Andrew Proctor: ‘Technology must have social interaction at heart’


How much do you rely on technology to keep in touch with people? While it’ll be different for everyone, it’s probably fair to say that we’ve all become more dependent on it since March of this year.

When the UK Government brought in the first lockdown eight months ago, everybody’s life changed overnight. Everyday activities that we previously took for granted became more difficult, if not impossible.

With people confined to their homes, away from family and friends, and a lot of workplaces left lying empty, we relied on technology more than ever for human connections.

Amid the gloom and worry, our new ways of using technology were something of a novelty – and a distraction.

For example, millions of people joined Body Coach Joe Wicks for his YouTube PE workouts, while countless households spent their evenings ‘meeting’ loved ones virtually for hastily prepared online pub quizzes or bingo sessions.

Andrew Proctor, Pro Vice-Chancellor (Digital) at Staffordshire University

Elsewhere in hospitals and care homes, staff got to grips with iPads to help connect the sick and the elderly with their families who were unable to visit due to restrictions around coronavirus.

Those summer days might seem long past, and now, into our second national lockdown, the novelty of the Zoom trivia quiz has faded. However, our reliance on technology has not.

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While the future is still very uncertain, what we can say is there will be some form of a reset, and our relationship with technology will be at the heart of it. At the onset of the pandemic, universities, like Staffordshire, had to move to remote learning and remote working practically overnight, and thankfully this was achieved with minimal disruption for our students and staff.

We are fortunate at Staffordshire that digital has been embedded in everything we do for a number of years so, thanks to the exemplary efforts of our staff, we were well-placed to meet the immediate challenge.

For society in general, Covid-19 has accelerated our transition to a more digital future and exposed people to how valuable digital skills and confidence can be.

For our economy to recover and thrive, businesses need to have a focus on ensuring their staff have the skills and confidence to make use of digital tools, techniques and infrastructure.

Staffordshire University will play a key role in providing more and more digital skills throughout our local area.

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The need for businesses to think creatively and innovate during these challenging times is more important than ever.

At Staffordshire University, for example, we have an AI-driven coach for students – Beacon – that has been recognised among the world’s breakthrough projects in digital education.

Our coach helps students settle into university life and provides personalised and responsive information on student timetables, enables contact with personal tutors, and provides answers to over 400 frequently asked questions covering campus facilities, general support services as well as just helping with day-to-day activities.

Since its launch, the first AI-driven coach for students in Europe has provided answers to tens of thousands of questions – and many of those answers would have led to human connections, whether that’s a student finding a new club or society, being informed of a new place to enjoy food, or being given details on accessing mental health or support services.

Technology really can help us foster genuine connections between people – whether that’s in education, workplace or social settings.

As a society, we should be looking to technology to see how it can help people at a time when isolation and anxiety lead to serious concerns about rising mental health issues.

We need to ensure technology continues to be agile and responsive in this ever-changing and uncertain landscape.

And we must take with us a healthy digital culture that’s prepared to innovate and experiment, but vitally – one which has human connectivity at the heart of its purpose.





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