Digitalisation, with all its benefits and challenges, has renovated just about every industry and sector, especially from the perspective of customer experience.
There is constant discussion of a revolution in learning but many commentators consider that the higher education sector is the final bastion against this kind of transformation. Universities are large and complex organisations with historical, financial and deeply-entrenched operating structures that result in the implementation of technology-enabled makeovers becoming slow and difficult to achieve.
The HE sector has been discussing the impact of technology-enhanced learning for more than two decades. Aspirations are frequently articulated: for meeting the needs and expectations of students, for more internationalisation, and for outreach into new markets. Including such intentions in universities’ educational strategies is slowly growing. But some strategies are a little weak; just adding a little bit more technology without considering deeper, more radical potentials. And for many, costs seem high, benefits uncertain and pathways to realising substantive student benefits look rocky.
The oft-cited “avalanche”, predicted in 2013 by the now-OfS chair Michael Barber, has not yet swept away traditional on-campus degrees. Despite the early hype, MOOCs did not prove to be the ultimate vehicle for revolution. That’s because substantive and far-reaching sustainable change, involving engagement of the whole university community, is particularly difficult, as any vice chancellor will tell you. And those who point to research and opportunities around digitalisation may be branded as overly enthusiastic or technology-determinists.
Asking difficult questions
Today heralds the launch of a new series of articles, drawing on the wider Wonkhe community, to ask tough questions about the sector’s direction and approach, and how it will embrace and achieve its constructive digital futures in sustainable and pragmatic ways. The series will explore:
- How the foundations for new kinds of agile, personalised and interactive educational models could be built and explore how wider systems of innovation and change in universities might be developed.
- We will look at engagement with the need for much-revised curricula to meet new employment skills as well as true lifelong learning.
- What is now required to move beyond the obvious traditional limits and demolish the old forces against change to revolutionise the HE system for its future students?
- How can the unprecedented challenge from policymakers to equip citizens for the Fourth Industrial Revolution – incorporating everything from AI to virtual technology – be met?
- How can the shift to deploying data-driven digital learning to ensure equivalence to campus? Could online be better?
- How to build everything which underpins this new norm – balancing an efficient, high-skilled, productive future workforce – with sound economic educational models?
Below I attempt my first response to these questions with five key challenges.
Disrupting and constructing
Most universities are cautious of disruption and suspicious of transformation. This is especially mysterious since universities have the very best thinkers, creative and researched-focused achievers on the planet within their walls.
A way of confronting this challenge is to understand universities as hybrid organisations. Although strongly influenced by their complex external environments and buffeted by constant alterations in government policy and funding regimes, internally universities are also subject to isolation and insulation engineered by layers of institutional autonomy and stratified governance.
If HE wishes to achieve long-lasting and constructive change, disruption needs to occur first and be accompanied by an increased tolerance of thinking differently about how new educational futures are created. And this should be allied to collaboration – so no one organisation bears the burden of the risk of remodelling.
Second, questions should continue to be asked about the role of academic research and its dominance in every day decision making and opportunities. The sacred research cow continues to stumble in front of the sources and the will for educational transformation.
Despite the billions invested in research, very little is spent on creating new teaching and learning models – education’s core products. There is little appetite to support risk taking and uncertainly and no toleration for experimentation. Curriculum development and modes of learning are typically driven by piecemeal, localised initiatives within departments, often dependent on an interested innovator, without being part of wider policy, knowledge, or funding of programmes. Therefore, many institutions constantly move back to safe, known practices.
From my experience, one way of disrupting is to envision the future for our graduates and then roll visions back into a foresight briefs. Then treat the educational provision as design tasks to meet these future needs.
Build capability and capacity
Third, endless effort and resources are put into choosing new technology systems, whether it be a virtual learning environment or a student record system, and how to achieve benefits from within legacy-based technology architecture.
The intent to carry the whole community forward around a new technology, while desirable, leads to highly collective decision making and does not guarantee the smartest choices. There may be a lack of appreciation of different students’ aspirations, expectations and needs, and little experience in using systems’ design to remap, create and implement pedagogy and delivery models within the new technology platform.
The long-term harder work of building the capacity and capability to innovate in learning, and to enable academics to work happily and successfully in new ways with their students, is frequently marginalised within a fuzzy technology drive.
Move the focus
Fourth, the natural and understandable tendency of academics is to focus on ensuring that their students are suitably inducted into the traditional knowledge and skills associated with their discipline or profession, with their ingrained rules, control over course content, assessment, and validation.
Universities’ privileged and special role, however, is to equip students for long lives in multiple unknown futures. Even to solve all the big challenges of a globalised and threatened planet. So, a broadening of universities’ purposes to focus on the outcomes and relevance of learning is essential and new ways of designing and delivering learning. Digital offers new chances for HE to become the providers to and custodians for preferred and viable futures.
Fifth, there is an overwhelming focus on stability. For example, how many universities have adopted a strategic view of the digital-first paradigm? In most forward-looking, customer-centric industries, not only digital, but mobile-first has already become the norm.
Many conversations I have had recently suggest that entirely digital learning may still be viewed as lower quality. There is now substantive evidence and data to the contrary. Online offers the opportunity to raise teaching standards and learning performance; break down long-standing barriers to access, retention and progression; and improve graduate employment by providing more students with richer access to knowledge and skills. Surely, it’s worth every university revisiting?
Rethinking operating practice
Universities were originally intended to have a challenging, developing and disruptive contribution to, and impact on, the world – to offer advantage, benefit and foresight.
We know how difficult this path is from sectors already well-digitalised. Hence, there is a big risk that substantive and fast digital innovation in education will be driven from outside of academia. If large digital tech companies can find the right model and pricing strategy there might well be a major shift in the epicentre of power.
Higher education needs to initiate and then co-own these changes – by partnering and investing with the right entrepreneurs, platforms and technologies. Perhaps with organisations who are a little further down the digital customer experience pathways.
True leadership demands letting go of well-established and ingrained concepts and practices. And instead linking an institution’s historic values with a clear vision, objectives, strategy and tactics while simultaneously trying to bring the whole academic and student community along for the ride.
And that requires breaking down those last bastions against change. In my view, the future will judge the universities of the twenty-first century by their capability and capacity for reinventing themselves now. By embracing these challenges, it will be these institutions that capitalise on market share and entice and delight their future students.
This is the first in a series jointly published between Wonkhe and OES about shifting trends and online learning and technology in higher education.