Digital Universities UK 2024 conference – personal reflections

Chris gives a personal take on some of the themes and issues raised at this year’s Digital Universities UK conference in Exeter, with thoughts on AI, block teaching, student-centred design and serious play.

I was fortunate enough to spend 3 days at the Digital Universities UK conference in Exeter last week. It was a lively event that left me feeling challenged and motivated to explore some key issues and was a chance to reconnect with some people I hadn’t seen in ages.

Rather than give you a blow by blow account of who said what, here are the 5 main things that have been buzzing around my head since I came home.

1.     Is the conversation about AI about to change?

Lisa Roberts, VC of University of Exeter, made an observation in her opening remarks about how she felt the conversation about technology in HE, having been dominated for 18 months by generative AI, was moving back to discussions about other pressures such as funding. Many speakers mentioned concerns about funding deficits.

AI was the main focus of attention going by session titles, but it wasn’t the only game in town and I felt there was interesting stuff to discover about other topics that might have seemed more mundane (see below about block teaching).

And I found myself getting frustrated with some of the vendor keynotes riffing on the theme of “in the future, with AI you’ll be able to…” or “AI will mean we can have better/more/less/cheaper/quicker etc”. These are messages we have heard a lot over the last year and I don’t think it’s sufficient to be talking in generalities like this that don’t make any attempt to show what the roadmap is to these outcomes that we can apply a critique to. The level of discussion is more mature than that now.

2.     AI powered tutors: what’s the role of the teacher?

I was intrigued by David Lefevre from University of Bedford’s showcase of the human/AI tutoring system they’ve set up to teach core maths curricula. The chatbot he demonstrated looked really effective and looked well integrated with a tutoring system that involved real humans.

Afterwards I found myself thinking about the role of the teacher in an increasingly AI driven and “personalised” curriculum. David talked about how he saw in the future how the principle delivery mode of teaching might move away from content such as online resources towards the AI tutor itself, rather than the bot acting as a window on the resources as the “main event”. So what does it mean to be a “teacher” in those circumstances? Teachers themselves learn and improve through the act of teaching. For the sake of argument, if the role of teaching is taken largely by the bot and the humans are there to create, curate and vet the content, what takes the place of teaching as the vehicle for continuous improvement or sense of professional mastery that is so important?

To be clear, David wasn’t making an argument for full automation of teaching but it did get me curious about changing professional roles and identity in an AI-supported world.

3.     Block scheduling: how should it dovetail with digital?

Although it’s established practice in some places, “immersive” block scheduling of teaching is something I’m relatively unfamiliar with, so I took as much opportunity as I could to hear from people that had experience of implementing it at different levels. Teeside University’s London Campus, De Montfort and Plymouth Marjon Universities had interesting stories to tell.

There was lots to dig into. Speakers talked about the wellbeing benefits of these shorter, more intensive bursts of teaching in fitting better with students’ work or caring commitments and the lifelong learning entitlement (another recurring theme through the event). They also talked about the tensions between that approach and the needs of subjects that require more extended periods of learning and slower patterns of learning.

One thing I want to find out more about is how digital can support the pedagogic challenges of block scheduling. Teeside’s London operation has an interesting approach where students purchase their own device with financial support from the university and access to required software is managed through Appstream, a bit like a thin client model, enabling them to take an agile, iterative approach to IT provision that the teaching requires.

On a separate note, and as PVC of De Montfort, Susan Orr alluded to, block teaching marks something of a reclaiming of the word “immersive” from XR-related technologies and shouldn’t be conflated.

4.     What’s the role of student-centred design in “personalisation”?

I have a personal bee in my bonnet about “personalisation” of teaching and the student experience. For some people and organisations it seems to be synonymous with algorithmic delivery of differentiated content and that feels a very narrow definition to me and not what students are calling for.

I find it more helpful to think along the lines of the NHS’s ethos of “person-centred care”, but in our case “person-centred learning”, where organisational decisions, design of services or the learning experience are seen first and foremost through the lens of how they will enhance or harm the experience of the individual.

So it was pleasing to hear from Amanda Neylon and Niklas Juergens about their work at Nottingham Trent University in person-centred design in digital projects. They gave a helpfully honest account of what it had been like applying user-centred design principles to change initiatives including some of the setbacks as well as the successes. They talked about the importance of treating using these methods as more of a cultural change than a technical one and learning to trust their processes; experiment and try things out in order to learn.

5.     How can we use play to help reframe tricky conversations?

On the subject of experimentation and trying things out, it was good to meet with Maarten Koeners, co-founder of Innoplay, a venture based at Exeter Uni that uses “the art and science of design, play and storytelling to enable innovation”. They ran a takeover session one of the morning where we were encouraged play various games and interact with each other and to think about how stepping out of normal patterns of work and behaviour to help reframe ideas, build human connections or come up with new solutions to problems. Worth exploring more.

6.     And a bonus one: isn’t Exeter’s campus lovely?

Exeter Uni’s Streatham campus is the most beautiful of the modern, out of town campuses I know. Sorry, York!

A view of the Exeter University campus' green space seen through the trees on teh opposite side of the valley.
View of the campus grounds from across the valley

You can register your interest for the 2025 DUUK event now.

By Chris Thomson

I'm a Subject Specialist at Jisc focusing on online learning and digital student experience.

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