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17 October 2019 by Gemma Bianchi

EdTech - what’s new & how can Higher Education institutes get ahead?

EdTech - what’s new & how can Higher Education institutes get ahead?

Universities across the nation are competing for the engagement of prospective students who, as an audience, have increasingly demanding expectations as to how they like to communicate, be communicated to and engage with an organisation.

This is not only being experienced by Universities, but brands are also going through the same notion of trying to engage with their key audiences.

With the removal of the government cap on the number of students that a University can enrol, non-Russell Group establishments find themselves in a highly competitive market for student recruitment.

With the majority of prospective students being school leavers and therefore a younger demographic, they have grown up in the Digital Era, used to communicating remotely, instantly and with quick responses.

Learning providers such as universities need to ensure they meet the needs of their learners. So, let’s start this article by understanding the typical demographic of a learner.

Data on entry rates into Higher Education published by UCAS in November 2017 show that entry rate for 18 year olds was the highest on record in 2017. For older age groups, entry rates declined.

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We can see from these figures, that the majority of students can be placed in the ‘Gen Z’ category. But any experienced Higher Education employee will have known that already. So, why is this important? The key is to understand what this demographic expects and desires from their learning experience, and this starts right at the very beginning with recruitment.

  • On average, Gen Z uses their smartphones more than any other device for 15.4 hours each week.
  • Gen Z consumes over 13 hours of TV content per week, that’s significantly less than baby boomers and Gen X
  • There has been a 41 percent increase in the use of ad-blocking software in the past 12 months
  • Favourite website: YouTube - 70% watch a staggering 2 hours per day.

How they want to be reached:

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Gen Zedders are tech savvy, quick to adopt and love innovation & entrepreneurialism. They are the ‘always on’ generation.

Traditional marketing doesn’t work for Gen Z. Marketers need to embrace technology and new ways of storytelling. Videos, especially short ones like those created for Instagram, work particularly well with young customers, not to mention having a website that is mobile first.

“The current generation of students are coming to campus with video being part of their daily life. If you’re not doing what you can to connect with them — to offer them that flexibility around how they want to be engaged, and to give them opportunities to learn remotely — I think you’re going to be missing the boat.” Eric Kunnen Associate Director of eLearning and Emerging Technologies, Grand Valley State University


So with this in mind, let’s think about recruitment for a moment. What is the likelihood of a prospective student seeking out lots of different university prospectus brochures Vs researching online? Given that they spend most of their time on social media, it would make sense to recruit from those places. In particular, Instagram, Messenger and Snapchat are the most popular with LinkedIn & Twitter less utilised.

So how can you be where the students are?

Here is an example of a University recruitment chatbot using Facebook messenger:

The University of Hertfordshire wanted to increase the number of students that signed up for their open days. They found that the original process of asking students to sign up with an email address was problematic and completion rates were poor. Then email reminders were often ignored and attendance rates to the open days were suffering.

Facebook Messenger open rates are the highest of any type of electronic communication, regularly above 80% so the university tasked Greenwood Campbell with creating a Messenger chatbot that could help engage with prospective students on a platform they used regularly.

The chatbot needed to allow prospective students to talk to the university on their own terms:

  • Enabling them to gain information on the vast number of courses offered by the university
  • Provide information on the accommodation options available
  • Enable them to book onto an open day or campus tours.

The university wanted a solution that was available 24/7, provided consistently accurate information and increase open day registrations.

Greenwood Campbell, the universities tech partner started by picking a platform that could integrate with appropriate systems and provide the best experience for prospective students.

Conversation strings were mapped out, these then went through an iterative process to receive sign off.

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The Chatbot was built using Chatfuel with AI integrations from Google Dialogflow to enable the bot to fully understand the context and intent of each user conversation.

Further integrations were made with Campus Management and Gecko forms to allow students to book an open day or campus tour within the chatbot.

In the first 6 months from launch, Jet handled over 2.6k conversations with prospective students and parents. The most popular being accommodation questions, further information on specific courses and open day details.

The University of Hertfordshire benefited from a 10% increase in open day bookings, thanks to Jet.

Talk to Jet by scanning the below QR code with your smartphone camera:

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Methods of learning

With video conferencing and video chat now a common commodity thanks to Skype, FaceTime and Zoom to name a few, it’s no wonder students are demanding a more flexible, convenient approach to learning.

Below are the results of a test carried out by the University of Vermont College of Medicine, who wanted to explore the effectiveness of remote learning versus classroom based.

BACKGROUND: The current practice in medical education is to place students at off-site locations. The effectiveness of these students attending remote lectures using interactive videoconferencing needs to be evaluated.

PURPOSE: To determine whether lecture content covering clinical objectives is learned by medical students located at remote sites.

METHODS: During the University of Vermont medicine clerkship, 52 medical students attended lectures both in person and via 2-way video conferencing over a telemedicine network. The study used a crossover design, such that all students attended half of the lectures in person and half using videoconferencing. At the end of the clerkship, students were assessed via a Clinical Practice Examination (CPX), with each student completing 1 exam for material learned in person and 1 for material learned over telemedicine.

RESULTS: Exam scores did not differ for the 2 lecture modes, with a mean score of 76% for lectures attended in person and a mean score of 78% for lectures attended via telemedicine (p = 0.66).

CONCLUSIONS: Students learn content focused on clinical learning objectives as well using videoconferencing as they do in the traditional classroom setting.

Digital to encourage collaboration & engagement

Learning is an active and constructive process.

Using digital tools, we can replicate all the social benefits of an in-classroom learning experience, combined with all the great aspects of learning online.

Sometimes, the best way to learn is to ask questions and engage in conversation with someone who is in exactly the same boat as you, that learns at the same pace as you.

Peer learning needs a formalised, systematic approach so that those embarking on a new course can learn ‘how to learn’. Artificial Intelligence can match students with their perfect ‘buddy’ to help them through their journey, particularly through those early days.

Students, like all of us, want technology that makes their lives easier. They want to use technology they already use. Students are doing more peer-to-peer work. They want to connect to their peers using things like Slack or WhatsApp and to do group work.

What is currently available?

Education technology, or, Edtech is one of the UK's fastest growing sectors. It accounts for four percent of all digital companies, according to The Education Foundation

  • Chatbots for recruitment and commonly asked questions
  • Virtual / remote lectures through video conferencing
  • Smart screens to record and distribute all lesson material
  • Speech to text software to capture an entire spoken lecture in text. This makes for easy searching
  • Voice technology - using Skills on Amazon and Actions on Google, lectures can set up ‘apps’ to help students practice for exams or learn modules by using their voice. People remember 10% of what they read & 50% of what they hear.
  • Interactive teaching methods powered by artificial intelligence that can be used by educational institutions to tailor the curriculum for individuals, classes and year group cohorts. For example, does this group of students learn better when we provide explainer videos or textbooks?
  • Interactive audience participation through technology such as ‘Zeetings’ - a great bit of cloud based technology to help presenters turn their talks into genuinely interactive communication with their audiences
  • Mixed reality (XR) creates opportunities for innovation in education by creating an interactive experience for learning. MX breaks through emotional barriers so students can experience life from new perspectives
  • Wireless access to the projector. Students can share their own research and findings with the whole room at the click of a button. It’s democratising and allows people to participate more actively
  • Online collaboration tools like Cisco WebEx® Social for Higher Education that combines the power of social networking, content creation, and integrated real-time communications to help enable faculty, students, and administrators to teach, learn and share. It’s also device agnostic!
  • Gamification - eSports, especially in connection with mixed reality tech, will create a new framework for the gamification of education. With younger generations, in particular, becoming increasingly enthralled with and fluent in digital gaming, eSports expands to the field of education, offering interactive and incentivized lessons in various academic topics


Despite the research into Gen Z are their natural ability to adopt new tech we shouldn’t make assumptions about the digital capabilities of students. Not all students have equal access to digital resources.

Cost is always going to be a factor. Classrooms are an expensive infrastructure. With added technology, you need staff that know how to implement and maintain it.

“Faculty have a lot of demands on them, especially those in research or those who are adjunct and have additional jobs or are working professionals. It can be easier in some ways to do what works rather than experimenting. Change is hard, and it takes work and time. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bias against technology.” - Heather Haseley Co-executive Director, the Learning Futures Collaboratory

Transforming a university into a digital focused organisation is a big task. It needs a holistic organisational approach, involving collaboration between learners, curriculum teams, departmental heads, support services, leaders and governors. This requires a senior member of staff with the strategic steer and focus to take the university’s digital vision forward. But ultimately it should be student needs which shape their decisions on investment in technology and how to drive forward digital learning