I came across a post title “Some ways university will change over ten years by Mark Smithers via a tweet from Claire Brooks. The post is, as Mark puts it, an attempt to anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities and how it will effect educational technology. To some extent it’s the sort of thing that I might be expected to do in my current position, if not to develop institutional policy, at least to inform it.
So, I plan to follow Mark’s blog and see what he comes up with. I also hope to be able to blog some reflections and reactions on what he and others have written. The aim of this is, in the first part, force me to start to formulate, make concrete and question my own views so that it can inform my practice. In part, I’ve already started this process with a post reflecting on a EDUCAUSE Review article by Bryan Alexander.
In the following I start by trying to summarise Mark’s post, before giving my reaction to it.
What Mark thinks
There are a couple of assumptions that underpin Mark’s views:
- It’s “crucial to try and anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities over that period so that we can think about the effect on educational technology.”
- “that the next ten years will be one of fundamental change for universities…..faced with the hugely disruptive changes being bought about by new ways of learning and sharing on the internet.”
The comparison to record and publishing industries is made.
There are a wide range of factors involved, meaning that little is certain and his (and mine) thoughts are changing all the time. This post covers two of the more important changes, with more to follow. The two changes he starts with are
- Open content becomes the norm.
The change is that learning material is increasingly becoming freely available from a variety of sources. The potential ramifications of this change which Mark identifies are:
- Students judge a university through the quality of its open learning materials and research.
- Universities will be forced to compete on the quality of these resources.
- This might drive the open content away from recordings of lectures etc to more interactive/engaging content.
Difficulties include: higher ed culture mistrustful of sharing, recognition and rewards.
- Rigourous and consistent assessment.
The suggestion is that universities will need to increase “the quality, consistency and rigour of assessment in order to maintain or enhance their reputation”. This arises from the massification of higher education, dissatisfaction from high performing students and the increasing availability of learning resources enabling/creating the need for a disintermediation between learning/teaching and assessment.
The implication from an IT perspective is that the current use of LMS gradebooks will need to be replaced by more sophisticated systems. He points to the Loosely coupled gradebook work as an example.
The following are a collection of initial, ad hoc thoughts on this question – mostly because I’ve got a limited time to put this together. There are two parts to my thoughts:
- General observations
I start with some observations, theories and beliefs I have a tendency towards which make me think this type of prediction are really difficult and in some cases, might even be somewhat less than useful.
- Specific observations
These are thoughts about the two cases Mark mentions – open content and assessment.
As Mark has pointed out in his post, there’s a lot of complexity and perspectives around this stuff and ideas change regularly. There’s always a better way. In that, it’s a good example of a wicked problem.
As stated above, there are (at least) two assumptions underpinning Mark’s post. If you disagree with either, then you may not see this process as useful. I tend to think it’s useful, but because of the following points, possibly not for the same reasons as others.
The first assumption is that attempting to anticipate the way in which roles and functions will change is crucial. Based on what I cover below, I’m not sure whether or not it is actually possible. To some extent I’m a believer in the Alan Kay quote that the best way to predict the future is to build it. More on this below.
The second assumption is that the next 10 years will see universities having to face fundamental change. There’s been a bit of this type of thing in the blogosphere and elsewhere recently. Examples in newspapers, publishing and the recording industries have been used as examples. And this may well be true. But I’m not certain.
Students remain a very conservative collection of beasts. They have long established patterns of what a university education entails. I’m not sure they are as ready yet for this radical change. Also, at least in Australia, the Federal and State governments provide a lot of the resources and have a significant say in what University can or can’t do. They are also fairly conservative. So this will be a constraint. Whether or not you buy a newspaper or how you purchase the latest top 10 single is not exactly the same as choosing how you will study at University.
In terms of the government influence, currently there seems to be a growing trend towards an emphasis on the regions. Certainly it appears that my current institution is being encouraged to establish strong connections with the community within its region. It seems a return to a more traditional relationship between community and university.
I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a lot of change going on. I’m just not 100% convinced that change will be fundamental or that it will result in the death of Universities.
This could be seen as a potential example of what I was going to call Amara’s law, however, through this post from Doc Searls I find that the naming is more open to interpretation.
Regardless of the source, the point of the law/maxim remains.
We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.
Back in the mid-1990s when the Internet and the World-Wide Web were the next big thing. Senior management at my institution were fearful that MIT would monopolise higher education. After all, if you could go to MIT over the Internet, why would you go to some local institution? Well that hasn’t happened, not yet anyway.
Personally I see universities and the societies they operate in as complex systems in the sense Dave Snowden uses in his work, including the Cynefin model/framework. To keep it short, in a complex system is one
in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.
The nature of the system means that it is impossible to correctly identify cause and effect before hand. We might be able to guess, but the chances of laying it out logically are probably nil.
That said, in 10 years time Mark and I could probably get together and over a drink or two develop a causal connection of linkages to explain what has happened. But that’s not the same as being able to predict it beforehand. And a point Snowden makes is that if we were able to do it all again, the outcome would be different.
I do think this is going to be an interesting one, but will it produce fundamental change? First a statement of bias, I’m a strong believer in open content. My course sites have been open since 1994 and some with significant content (Google 85321 systems administration for one example. Even with that background, I am not sure about the impact of open content. Two queries
- Widespread acceptance of open content for course materials.
I don’t see a majority of academics releasing their or using the open content of others, at least not easily. Mark mentions the rewards aspect that will prevent staff sharing, but the other perspective is that most the academics don’t think their content is all that good and want to limit those who can see it. The fear of being “evaluated” on the quality of their course material is a real fear. I also think a lot of those in management have this fear. They don’t want the poor material shared.
There’s also the mindset. Being open is, I think, a mindset. Not many have it. I know of academics who are pushing the institution to adopt open content, but who get really upset if another academic colleague gets access to their course sites.
Most staff I’m aware of already use the content of others. In the form of textbooks and the associated resources. Those resources come in a ready and easy form to use and are provided by a 3rd party. i.e. it’s not directly from another academic at another institution.
- Content becomes the means of evaluation.
I’m not sure that students, in any large scale, will evaluate institutions based on the quality of the content. People aren’t that rational, they are predictably irrational. Open content may become one factor but there will be others.
This point also assumes that content is the entire learning process. There’s a lot more to teaching than the content. The history of learning objects tends to suggest this. Really good teachers who develop and build relationships will still generate word of mouth.
A short comment here. I think this point masks a bigger point when it comes to technology within institutions. The example of the loosely-coupled gradebook that Mark mentions includes the following
- Institutions of higher learning should focus on what they do best and on what only they can do. Namely, they should admit and register students, manage course enrollments and degree program rosters, and maintain secure records and communications tools for faculty and students engaged in the learning process.
- We can then leverage the best online, third-party applications for student publishing, networking, and portfolio creation. Individual institutions (or even institutions working together) would be hard pressed to produce applications comparable in quality and stability to Google Docs, YouTube, Blogger, Acrobat Online, MS Office Live, Wikispaces, and WordPress.
For too long, because technology has been expensive and scarce universities have had to provide all the technology used by its staff and students. Modem pools to get Internet access is one example from the 90s. Increasingly, however, technology is simple and abundant. Increasingly, it doesn’t make sense for a university to provide services such as blogs or email. Students and staff can get access to free services that are better supported than institutional systems.
The loosely-couple gradebook is one example. Actually, it sounds very much some of the principles underlying