Technology and learning have always gone hand in hand, as the Rylands Collections demonstrate, ranging from clay tablets to papyri, manuscripts and the formation of the codex to printed books, pamphlets and, more recently, the archiving of emails. This year’s JISC’s Digifest event in Birmingham brought together people from across the education, information and technology sectors to celebrate the power of digital and to share insights and discuss opportunities to revolutionise learning and teaching.

A view of the main stage at Digifest17

A number of sessions brought together speakers from different institutions

One of the recurring questions of the event was whether digital technology is fundamentally changing the ways in which we learn. New, digital based skills are certainly being acquired by students, and we now have new tools to support learning in new forms, such as through MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), via distance learning and virtual campuses.  But whatever may be changing, everyone agrees that people are still at the heart of learning, and that new tools should be used to improve the student experience, enhance flexibility and, above all, to promote communication between learners.

If used well, digital technologies can break down barriers to learning, whether that’s for people returning to education, those with disabilities or simply providing digital access to rare materials which otherwise couldn’t be studied. In particular, JISC’s online guide to ‘Making Collections easier to Discover’ gives some great tips on how to enhance access to digital heritage collections. That’s not to say that there is no longer a place for physical materials in learning, or that everyone is now an expert in the digital realm, but global collaboration and the exchange of ideas are now far easier than ever before. Over the two days of Digifest, some interesting examples of this were shared by delegates: slides are available at www.jisc.ac.uk/events/digifest-14-mar-2017/programme.

A view of the outside of the Library of Birmingham

The Library of Birmingham, just outside the conference centre

Using technology in learning isn’t just about embracing the latest craze; there isn’t yet much long term evidence for the impact of technology on lifelong learning. But short term studies suggest that learners can get more engaged and interested when their experience is tailored, flexible, and offers access to otherwise hard to access materials. Many creators of digital material now hope that learners will begin to take what is available and create their own content from it, creating new materials which can be shared worldwide. Closing the conference, Lauren Sager Weinstein gave a fascinating insight into the real impact of digital data on running Transport for London, supporting millions of travellers every day.

So whether technology is fundamentally changing the way we learn and live, or just revolutionising how we do it, it’s exciting to think that new digital opportunities are allowing us to open up rare collections and share learning experiences across the world. With learners set firmly at the centre of teaching, technology can help people to expand their vision, link globally with others and become the creators of tomorrow.