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Imperial College Business School’s newly appointed professor of practice Dr David Lefevre shares his view on how the next wave of emerging disruptive technologies will impact education for the better 

When the COVID pandemic hit in spring 2020, Dr David Lefevre was ready. Seconded to Imperial in 2001 to do an MSc in the Department of Computing by the British Council, where he was working on an ambitious project to offer hybrid education, he ended up finding a long-term home at the College. 

Following a PhD at the Business School, he formed the Edtech Lab, which led to the launch of the School’s first online courses in 2003. In 2015, he introduced Imperial's first online degree programme, the Global Online MBA. Since then, he has divided his time between his role as Director of the Edtech Lab and creating a string of successful tech spinouts, such as online courseware publisher Epigeum and online education company Insendi.   

The education sector offers enormous scope for the application of new ideas

“Combining academia and entrepreneurship has a flywheel effect,” he says. “The relationship between our edtech spinouts and Imperial has a sum positive effect for all: these firms enable Imperial to realise the value of its educational innovation and also create a vibrant exchange of ideas with the wider education sector.” 

By the time the pandemic arrived in the UK, the Edtech Lab was offering more than 200 online modules a year and had the experience and skills necessary to move the School’s teaching entirely online. 

“Like many institutions, we were given two days' notice that our campus would close, so the primary challenge became speed. However, we were able to quickly form a robust strategy and our students were able to continue their studies,” he says. 

Datafication 

Fast forward to today and Dr Lefevre is ready for the next challenge: bringing the new wave of technology into education in his new capacity as a Professor of Practice. He will be looking at the role emerging disruptive technologies will play in higher education, with a particular focus on artificial intelligence (AI). 

“Generally, digital education is powered by Web 2.0, a collection of old technologies that have taken decades to roll out across the sector. However, we are now witnessing the origins of a new technological wave, based on analytics, that is likely to be equally disruptive. 

“One example of the disruption we are likely to see is AI starting to perform tasks that are currently performed by humans. In the context of higher education this could include certain tasks within administration roles, teaching roles and in the study process, as well as the general task management.”  

We are already beginning to see human staff replaced by AI

In order to arrive at the point where these technologies can be effectively incorporated into the School’s operations, Dr Lefevre and his team must first complete the task of “data unification”. This is an infrastructure project that will transform the Business School into a data-driven organisation – no small feat.  

One year ago – as part of this process – the Edtech team started collecting information about the School’s student body from 17 different sources, including application forms, security cards, curriculum information, grades, careers service and alumni profiles. 

“In a year’s time, we will hopefully be able to conduct sophisticated analyses that allow us to identify which parts of the student experience most impact those things we care about. For example, student performance, student satisfaction and graduate outcomes.” 

The goal of this work is to offer “precision education”, he explains, meaning programmes that are designed to offer the most impact and offer personalised journeys, targeting what students want and need.  

The business of education 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has concerns about the potential for these emerging technologies to be adopted inappropriately within the education sector.  

“There is a fear among people in roles like mine that technology will create a two-tier educational system in which there exists a low cost, largely automated education system for some, and a high-touch, more human experience for those who can afford it. 

“This is especially the case when it comes to applying AI to online education. We are already beginning to see human staff replaced by AI, particularly in low-cost settings.”   

Naturally his focus is on how these technologies can be used to create a positive learning experience, such as making education more affordable or increasing access or participation through the removal of geographical boundaries. 

We are now witnessing the origins of a new technological wave

He sees himself as someone who has been very fortunate to have found a role that suits him so well at an institution like Imperial.  

“The whole focus of my work is on digital innovation and the education sector offers enormous scope for the application of new ideas. However, given the increasing complexity of digital technology, it is necessary to to have the time to thoroughly consider its implications, and I am very grateful to Imperial for creating this Professor of Practice role to allow me to do just that.  

As you would expect, Imperial College has been a fabulous base for me to explore and develop ideas. I don’t believe many institutions offer such a degree of opportunity.”   

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About Evie Burrows-Taylor

Evie is Web Content Editor for the Institutional Marketing & Communications team. She is responsible for developing the School's faculty and research communications, working to amplify the School's intellectual leadership to a wide variety of international audiences. She also works on IB Knowledge and the School's news and events coverage.