Posted by: Gillian | October 9, 2012

Future of higher education

Watching the Emirates Air Line, installed for the 2012 Olympics, shuttling back and forth over the Thames yesterday, the BILD‘s continuing professional development workshop Learning and Development, looking to the future it was hard not to think much more widely about higher education.  Yesterday also saw the start of a new, global MOOC on the Current and Future State of Education in which some of the first week’s readings draw on the well-publicised debate about the value of going to university and of university education. To me, the arguments in the two events are but two sides of the same large coin.

Once past compulsory education, people in a fast-evolving world with a huge rise in excellent online courses available from China and India as well as the Occident, global businesses and greater access to ever more powerful data and communications technologies are not only going to have to continue consciously to learn new skills but they are going to want to do so in flexible formats.  There’s not much point in going to university for three or four or five years solely to learn a technology developed three years before that and possibly obsolete before the course even starts.  There is, however, much to be said for networked learning, possibly based around universities that will undoubtedly still have buildings – the amount of buildings seemingly required by virtual universities never ceases to amaze.  Jay Cross wrote back in 2008 of Learnscapes and that theme was picked up in the BILD workshop.  Adults, it seems to me, will still be alumni of some form of HE establishment, they will still have professional bodies offering and requiring continuing professional development, they will probably still have HR departments and training managers. In short, there will be plenty to give comfort to those who want to believe there is no need to change anything because ‘the best universities have existed for centuries’. But it will not be the same.

A knowledge economy requires a knowledge society if it is not to return to subsistence farming.   If the learner/adult is placed at the centre of their own learning universe, they can pull information from whatever sources are available (academic, professional, social) as and when they need it and by disseminating their knowledge, sharing it with others, getting feedback, they will gain expertise which may be rewarded with diplomas, money, social approval.  The individual becomes a lifelong knowledge seeker rather than a knowledge receptacle. Some indiviudals already are lifelong knowledge seekers but many more ‘have done’ with learning as soon as possible or, worse, get told that universities are only for full-time students or only for the under-40s or only for those who do not have a degree.  The boundaries need to blur and people need the permission as well as the skills to do pik-n-mix and just-in-time learning.  The permission can be fixed with political will: the skills will need to be fostered from primary school onwards with the generation brought up to progress from one online standardised test to another perhaps being in for a particular tough time but once the need is widely acknowledged,  coaches, trainers and facilitators can focus.

Universities, of course, can help by being more flexible and some are trying to do so but society as a whole needs to shift in its understanding of universities so that conversations become more equal.  As I discussed with a stand visitor at a conference two weeks ago and have discussed with others before that, a ‘free’ communications system (for example) within a business that is only ‘free’ because it is supported by Year2 undergraduates and one PhD student with a thesis to write is not a good deal, especially if the system is incompatible with other systems also in use within the business that do not require so much support.

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