In Hilary term 2022, students at all levels of study at Oxford were invited to enter the Imagining the Future of Digital Education writing competition.
Entrants submitted news articles telling fictitious stories of the future of digital learning at Oxford, with all submissions helping to inform the University’s new Digital Education Strategy.
First prize was awarded to Daniel Revach. Here is his submission. You can also view all competition winners.
University of Oxford ushers a new age of digital education
A radical new approach to higher education at the University of Oxford is proving to be a tremendous success, with students wielding an arsenal of digital tools to seize control of their education
20 July 2027
Out with the old, in with the bold
Universities around the world suffer the same flaw that pervades the educational system on every level: a 200-year-old structure, approach, and underlying philosophy. Until recently, this included the University of Oxford. The prestigious UK university is home to 25,000 students, 6,000 researchers and 2,000 academic staff, yet students had been largely deprived of these vast untapped human resources – until recently. Using the power of digital education, Oxford has flipped the equation on its head, granting its students the means to personalize the way they acquire knowledge, skills, and experience. It has thus become a student-centered university, where students can digitally interact with each other and with Oxford's digital platform from anywhere, managing their own education and dictating the value and prioritization of academic resources.
Accompanying them on this journey is a unique companion: OxBrain. The Oxford Connectional Student-Based Recommendation Artificial Intelligence Network (OCSBRAIN) is a sophisticated platform powered by machine learning. OxBrain provides each student with an ever-evolving platform and a personal profile that is a shaped both by what the student directly registers and by what the algorithm learns through the student's activity. It takes into account their background and goals, areas they would like to improve or explore, and their strengths and weakness, to create a personal space in which they can choose and manage their own education.Digital education at Oxford has ushered an unprecedented wave of innovation, as well as open and interdisciplinary thinking. OxBrain can suggest or help students search for academic papers and seminars, which are all hybrid by default, from any department or faculty to complement their core programme. In addition, OxBrain notifies the user about fellow students, researchers, and academic staff who might have answers, or who are asking the same questions. With porous departments allowing students and researchers to think outside the literal brick and mortar box, Oxford has turned into a vibrant network. Every day, countless virtual meetings, chat rooms, and study rooms take place via Microsoft Teams.
Connecting the vast Oxford community through the virtual world, thanks to Teams and OxBrain, has rendered education more inclusive than ever. Disabled students have gained access to the university's resources without needing to leave their homes. A wide range of tools to support and close gaps have been made accessible, such as workshops, HR resources, and language courses. Through the OxBrain platform, students can find and help each other based on complementary or shared strength and weaknesses.
A fruitful collaboration
One PhD student shares his experience with Oxford's digital education revolution. Zhi Nazaryan is a postgraduate research student in the third year of his DPhil in Environmental Change.
"Before OxBrain, during my undergraduate studies and my Masters here at Oxford, I felt like I'd been stuck in the same loop for twenty years – biking to the same old class, passively listening to the same old lecturer, and discussing the same old material with the same old class mates, unaware of what is going on outside of my programme. But now everything is different. I have some control over my education, my curiosity is paying off, and my passions and ideas partake in a constant dialogue with my academic environment.
"I was increasingly interested in the engineering problems posed by green energy, but my department's academic staff did not have a strong grip on the subject. I started reading about engineering, virtually attending lectures in the Department of Engineering Science, all of which was fed to my OxBrain profile. The platform suggested a match with Alejandro, a Masters student studying energy systems who was fascinated with climate change. We set up a Teams meeting and next thing I know, we are working together on this research around clean raw-materials for solar panels. One important factor was costs and scaling capacity in developing countries. We used OxBrain to search for an expert on Sub-Saharan economies. Professor Beralfas was the first name spit out by OxBrain. After a prompt approval from my supervisor, Alejandro and I dropped Prof. Beralfas a message that led to a few valuable Teams meetings. Up until a few years ago, this would have been impossible – a quick and casual collaboration between three departments, initiated by a pair of students."
Oxford’s digital education revolution has not only had an impact on the students, but on research as well. Through their students, interdepartmental ties have been strengthened and interdisciplinary research is burgeoning. Zhi's research supervisor, Professor Advika Osanen, shared her thoughts with us:
"Thanks to my students, I am constantly expanding my network of research partners. Postgrad students have become incredibly interdisciplinary, and OxBrain is encouraging them to follow their heart, pursuing original questions that are often quite outside of my comfort zone."
One could be forgiven for thinking that OxBrain is the brainchild of a few basement programmers, but the philosophy behind the university's reconceptualized educational approach is rooted in the accumulating research shifting how psychologists, anthropologists, and economists view humanity's relationship with its environment. We conclude with Professor Osanen's profound insight:
"Human beings are not passive learners shaped by some external ecosystem. We shape our surroundings and are shaped by them through an ongoing interaction. Rather than some monolithic structure visited by students and academics, the university constitutes a distributed network of individuals as they engage with each other and the world, exchanging information and evolving together."