Saturday, October 19, 2013

Where is the University Headed?

Within ten years most university courses will be provided globally on-line. How can Australian universities compete in this market? I suggest Australian universities need to start now to reinvent themselves as e-learning hubs to support on-line education, as well as continue to offer on-campus education and conduct research.

From a Window over the Green

Greetings from Perth Western Australia, on the edge of the campus of the University of Western Australia. I am sitting at a window overlooking a townhouse courtyard on a rainy Saturday. Above the trees and tiled roofs the new wing of St Catherine’s College is reaching up to the sky. This week the university received a $15M donation to further expand accommodation for researchers. The university is expanding upwards and outwards, but in education terms where is UWA and Australia's other elite universities going?

UWA Broad Education Experience

The UWA provides a traditional university campus experience. Last Sunday, when walking through the campus, I was confronted by a woman in a bikini on horseback waving a banner. It turned out the students were making a LipDub music video. While the technology used is up to date, this tradition of university students dressing up and doing silly things is ancient.

On Friday while walking to give the Friday Computer Science Seminar, I could hear organ music coming from UWA Winthrop Hall (which looks like a set from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). Sneaking in the back of the hall I found a full student orchestra rehearsing an organ concerto. I sat in the back (with permission) alone with light streaming in through the stained glass windows as the hall's organ shook the building for the finale.

All this makes for an interesting student experience, but what about academic education? Paul Johnson, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Western Australia (UWA) issued a "UWA Futures: White Paper" in August 2012 (the ANU embarked on a consultation process in mid 2013). This suggested that Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) from new commercial and not-for-profit organizations will compete with universities for students. The paper argued that UWA should seize these opportunities which result. However that was the only mention of MOOCs in the white paper, so it was not clear what it is proposed to do. Over the following months there were responses from student and staff associations. In November 2012, the VC issued "UWA Futures: The Response". This would appear to be essentially about the role of e-learning, but the large scale Interactive Engagement being introduced at ANU could also be an option.

Like ANU, UWA and most Australian universities see their future as a physical campus, delivering education to students on site. Large investments are being make in new student accommodation and other facilities (mostly funded indirectly by the Australian government). What is not clear is how these facilities will be used in a world where most education is on-line.

University Education is Moving On-line

A reasonable rule of thumb I suggest, is that within ten years, 75% of a student's post-primary education will be on-line. Those students near a campus might be expected to spend, at most, one day a week there. But this is not to say that existing university buildings are redundant. Campuses will still be needed for administration, research, so education and as a based from which to provide e-learning. A physical campus also provides a powerful marketing tool for a university, even if most students will never visit it.

One use for university buildings is research. Universities traditionally use student fees to cross subsidize research. However, low cost unbundled on-line courses from non-traditional providers could result in traditional universities having to reduce their fees and remove the subsidies. This risks undercutting the research which supports education.

Only a small proportion of university research requires dedicated buildings. Most university research involves people sitting in ordinary offices, not purpose built laboratories. The research is done by post-graduate students, who pay to research, either directly or via a government subsidy. These students will be increasingly be conducting their research part-time off-campus, from their workplace or home. The university will then need less space for their researchers. However, there will be some space need for on-site research, as well as administration of the research.

University Campuses as Innovation,  Research and e-Learning Hubs

Universities can reinvent themselves as innovation centers, as ANU is doing with the Entry 29 Co-working Space and the Innovation ACT Competition (which originated with the work of Dr Lachlan Blackhall, when a PHD student at ANU engineering). Following the model of Cambridge, universities can provide low cost space for staff and students to turn ideas and inventions into products and businesses (and take a cut of the profits). The SpaceCubed Co-working space in Perth provides a vision of this future.

Professor Brian Schmidt is reported to have has proposed the Australian National University reduce student numbers, tighten entry requirements and limit tutorial sizes to 15 students. This would seem to be. at first glance, at odds with his preparing to teach a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on Astrophysics in 2014. A MOOC can have hundreds of thousands of students, many more than the entire ANU's current student enrollment. MOOCs are also open to anyone with no entry requirement. However, the university can offer different forms of education to suit different students capabilities, needs and budgets.

Professor Schmidt's initiative with massive open on-line education, when combined with his proposals for small group teaching provides a blended model which  may be the key to the future of Australian universities.

For the last four years I have been teaching "ICT Sustainability" in an advanced masters level course at ANU. Small groups of students, usually no more than 25, explore the topic in weekly tutorials. Students then have to write assignments to first scope the problem and propose solutions. This may seem unremarkable, but the students can study via the Internet from anywhere in the world. In practice many of the students are on campus and come to see me in person for advice and assistance, but if they need to be somewhere else, that is fine and we can communicate on-line.


 A Blended Model for Australian Universities: On-Campus and On-Line

Australian universities can retain their campuses for a relatively small number of students, researchers and has hubs for innovation. At the same time the universities can have hundreds of thousands, or potentially millions, of students on-line around the world. The on-line students will benefit from the research and interaction with staff and other students. The students can explore real world problems in courses and in research projects. Students can also set up a business to further their ideas, with the help of their university.

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