University of the future is here

3 June 2011

The way Bill Gates sees it, the university as we know it is an endangered species.

Five years from now – on the web for free – you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world, the Microsoft billionaire said last year.

And in Gates’s opinion this constantly expanding digital smorgasbord of educational choices will be better than any single university in the world.

Another giant of the global digital communications revolution has a different spin.

In his blog, Sergey Brin, the 36-year-old co-founder of Google, proposes bypassing centuries of scientific epistemology to close the time lag between research breakthroughs in academe and their real-world application. Brin’s particular interest is in accelerating research into Parkinson’s disease: he carries the high-risk LRRK2 genetic mutation. His model, extensively detailed in Wired magazine last year, proposes mining huge data sets using vast amounts of computer power and analytical algorithms, in much the same way Google can build detailed consumer trends by extracting patterns from mass online behaviour.

Gates and Brin enjoy a unique perspective when it comes to understanding the impacts – and exceptional opportunities – of new technology: they are steering change from the top. Whether this translates into a keen insight into the future of higher education is a more contentious question.

There’s little doubt technology is not only changing the way we teach and learn, it is also challenging centuries-old academic structures and practices, the notion of what it means to be literate and, potentially, the primacy of universities as the world’s arbiters and repositories of knowledge.

In our new world of online plenty, “no matter what you are interested in you can go online and join a group of people attracted to something because they want to learn about it”, senior lecturer and online learning and teaching developer at the University of NSW’s college of fine arts Simon McIntyre says.

He says educational institutions were once at the forefront of the way society communicated and learned, but since the boom in new communications technologies education has fallen behind.

“People in their garages who develop technologies like Facebook and Twitter are shaping the way the world interacts and connects and education is now playing catch-up,” McIntyre says.

Universities are investing in online course components and investigating the attention spans and communication patterns of the digital savvy gen Y or millennials (born between the mid-1970s and 2000). Some have raced off to buy islands in the online world of Second Life, where they are building virtual universities that students can attend as avatars of their real-world selves. Others, including many of the world’s most prestigious universities, are posting thousands of degree courses online for anyone with an internet connection to follow.

This transition is uneven and how effectively universities adapt as technology continues to evolve will determine their future, McIntyre says.

American e-learning expert Ashwin Ram says universities as elite, walled gardens of academe, laced with ivy, are already a thing of the past.

“Ninety-five per cent of college students are spending up to 10 hours a week in social networks, blogging, updating their profiles, trading pictures and, yes, talking about schoolwork,” he posted in his research blog.

“The web is their classroom, Facebook is their community, the world is their study group. The days of walled gardens are over . . . if universities won’t adapt, students will do it without them.”

Throughout much of the 20th century the getting of wisdom involved a largely one-way transmission of facts, theories and ideas. In school classrooms it was mainly chalk and talk from an authoritative teacher up the front; in universities we had various sages on the (lecture) stage or the less-inspiring drones on the throne. By 2000, 82 per cent of the global population could read and write and the classroom played a critical role in shaping lives worldwide. Knowledge resided in books, publications and educated minds.

The traditional tools of teaching are now under intense pressure. As early as the mid-2000s, US universities reported 30 per cent to 40 per cent of students were refusing to buy textbooks even if they were required reading. AUSstudy last year of student distraction in lectures reported most students regularly used laptops and mobile phones in class for socialising, gaming and completing work for other subjects, and most believed it was legitimate to do so.

Universities made their first tentative step into blending online and face-to-face learning by posting course notes and resources online, instead of handing out paper. Then came interactive discussion boards, blogs and online quizzes and tasks. Library hours were replaced by web searches. All of which fitted more or less into existing course structures.

But what happens when one lecturer or an entire university puts their lectures online? UNSW computer science lecturer Richard Buckland, for example, became an accidental international video star on YouTube and iTunesU with his clear, congenial teaching style.

If lectures are online, do students really need to attend? And if students aren’t inspired by their lecturer, there’s nothing to stop them dropping into another university’s lectures on YouTube.

Patrick Stoddart, UNSW’s senior manager of technology-enabled learning and teaching, believes the conventional one-hour lecture in some disciplines may soon be replaced by something like a well-produced 20-minute video using multimedia formats.

“Academics should ask themselves: Is lecturing the best way to teach this course? And is lecturing one of my strengths?” he says.

Videos would be viewed in advance and on-campus time used to discuss and debate content.

“This is slow-burn change, but when students experience an innovative use of technology in one course they will ask for it in other courses,” Stoddart says.

That might be a class wiki in which small groups write up course notes each week, allowing the lecturer to immediately see whether they have understood the key concepts. Or it might be interactive online questions. (See accompanying story.)

And with smart mobile phones putting a new wave of apps in our hands, some educators are already considering the educational impact of augmented reality; that is, the ability of students to look at a building, for example, through a mobile phone camera and to see its history overlaid in images, to hear or read related commentary and to add their own input to the mix.

This doesn’t mean we’ll teach brain surgery via Twitter to students scattered across the globe, but it may mean medical students will routinely walk through 3-D-immersive digital models of the human body or practise surgery in a virtual environment from anywhere that suits.

It also means education, knowledge and achievement are opening up to a much broader range of students, particularly visual learners who didn’t have a chance to shine in text-based education systems, international e-learning expert Marc Prensky says.

“What many educators often forget is that reading and writing, although they have enjoyed primacy for hundreds of years, are very artificial ways to communicate, store and retrieve information,” he says.

Prensky argues that only 10 per cent to 20 per cent of people in any society are highly literate and points out that YouTube already hosts more video content than was produced in the entire history of broadcast television, including millions of how-to videos that show, not tell.

“I would expect in coming years large numbers of additional video sites will blossom containing most of all of the information that is currently available mainly or entirely in print. Video is the new text,” he says in a 2009 paper.

COFA lecturer Karin Watson believes teachers and lecturers of the future will become a guide on the side, with much of their contact with students taking place within multiple environments online.

Not all academics are enthusiastic about new ways to teach, or necessarily competent do so. But criticism that new learning and teaching formats pander to a generation of students whose attention spans have been stunted by constant connectivity is debatable.

Former Apple and Microsoft executive Linda Stone coined the term “continuous partial attention” and described multi-taskers’ lives as “a never-ending cocktail party where you’re always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversational partner”.

Australian internet expert, Matthew Allen fromCurtinUniversityvigorously disagrees.

“We have to get over the myth that mobile phones have eaten the brains of our children and talk productively about using new communications tools.

“There is an untapped reservoir of interest and enthusiasm, and if you can find the right tasks [that] empower students, it’s like reaching a [teaching] tipping point,” Allen says.

He says students’ expectations are more about how mobile communication is changing social mores (for all of us) than about the characteristics of a particular generation.

Research by Allen and McIntyre also dispels the myth that the millennials are digital natives; being savvy social networkers is not the same as knowing how to use communications technology for education, they say. They, too, have to learn how.

The bottom line, says McIntyre, is that technology is only a tool, so it’s only as effective as the person who is using it. Otherwise, new technology can be an irrelevant gimmick.

The web is a repository of vast amounts of information: wise, witty, true, false, boring and banal. Gates is probably ahead of his time in suggesting the average among us are capable of plucking a superior education from cyberspace. Gates didn’t even needHarvardUniversityback in the 1970s. He dropped out.

But a huge amount of university teaching content is already online. The elite Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, offers 2000 of its courses, which can be downloaded free by anyone, anywhere in the world. This from the world’s third highest ranking university, which annually enrols only 1600 or so exceptional students, who pay $US53,210 a year (2010-11). To date, MIT’s online program has notched up 50 million hits.

The debate over whether individual academics or academic institutions should give their valuable intellectual content away on the web has a long way to run. Supporters of open learning believe the web should be a vast, democratising space that allows as many people as possible to look over the shoulders of the intellectual greats; particularly the less privileged without local access to quality education.

They also believe universities have nothing to fear from this burgeoning new repository of knowledge because students will continue to have good reason to pay to enrol; and not just because we are social animals who enjoy face-to-face interaction.

Says Allen: “The purpose of universities is to qualify and accredit people to fill skilled roles in our society. Universities have a primary role in ensuring our society has a steady stream of trained professionals who can be reliably assumed to know certain things.”

No matter how many people watch online courses and join forums, if their knowledge and competence hasn’t been reliably tested they cannot claim they are qualified, he says.

And, it’s more than that, McIntyre says.

“Nowadays knowledge is like air, it is all around us. The future role of formal education may be to help us navigate through this information in a really useful way. We need the ability to discern, to analyse and compare the relevance and credibility of information. You can get a lot of information off the web, that’s not the same as getting an education.”

But then there’s Gates’s question about the future of single institutions.

There is no longer any technological barrier to prevent students from enrolling in one degree program but picking up online subjects for credit at any number of universities across the world. Remote and rural students, too, should have much easier remote access to city universities, or to new study formats like short blocks of on-campus attendance, with most study completed online back home.

Theoretically, tertiary study could become an opportunity to choose your own adventure. Innovative universities might form select international consortiums that would allow students to tailor degrees; with on-campus stints inSydney,LondonandBeijing, for example, and a huge array of subjects offered on-campus or online from the entire list of combined course resources.

Yet universities jealously guard their individual reputations and their place on the competitive, global-rankings ladder. Everyone knows all degrees are not equal; their value depends on the reputation, history and standing of the university that confers them.

For individual institutions, with their campuses physically anchored in one place and their budgets built around the face-to-face delivery of core programs, its likely to be a very complex way forward.

At the same time, the internet is facilitating the entry of private players into the local and international education market, some of which will compete with universities for paying students.

Postgraduates, in particular, want access to experts from the professions and industries they aspire to join.

So when a group of globally renowned, private-sector achievers offers user-pay courses online, for example, which way will future students go?

Take the US-based Animation Mentor program, which promises a real-world curriculum and has strong links to the Pixar studio. The $US20,000 fully online course already has considerable cachet within the globalised animation industry, despite the multitude of multimedia programs offered by universities and colleges.

The core business of universities is knowledge. But where will knowledge reside in the future and what will it mean to be educated?

“What we are seeing is a repositioning of epistemology, and this is really important,” says Stoddart.

“For about a century and a half we have had the notion that peer-reviewed scientific, academic and journal papers are the collective font of knowledge; that this is our global repository of scientia.”

But, as Brin’s Google-driven science demonstrates, there are new ways to do research. His test case on Parkinson’s risk factors generated published results within eight months, compared with six years for the conventional academic publishing cycle.

And how will we judge the value of education for an individual student?

Says Stoddart: “Should the literacy of the new be the ability to rapidly find information through the internet and apply that knowledge or the older idea that

you have to store knowledge yourself, that you need to be knowledgeable?”

In the foreseeable future it will be something between, he says.

“I don’t think you can use the knowledge you can find readily unless you have a core of knowledge and that ability to do deep thinking,” he says.

This article originally appeared in Uniken, the flagship publication of the University of NSW. Louise Williams is a partner with Sydney consultancy Writemedia and is a writer, editor and consultant in the education sector.


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