Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Re-engineered Higher Education

Universities are changing the way they provide higher education, though the use of information technology. Technological revolutions look rapid and inevitable, but only in retrospect. This revolution has been building for at least a decade, but is the radical changes happening to education are not that apparent to the public, the government or to many academics and administrators.

In 1998 I presented a seminar on "Re-engineering IT Education" in the famous Room N101 Computer Science and IT Building at the Australian National University. At the time I was Special Adviser for Internet/Intranet Policy at the Australian Department of Defence and Immediate Past President of the Australian Computer Society (ACS). For several years I had been working on Internet policy for Australia and watching what had been a radical idea become accepted.  The ACS had just released a Communiqué on IT higher education, I had prepared, on the future for IT education in Australia. This  envisioned expanding post graduate programs and shorter industry training to maintain a globally competitive, skilled work-force. Computer equipment for all students and university networking to support this was considered key to students formal education and learning online work techniques.

In the seminar I proposed universities should design programs for distance education delivery and then adapt for on-campus delivery. Also I suggested communication skills in courses be emphasised, as an important work skill.

The ACS Communiqué said: "Information technology and telecommunications will profoundly alter social interaction, work and education over the next 20 years." Those 20 years are now almost up and those profound changes has already happened to social interaction (with social networking) and changes to jobs. The changes to education have taken longer to become apparent, but will become much more visible in the next five years.

The 20th Century university had been likened to a "factory making graduates" ("Extreme Innovation: Lessons Learned at MIT", JFDI.Asia, 2013). The lecture theatre could be seen as the stamping press of the university factory, which for hundreds of years has provided an efficient way for one lecturer to impart knowledge on a large class.

Just as the  Internet has challenged the way things are done in many industries, it is changing education. A student can watch a video of a lecture, interact with educational programs, with fellow students and teachers online, much more efficiently and continently. This will not entirely replace the classroom and campus, but I suggest about 80% of a typical university program can now be undertaken on-line away from the campus. Along with four academic quarters, in place of two semesters per year, e-leanring will make university campuses ten times as productive.

In 1998 on-line education was cutting edge technology, but in 2014 it is now routine. Free open source software is available to support education. Those institutions which do not want the bother of running the software themselves can buy a service with support, without the students realising that the service is not coming from the university.

What is harder to implement that educational software are the new skills academic staff require to design and deliver online education. While these techniques have been researched for decades and formal education programs for staff run, this have tended to be at specialist "open" universities previously supported paper based distance education and naturally moved into on-line education. A handful of Australian universities teach on-line teaching techniques (and teach it on-line), along with TAFEs and RTOs. More traditional universities have tended to teach e-learning as a adjunct to classroom techniques and teach it in a classroom. Many professors never having experienced an on-line course, let alone been certified to design one.

Australian universities are now in a transition phase, having provided a Learning Management System (LMS) to allow for on-line courses (many using the Australian designed Moodle open source LMS and New Zeeland open source Mahara e-portfolio), but primarily using this as a supplement for face-to-face courses. This is usually called "blended mode" but more accurately could be described as "ad-hoc". Universities are not sure of the business model for e-learning, or the pedagogical implications of on-line education. Some universities are dabbling with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), with no clear idea of why.

The automotive industry may have lessons for the education industry. The production line made cars cheaper and, for a time, the North American and European auto industry dominated the world. But then Japanese, and later Korean, companies learned how to use quality control processes to produce better, cheaper cars. Something similar may now be happening with education. E-learning provides the opportunity to use quality control processes for high value, ow cost courses. This approach may not be suitable for creative arts subjects, but perfectly adequate for vocational professional courses, which make up the bulk of revenue which universities receive.

Australia may have only a few years in which to "retool" its education industry to compete in the new global online education industry, or suffer the fate of the Australian automotive industry. With a tradition of western education, but connections to the markets in Asia, Australia could be well positioned for this market. I will be discussing this at the 9th International Conference on Computer Science & Education (ICCSE 2014), at UBC, in Vancouver in late August and at ACS e-Learning Special Interest Group, ANU 3 September.

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