also cost time, to implement and to learn to harness them in large institutions.
That then raises the question: when we run out of resources such as time and money, what do we forego in order to make the changes we want to make? Well for one, let’s do away with silos and disconnected working, in favour of partnership. Dr Kirsty Kiezebrink and Dr Dave Laurenson highlighted that there are knowledge gaps which can hinder our implementation, or even allow us to implement technologies and methods which may not suit our needs, leading to costly mistakes at the expense of students and institutions if those with the relevant experience don’t help each other to recognise their mistakes before it’s too late. Technological, theoretical and social progress rely on connections being made between areas of knowledge, which we can’t effectively achieve in isolation. Higher Education and assessment can be tools for social justice, an outcome most effective when achieved through partnership and shared, not commodified. We’re excited to explore more about this in our keynote from Dr Jan McArthur at our summer Learning & Teaching the conference, The Gathering.
If we move to build partnerships then of course we will encounter differences and discrepancies which limit our ability to connect, much like trying to combine technologies. Some of these benefit from finding a mutual middle ground or compromise, where others are important differences whose contribution we can acknowledge and value. Dr. Sarah Madeleine Nell-Müller‘s provocation highlighted that the issues of digital access, quality of online learning and preference for more online study, which are now more widespread since lockdown, have been the issues facing refugees undertaking higher education for a long time.
Student agency was pointed out by many as incredibly important in encouraging engagement in our current, increasingly digital era of higher education. Prof Julia Reckermann’s provocation indicated that well-structured digital resources can enable student agency in engagement at a range of levels of ability and support need. Students need agency in study with digital resources to ensure engagement and quality education; digital resources can enable agency in engagement. We just need to make sure that these resources are suitable for the “young digital natives” who will be using them, we must “let students walk the path before we pave it for them”.
Whether due, structural differences or more global cultural differences, it was pointed out by Prof Timothy Drysdale that “if Educational Technology clashes with our culture, it will be worse for other cultures; the limits of a tool are not the limits of creativity.” As societies become more globalised, particularly in higher education, there is no doubt that we will become more aware of our differences in ways we may not have thought to consider. As Dieter Lehmann mentioned, Digital platforms are eurocentric and push a particular way of engaging and working, but also open up our learning spaces to those who wouldn’t be able to join us physically without uprooting life as it is for them.
Ingo Kleiber pointed out that “There is no way of not using or being linked to some sort of technology. Tech companies aren’t focused on the same developments we are.” As Elizabeth Nelson added, “Digital expansion absolutely can support accessibility but can lead to reduction of responsibility, to provide less spaces, less specific support in digital spaces. This should be a warning to us. Digital does not equal equitable, inclusive, accessible. Inclusion doesn’t mean equity.”
When we began Reimagining Universities, Dr Vicki Dale provoked us to move beyond hybrid learning just as the dichotomy between face-to-face and online learning but to look at the sequence of learning activities and experiences which students will face, to give meaning to each area of engagement for students, in a clear learning process. As digital learning has made its way deeper into higher education, its influence the role of physical spaces in learning & teaching must not be overlooked. As with many new technologies, the old does not immediately become redundant but its current purpose may need to be redefined. Celeste McLaughlin and Dr Philippa Sheail offered examples of ways to reimagine campus spaces, and their role in partnership with digital learning. Indeed virtual field trips could still offer advantages with consideration of global issues, or consistency of experience for students, with collaboration on activities in physically accessible spaces.
Student panel-member Thorsten Delker questioned how “people who aren’t included in mainstream society feel about digital belonging. Digital tools can improve academia but must not destroy university life.” Digital tools can only provide benefit when we can access them. PD Dr Sigrid Riewerts of JGU University Mainz pointed out that some digital tools, “information and resources are geoblocked as this can end collaboration when there are not ways around these issues.”
Just as we can struggle to materialise our ideas using the digital tools available to us if we lack familiarity, suitable guidance or acknowledgement of our needs by developers, Dr Mabel Victoria, Sibylle Ratz and Dr Jenny Scoles made it clear that if we want students from diverse cultures to be able to work within our systems and experience success, we need to meet them halfway, understand their experiences in order to truly understand each other’s intentions, expectations and needs.
It is clear that there is a lot of hard work facing both staff and students in higher education but creating space for the student voice, supporting them to use their voice and shape how it is framed, harnessing these experiences can help our work to grow and evolve to fit our changing world. When communicating outside their peer-group, students “need to filter out so much nuance. There are reasons why my peers communicate in certain ways, on one platform vs another”, as student panel-member Jasmine Millington expressed. Student panel-member, Elizabeth Nelson provoked that “Community can’t always create itself. There are barriers to community. Maybe have some sessions where students can bring their kids, meet for food. Spaces need to be created to build community.”
Jenny Scoles mentioned cross-disciplinary and international audiences for publishing student voices and Marco Glaubitz demonstrated where this could be demonstrated through the Eucor initiative which allows students to study any module “a la carte” at any of the 5 member universities. It’s not difficult to imagine how these sorts of opportunities, with such breadth of feedback on the application of modules, could allow modules to benefit multi-disciplinary audiences through small changes such as opening up assessments to student choice, shaping their work to authentically reflect their study. This sort of approach can be seen in the level 8 module at ENU, “Achieving Sustainability: A Better World is Possible” in which student “focus is on working together, in interdisciplinary teams, on projects [they] design that can have a positive impact on sustainability.” Students can achieve a huge amount, when given a platform to do so, in a space with others where they can share and listen.
On the other side of this student choice, Dr Kirsty Kiezebrink suggested “We should start thinking again about programmes of studies rather than series of modules and share responsibility, collaborate.” When we see the potential of our modules and learning experiences to benefit wider ranges of students from other subject areas or backgrounds, when we see the breadth of knowledge and experience students bring, we can draw on the breadth of knowledge already present in our institutions to further expand our students’ horizons to see how they can fit into a digitally connected world. As Yannick Bauer said, on behalf of Dr Jan Woepking of German U15 in closing the conference, “With changes, we need to make sure no one is left behind.” Professor Catriona Cunningham is incredibly keen for concrete projects between partner universities who are interested in student mobilities post-Erasmus; intercultural student engagement or international collaboration on artificial intelligence. Please do get in touch with DLTE@napier.ac.uk to start these conversations.