Saturday, March 26, 2022

Universities are still the future of higher education

EY Global Education Leader

In "Are universities of the past still the future?" Ernst & Young (34 pages, 19 Jan 2022 ), argue that the sift to online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is just the start of change in post-school learning. EY suggest this threatens institutions unable to change. However, I suggest the move online happened years before COVID-19. Students were mostly studying online, the pandemic forced institutions to formalize this change. While presenting some challenges well, EY have the wrong solutions. Instead of EY's old fashioned big corporation thinking, I suggest taking an agile entrepreneurial approach instead.

One intriguing idea the EY authors present is that we have reached "peak education", in developed countries. The idea being than like “peak oil” we have reached the point where all those who need a university degree are getting it, and there will not be an increasing supply of international students to fund expansion. While intriguing, this is nonsense. There is still demand for education, perhaps in a different form, domestic, and international. Already Australian international student numbers have bounced back. Initiatives such as the Australian and Indian governments faciliting mutual qualifications recognition will open new markets for Australian education.

It is generous of EY to present some options for future universities. But it is not as if academics themselves have been backward about inventing new educational options. Ten years ago I decided to give up giving lectures, and move my teaching online. Around the same time I decided examinations were not a good form of assessment. Rather than throwing me out, my colleagues shrugged and accepted this, provided I could meet the required quality standards. After seven years training, mostly online at Australian and North American universities, I had a reasonable idea of how to teach in a flipped blended mode. Then COVID-19 struck, and this became an essential way to do education. Even the most recalcitrant professor did not refuse, they covered their chalkboards and started using Zoom.

EY ask five questions: 

  1. "What if ... the cost of learning is driven down to zero?
  2. What if ... learning journeys are entirely flexible and customizable?
  3. What if ... higher education providers are accountable for results?
  4. What if ... commercialized research pays for itself?
  5. What if ... technology could solve the global supply-demand mismatch?"
These are good questions, but they are not new, and there are a range of answers. EY imagines self placed learning online from multiple providers in 2030. But millions of people have studied this way, long before COVID-19 struck.

I was studying online way in 2013. Enrolled at ANU in Canberra, I was able to supplement local courses with those offered online from USQ in Queensland. Then I enrolled at Canberra Institute of Technology (very close to home, but all classes were online). To further my studies I enrolled at Athabasca University in Canada, as an international online student and completed an entire degree by distance education. 

Each time there is a new communications technology developed, be it printing, gramophones, radio, audio cassettes, TV, or the Internet, it is pressed into service for education. Visionaries then talk about the technology making education universally available at low, or no, cost. However, while each technology lowers cost, it does not eliminate it.

Computers offered flexible and customizable learning decades before the Internet. However, that flexibility required very rigid programming. As a result much of the flexibility was illusory. Also laws and industry regulations need to allow this flexibility. One example of flexibility is the ability to mix and match courses between institutions. Some consortia already offer this feature, such as Open Universities Australia.

Some university research already pays for itself. However, funds from university research as to be a byproduct, not an end in itself, otherwise there is no reason for a university to undertake such research: it might as well be done by a for profit company. Turning research into products requires specialist skills which most university academics,, and private sector business people do not have. Centers for teaching these skills have grown up around universities. I visited Cambridge University in England to see how they did it, and recommended something similar for Canberra. The Canberra Innovation Network was setup up next to the ANU campus. 

I don't have imagine what it is like to be a postgraduate student in one country 
Luanda (Angola) accessing globally recognized teachers online. I spent three years in Canberra, studying with experts in open, digital and distance education in North America. I met one of my teachers when the were giving a conference keynote in Hong Kong, and another chairing a conference in Sydney. This is achievable now, in fields with global skills standards, such as university teaching, computing and engineering. 

EY recommend these approaches to get to the education future:
  1. 'Be clear about your long-term purpose
  2. Think “future-back” to set your reinvention agenda
  3. Build new value with new capabilities
  4. Invest across the three time horizons'
These approaches appear to be designed to appeal to cautious executives at large corporations. But universities are run by small academic teams. They can, and do, take bolder, quicker moves. Also it is not a case of having to leap into a far distant future of unproven technology. The educational techniques discussed in the EY report are here now, proven, and mostly available for free. A large university will have experts in these fields already working this way. The VC just has to walk next door to the learning center, or the computer lab, to ask about it, then to the innovation center to get help scaling it up. The limiting factor are the speed at which educat
ion laws can be changed and staff trained. 

1 comment:

  1. Stephen Downes in his OLDaily publication (Mar 28, 2022), commented on my comments on EY's report "And while the points E&Y makes are not especially new, neither is Worthington's response: "The fact remains that some technologies (the automobile, nuclear weapons, the internet) do change everything." That is the case, but I was referring to communications technologies which have been used for distance education before the Internet.

    Also described as "odd" my suggesting that "small academic teams can, and do, take bolder, quicker moves.". What I had in mind here was that academic freedom, particularly in a traditional university, allows academics considerable latitude in what they do. As an example in 2009, I started running an entirely online course at ANU. This was not part of some sort of major institutional initiative, I just decided to do it. I did have to send some more detail to the relevant committee, not due to it being an online course, but because it also had no exams.