Is technology the key change agent in higher education?

Last week, ICEF Monitor explored how technological changes are influencing student behaviour and student demands.

Today, we follow up on these observations by looking at the popularity of MOOCs and other types of distributed learning as major drivers of technological change in education.

Because of the MOOC’s potential to open higher education to hundreds of millions of people, numerous private companies are focused on improving the quality, scalability, and personalisation of online delivery platforms, and it’s in this area that technological innovation is occurring in leaps and bounds.

More broadly, a new report from Universities UK concludes that higher education models will continue to evolve due to several technology factors:

  • Improved access to high speed broadband
  • Changing social attitudes of students and staff in relation to the use and adaptation of technology
  • Rapid innovation in online technology, including mobile devices and cloud computing
  • Bottom-up adoption of externally-developed technologies into the activities of an institution by students and lecturers

Recent developments in education technology are occuring against a backdrop of rising higher education costs and increased student demands for value, convenience, and access to technology. What do these countervailing trends mean for traditional education models and established recruitment pathways and how might they shape the future of higher education?

Big investments in new distributed learning systems

To begin, web giant Google has taken what its officials call an “experimental first step” into online education, releasing open-source software called Course Builder in the hope that universities will use it to deliver free online courses. The company aims to partner with high profile schools such as MIT, Berkeley, and Harvard to offer courses, and cites numerous universities that have expressed interest in the platform.

Google’s director of research Peter Norvig has specifically mentioned Stanford University as a potential partner, telling The Chronicle of Higher Education last month: “We’re close with Stanford – Coursera and Udacity both came out of Stanford. They’re working on their own open-source project, and they’re also interested in working with us.”

In more news out of Stanford, September saw the university introduce an online course delivery platform called Class2Go, which is open-source, nonprofit, portable, and designed for research as well as teaching. Stanford is offering 16 free online courses for fall 2012, and two of them will be delivered via Class2Go. Its non-proprietary model has been described as “non-sticky,” meaning that professors bring their own material to the platform and retain it when they leave. Among course delivery platforms, this is unique.

Wherever there’s new software technology developing, Apple is guaranteed to be lurking. The computing giant’s iTunes U Course Manager, which was unveiled in January, allows instructors to create material that can be downloaded and synced to the iTunes U iPad application, or if they prefer, they can access content from universities and other educational institutions around the world for use in a classroom setting.

The platform only works on iOS devices, most notably the iPad, yet even with this and other technical restrictions, iTunes U Course Manager has proved extremely popular. Some observers note, however, that Apple’s business model requires educators to rely on only one means of distribution, and to push their students to use Apple devices. The marketing strategy is clear; whether it’s good in the long run for education is somewhat less clear.

Meanwhile in Canada, ed-tech firm Desire2Learn has developed a cloud-based learning platform that has been adopted within large organisations like the Ontario Ministry of Education, the New York City Department of Education, and universities in Canada, Singapore, and China.

And now, the company has major backing. It recently announced the acceptance from US-based OMERS Ventures of US$80 million in funding – an astonishing figure that may hint at the level of profit venture capitalists anticipate reaping in the ed-tech field.

Another example is the much talked about Coursera, which partners with universities ranging from Vanderbilt to the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and has enrolled more than one million students from nearly 200 countries into its online courses. It also secured a further US$16 million in venture capital in April 2012.

And where there’s Coursera, there’s EdX – the online venture started by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Recent news on their front is that The University of Texas system plans to put up US$5 million to join in, to help meet demand for low-cost college courses. “EdX is as well-funded as any startup and better funded than almost anyone else,” Steven Mintz, executive director of the Texas system’s Institute for Transformational Learning, said. “We aren’t without arms in this arms race.”

The trend seems clear – online delivery systems are a game-changing technology that has attracted considerable investment from outside the education arena, including from some of the world’s biggest technology giants.

What does this mean for traditional educational models?

Demand for online courses and the rush to serve the market has universities wondering if their traditional, centuries-old educational model is under threat. Furthermore, new reports are showing that Interactive Learning Online (ILO) produces equivalent learning outcomes to traditional classroom teaching methods. But to date, distance learning remains a small subset of the higher education landscape. Only 5.3% of undergraduates currently use the method.

However, that percentage is set to grow as the use of technology becomes more pervasive and universities continue to raise fees. In the US, for example, college costs today are 559% of what they were in 1985, and fees are rising throughout the OECD as well. And as we reported in our previous article “Students demanding more technology in education,” universities in the UK are under increasing pressure to offer incoming students access to state-of-the-art technology because of the increased fees they are being asked to pay.

In the coming years, rapid technological development will require institutions, instructors, recruiters – virtually everyone in the education industry – to continually review their approaches and methods. Particularly as online education grows more popular, brick-and-mortar education providers will be increasingly called on to articulate what makes them unique and to focus on the student experience.

This view was strongly advanced at a recent education technology conference in Melbourne. Writing about the conference, The Age reported:

Australian National University vice-chancellor Ian Young said institutes that wanted to retain a physical presence would need to focus increasingly on research and student residential experiences. Professor Young told the University of Melbourne conference that “high-volume education” would continue moving online and large lectures would begin to disappear.

An American delegate to the conference explained how his institution was already adapting to this emerging shift in the higher education landscape:

University of New England vice-chancellor Jim Barber told the conference that the traditional campus role was in decline. Hosting online learning would become one of the primary purposes for the bricks-and-mortar campus, he said. Under his vision, students would gather in online hubs studying with classmates from worldwide in the campus of the future, replacing packed lecture theatres and crowded tutorials.

These perspectives reflect the combined weight of a number of societal and technology factors that are acting on higher education today. That institutions are challenged to define and differentiate themselves and to deliver an outstanding student experience is hardly new.

Perhaps what is new in this equation is, on the one hand, the apparent pace of technology-fueled change and, on the other, the inter-play between innovation in education technology and the broader societal forces that are shaping the scale and nature of demand for education today.



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