Brilliant Club

How can digital technologies improve outcomes and level-up higher education?

03 May 2022

Can technology help us tackle some of the greatest challenges in higher education? That’s the question interim CEO Susie Whigham responded to last week at an event in London hosted by The PSC. She was fortunate to sit on a panel alongside speakers from across the education sector, including Lord Bob Kerslake, Sara Custer, Rajay Naik, Jonathan Slater and Dr. Antonio Weiss. In this blog, Susie summarises the top takeaways she shared with event attendees.

Technology has the potential to revolutionise education and university access. From providing tailored learning to breaking down geographical boundaries, we’ve seen firsthand during the pandemic how different 21st century learning can look.

This was true for us at The Brilliant Club too. In March 2020, we knew that disadvantaged students were likely to be most affected by disrupted learning, and we needed to make sure we could still support them throughout school closures. We moved our Scholars Programme delivery online in summer 2020 and have delivered more than 18,000 virtual tutorials. We also launched our Brilliant Tutoring Programme in January 2021. Delivered predominantly online, it is designed to support students to re-engage with curriculum learning and re-build their confidence. Underpinning our virtual delivery were key digital inclusion principles we established to ensure all students could access our support.

This transition to digital delivery was made possible by significant investment in our technical capabilities and it has been a continuous process of discovery and learning.

Our work is focused on a core mission: to support students who are less advantaged to access the most competitive universities and succeed when they get there. Since March 2020, we have seen the power of technology to both facilitate this mission and to hamper it.

For technology to improve student outcomes and level-up higher education, every student must have access to the necessary device, stable internet connectivity and the digital skills needed to achieve their potential in higher education and in the workplace.

But we know access to connectivity isn’t equal. 63% of university students encounter problems with poor Wi-Fi connection and 24% struggle to pay mobile data charges.[1] Without fair and equitable access to technology, the gap between the most and least advantaged students will only widen further.

1. Get the basics right

If we are to improve university access and level-up educational opportunities, we need to get the basics right first. Take infrastructure and access, for example. In addition to providing better broadband connections and devices for every student, could we zero-rate education websites so they don’t eat up a student’s data allowance?

Disadvantaged students are more likely to access content on a smartphone, so can we design all student platforms with mobile access in mind?

2. Understand the impact of virtual learning

Introducing virtual programme delivery has allowed us to adapt our offering to meet school needs, particularly those in harder to reach geographical areas such as rural schools. But we need to ensure that the activities these students are taking part in deliver the same outcomes as in-person sessions.

Our Research and Impact Team has examined whether online delivery impacts student engagement and outcomes on widening participation interventions. The initial findings suggest that the delivery of widening participation interventions virtually is not detrimental to outcomes. However, the study noted that ensuring students completed their ‘baseline assignment’ was more challenging online. This suggests a need to implement additional measures during virtual widening participation activities to build connections and a strong rapport with students so they are supported to engage early on.

These findings give us confidence to continue delivering our programmes virtually across the country in harder to reach areas. But in an age of hybrid learning, all education providers should consider how students experience their teaching differently in-person and online.

3. Introduce digital technology in education from a young age

As a society, we are reimagining our classrooms to move away from the traditional layout with rows of desks in front of a teacher. Increasingly we are seeing classrooms of the future which facilitate collaborative learning using technology.

Again, we don’t want to widen the gap between students entering higher education so those students who are already familiar with digital technology are at a further advantage. As such, it’s important to introduce students from a young age to digital ways of working so they have the skills needed to succeed at university and beyond before they arrive.

Once we have mastered the basics of embedding digital technologies fairly throughout education, there are great opportunities to take this further. Artificial intelligence could be used to tailor learning paths to individual students and their needs. We could start to see extended reality (XR) used to provide simulations to replicate real life challenges for students, such as for those studying engineering or medicine. But as always, we must learn to walk before we can run. Failing to level-up access to digital technologies in education now will only create a more divided society tomorrow.

[1] Student digital experience insights survey 2020/21: UK higher education findings. Jisc, 2021.