The future of higher education

The use of ICTs in education remains controversial. Last week the head of Ofsted announced that he wishes to ban mobile phones in schools. This is at a time when Ofsted ICT guidance describing outstanding practice says: ‘Access to ICT equipment is outstanding, and the school is likely to have promoted the use of mobile technologies. The ICT infrastructure enables pupils and staff to have very good access to their work and to the school’s learning resources at all times.’

Ofsted to ban outstanding practice is an arresting headline I would have thought.

So, does e-learning and m-learning work? The recent evidence from Stanford is interesting, to say the least.

Sebastian Thrun ran his AI course and opened it up to the world, or at least to that part that has an internet connection. 160,000 students signed up and 23,000 completed the course online. When the end of course results were published none of the top 400 students came from the cohort that had actually studied (and paid the $16k course fee) at Stanford.

It should perhaps not be surprising that students interested in ICTs would study well using ICT. The above statistics do not prove that a similar group doing medicine, Persian studies or metaphysical poetry would show the same performance comparators. On the other hand, dismissing this result as a freak shows a lack of intellectual inquiry and openness to new possibilities, surely fatal to scholarly pursuit?

As a first generation university student who benefited from the expansion of HE, I would not wish to deny that opportunity to anyone who could benefit. The increasing cost burden on students and their families is a source of regret to me personally. The debate in the UK has too often focused on the cost of a degree and not on the benefit side. The only figure quoted on benefit is the lifetime premium for income of graduate status. The Stanford experiment should make us sit up for a number of reasons.

  1. The argument that too many people go to university, and many who do are not good enough to study is challengeable. It would be really interested to see how many of the 160,000 who registered or indeed the 23,000 who completed the Stanford course would not have the qualifications (or the financial resources!) to get onto it.
  2. Universities arguing that too many students are getting grade As and making it difficult to choose between candidates should wonder if they are being complacent. HE access should be for developing potential at least as much as rewarding achievement. How good are universities in making their choices?

Given the richness of the materials now available on iTunes U across the science and the humanities the question I pose is: ‘To what extent can individual study at HE level be removed from HE institutions through the use of ICT?’ I suspect that it is far higher than many would expect.

The lessons from over 100 years of distance and correspondence education are that dropout rates are higher than in face to face. Learning is best as a social experience.

Interaction with other learners in other subjects is part of the enrichment of ‘being at uni’. This can be seen with the OU summer schools of the 70s and its forerunner, the Workers  Educational Association. For myself, at Oxford in the 70s, I met many people from many walks of life studying subjects I’d never heard of. Some of my lifelong interests came from casual conversations with others I would never normally have encountered.

Talking to my Dad about his experience of serving in Palestine with the Royal Engineers aged 19, the first experience of leaving home, widening the social network and opening eyes to possibilities feels very like my years at university.

I think it is important that students acquire knowledge and the ability to learn to learn. But I think we need to be bolder in stating all that HE is for.

Adapting Gresham’s Law from economics, my worry is that ‘bad learning drives out good’.

With access to HE becoming ever more expensive, it would be too easy to focus on the cost and see the savings that Stanford’s experiment offer as a cheap alternative to traditional university. The loss of the other benefits, the long term ‘added value’ of collegiate study, could have huge societal costs if we do not understand and make them clear.

The UK HE system is highly diverse and has expanded and changed enormously since the 60s. The number of students studying later in life and part time is a triumph we should celebrate as a civilised country. Promoting access for the bright and isolated elderly to the 3UA keeps them away from the NHS and costs far less!

However, complacency in the face of the Thrun experiment is not acceptable.

One of the most memorable education speeches I remember was the closing keynote at the International Council for Distance Education in 1996, in my home City of Birmingham. The speaker made the following observation:

‘There are only 66 institutions in the West that have survived since the 16th Century without fundamental changes to their structure and mission: The Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church; the parliaments of Iceland and the Isle of Man; and 62 universities”.

His message was very clear. Universities are incredibly resilient institutions. However, past performance is no guide to the future. The dinosaurs were successful till they were wiped out.

For me this is now urgent. We have to be brave and think about how HE should adapt to thrive in the new world of possibilities. The debate on costs needs to be balanced by a more robust set of arguments about value. The current institutional arrangements of HE cannot be written in stone. For value, I mean to the individual, to society and to the economy.

De Brevitate Vitae, or as it is more familiarly known, Gaudeamus Igitur. Cheers.

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    Barry Kaye wrote on 18th May 2012

    Higher education by remote learning offers a cost effective means for training in many subjects. There are practical based courses that can argue that this would be a second rate education, but I don't see any reason why the course should not be at least as intellectually challenging as a traditional degree course, and at least as worthy of recognition in academia and business.

    There is one area where the traditional University system has an advantage. That is in bringing a cohort of bright young people together at the start of their working lives.

    Student dorms do seem to be a good place for starting world beating companies - at least in the US - and maybe this socialising process cannot be conducted on Facebook?

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About the author
Chris is a technology and policy futurologist. Chris has been in the IT industry since 1980. His roles have spanned Honeywell, ICL, HP, Microsoft and Capgemini. He is a Fellow of the BCS and a Fellow of the RSA.

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