John built the very first proof-of-concept prototype of Inkpath while at the University of Oxford back in 2013 and has been developing the idea and growing the business ever since. Before Inkpath, John was Training Officer for the Humanities Division at Oxford and a Research Associate at Wadham College. He also taught Shakespeare and Renaissance Literature in the English Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, where he was Caroline Spurgeon Research Fellow.
In its recent report, Advance HE notes that fresh thinking will be required for professional development across Higher Education in the years ahead. The report’s authors acknowledge technology in particular as an ‘enormous driver of change’, highlighting the need for universities not only to be agile to new opportunities, but also to develop sufficient technical skills in their individual people and across their organisational units.
The rationale for this is clear, of course. Embedding the ability to work with technology into individual and organisational development will help universities to operate more efficiently with stretched resources, to move in step with our constantly, rapidly evolving technological landscape, to produce more rounded researchers and professionals, and to provide a better environment for students. And the time to do this is now: we need look no further than the recent impact of developments in generative AI to understand that the rate at which technology is advancing will continue to accelerate.
Back to basics
Experts in specific technologies will of course remain important. After all, expecting every member of an organisation to gain an advanced and broad understanding of such a diverse and gigantic space as ‘technology’ would be inefficient and unrealistic. Not everyone needs to be able to whip together a script in Python at a moment’s notice, to know their basics from their BASIC, or possess a deep understanding of cybersecurity beyond ‘good practice’ reasonable principles. But it is a realistic aspiration – even in a large university setting – to cultivate a fundamental technical skillset in students and staff via training initiatives and organisational incentives.
What elements constitute that skillset and how it is developed and incentivised are likely to be institution-specific questions. So it will be up to universities themselves to build up technical competency frameworks and the training provision that will support them, with the assistance of outside partners where appropriate. A diversity of approaches will ensure that universities build skills bases which are relevant to their context and requirements.
Becoming fluent in the language of what is possible
So far, so obvious: the aspiration to develop familiarity and comfortableness with technology across a workforce or student population is nothing new, and the putative benefits are clear. However, if universities truly wish to nurture technical competency across their constituencies, instilling a broader, more critical understanding of technology will be just as important as developing skillsets.
Learning more about programming is undoubtedly valuable; likewise how specific software packages work, or about clever physical engineering and its applications in a university setting. But just as valuable will be the ability of students and staff to comprehend what is reasonably achievable with technology now and in the future, and to engage with critical debates which are provoked by technology, such as those surrounding the nature and measurement of engagement with learning through technology, for instance, and the role of technology as a means to an answer rather than the answer in itself. While a short course in a coding language might be helpful to some, a course which promotes fluency in the language of coding will be beneficial to many, and will have a far greater impact across their university from an organisational standpoint.
Beyond developing technical skills, universities will need to develop people who are skilled enough to be part of the discussion of technology, who can exercise rational judgement about its implementation, and who are looking to the future while being conscious of the limitations of technology in the present. This way, when the next technological revolution sweeps across the Higher Education landscape, we will be poised to make the most of it.