Academy must embrace new technology

Technological change is scary but we must adapt to survive, says Kevin Fong

We are moving out of the old ways of thinking about the academy and into the Brave New World created by this government and the last. It is an experiment on a grand scale and, like all good experiments, nobody can really claim to know what’s going to happen. Which is to say there is risk. In fact “risk” is too fine a term for it. “Risk” suggests that we can adequately constrain the variables and assign some numerical probability to the likelihood of catastrophic outcome. When you can’t do that, it ceases to be risk and starts to become frank uncertainty. Not that you’ll get any of the architects of change to admit to any of that. Operating on timelines defined by five-year political cycles, they have to function in a world of hard facts. They don’t do “uncertainty”. To them, Erwin Schrödinger was simply an indecisive man who was horribly inefficient at managing cat welfare.

But there are a few things that we can be certain of. When it comes to teaching, universities are now overtly in the business of flogging stuff to consumers. That fact is inescapable. Student fees and government rhetoric have made it so. But if we’re charging the best part of £9,000 a year for tuition, then I’m guessing students are going to expect to get something that appears to be worth that amount. And remember, this is the digital generation, born wired for wi-fi with huge expectations when it comes to the delivery of information. (However, tolerance for anything that requires an attention span is at an all-time low.)

It’d be the academic equivalent of an extreme sport. Like trying to climb Everest in the nude - and probably just as pointless

When it comes to teaching, we’re all going to have to up our game. The days of standing at the front of a lecture theatre and talking to the masses from behind a lectern are numbered. But precisely what we might replace it with and how future content might be delivered is less clear.

The digital revolution has invaded almost every aspect of our lives. But somehow, higher education teaching has managed to remain more or less insulated from it. Sure it seeps in, carried on the mobile devices that students bring to lectures, but up to now we have been mostly successful in fending off the attack.

When the moving-picture camera was invented, people first used it to make films of stage plays. Initially, there was no sense of the capabilities of the medium of motion-picture film.

This is roughly the scenario in higher education land. I’ve taken a portable computer with enough processing power to control the flight path of a fleet of space shuttles, and made it imitate a slide carousel.

It’s fair to say that we’ve been slow to innovate in the world of teaching. There are reasons for this. Terror is chief among them. It’s bad enough that students can now track us down via email 24/7. Fully embracing this digital future – therefore dropping our defence shields further – seems like simple folly. Sticking to strictly analogue technology in as many parts of your life as possible and living an off-grid existence is the only true protection from the electronic demands of today’s most determined students.

I briefly considered making this my life’s mission: to deliver entire courses using nothing more technological than a stick of chalk and a blackboard. It’d be the academic equivalent of an extreme sport. Like trying to climb Everest in the nude – and probably just as pointless.

If we’re to survive the changes happening to the sector we’re going to have to adapt. That’s why there’s all this talk about Moocs (massive open online courses). As the name suggests, they involve running in the opposite direction from the blackboard and putting all your teaching materials online for literally the whole world to see and learn from for free. Moocs are already “massively” popular, with some of the most sought-after courses subscribed to by thousands of students.

There have been plenty of questions about their sustainability, and there’s a suspicion that their popularity is closely linked to their intrinsic free-ness and that any attempt to charge for them will burst the whole bubble.

Nevertheless, I rather suspect that Moocs are the shape of things to come. The problem is that that’s all they are: an ill-defined shape with no one sure exactly what should go inside.

If a successful business plan is to be made from them, I suspect that there will have to be a second generation of Moocs. These – the Successfully Monetised Open Online Courses for the Higher Education Sector (which henceforth we should all earnestly refer to as Smooches) – will have to be somewhat different from the material that is currently being given away for free. Working out their shape and form is going to take more than a little innovation and investment.

Innovation, though, is what it’s all about. The financial uncertainty that lies ahead for higher education will have to be met with innovation on a grand scale. It is completely unclear to me, or any other respectable observer I have asked, what the future has in store for this sector. It is only clear that things will have to change to try to insure us against all eventualities.

Innovation in universities has ceased to be an intellectual pursuit and has instead become a means of survival.

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