Some Ways Universities Will Change Over Ten Years

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I am currently working on a roadmap for educational technology in my university over the next ten years. Of course when looking over such a period it becomes crucial to try and anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities over that period so that we can think about the effect on educational technology.

Many commentators have speculated that the next ten years will be one of fundamental change for universities. Comparisons are made with the record industry ten years ago and the publishing industry at the moment – both faced with the hugely disruptive changes being bought about by new ways of learning and sharing on the internet.

I thought I would put my head above the parapet and share some of the thoughts I am having about the way universities might change and some of my initial conclusions. I say initial because my thoughts are changing all the time as I try and rationalise the very wide range of factors that may come into play over the next few years.

Many of the ideas have come from the The Tower and the Cloud, The Edgeless University (PDF), Stephen Downes work on forecasting the future for higher education and numerous blog posts, particularly from those listed in the sidebar.

I’ll do this in a series of posts because to write them all down at once is just too hard at the moment. Today I’ll start with two of the most important; open content and assessment.

Open content becomes the norm

The proliferation of openly available learning material and particularly open courseware means that students can/will be able to study using resources from a wide range of different sources. Furthermore, it will be increasingly easy for students to judge a university through the quality of its open learning material and its open research. It is interesting that MIT have reported an increase in the number of applications to its programs (PDF) as a result of its open courseware initiative. Increasingly universities will be forced to compete on the basis of these resources. Those universities that are already providing open course material will have an advantage. Inevitably students will compare the learning material at their university with those openly available elsewhere. This may well mean that increasingly resources are dedicated to enhancing open content. At the moment much open content is in the form of videos of live lectures or the provision of traditional lecture material in digital format. As late comers attempt to enhance their reputation through open content it may the case that more interactive and engaging content is provided.

The challenge will be in cultural change in an academy that is often mistrustful of sharing. This will be difficult to achieve for some institutions. It will require strong leadership and changes to the way that scholarly activity is recognised and rewarded. Some institutions are starting to identify this already (New Media Department at the University of Maine). Smaller institutions may have an advantage in achieving this change.

It’s the assessment, stupid

I have maintained for a long time that the three key factors affecting the reputation of an institution are:

  1. Quality of research
  2. Rigour and consistency of assessment
  3. Quality of teaching

Note that, although I have always viewed assessment and teaching and learning as being part of the same process, I have separated them in this list because from my experience the two do not always go hand in hand and increasingly they may well be separate activities. The reason I put rigorous and consistent assessment ahead of quality teaching is because what many students (and employers for that matter) want is an objective benchmark of their knowledge, understanding and, maybe, skills (for vocational courses). This benchmark has to be both consistent and rigorous for the qualification to have value.

I am reminded of a former colleague who described a purpose of universities as being to sort the wheat from the chaff and that the massification of higher education was meaning that this was no longer happening. I have seen at first hand the dissatisfaction of high performing students at the lack of refinement in assessment that means their performance is unrewarded.

In future, with widely available open learning resources, learning will increasingly happen outside of the confines of the campus. Students will still want to have their learning credentialed but they may well ask why they have to undertake a rigid, multi year course before they can achieve a qualification. Why can’t they present evidence of their learning to an institution for assessment regardless of where their learning has taken place? Stephen Downes, in his essay “The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On” , has speculated that independent testing agencies will emerge to do this work. That may be the case but I suspect that both universities and students will want the universities to continue to carry out the assessment. Universities will also continue to set the requirements that must be met for qualifications to be awarded. But they may or may not carry out the teaching required.

What this means is that a lot of work will need to be done by many universities in increasing the quality, consistency and rigour of assessment in order to maintain or enhance their reputation. The other implication from an IT point of view is that much more sophisticated assessment management systems will be required. It is important to note that I mean a system for managing grades and assessments, not necessarily a system through which students will be assessed.

Many universities are attempting to use the grade-book functionality of their learning management system (LMS) but these are not particularly sophisticated or user friendly and they don’t take account of changing types assessment and the locations where assessment might take place.

I have been very interested to follow the work of Jon Mott at Brigham Young University as they develop what Jon calls a ‘Loosely Coupled Gradebook’. You can find out more about it on Jon’s blog. It is likely that assessment management systems such as this will become much more important than the enterprise LMS although it may well be the case that the more agile learning management systems can transform themselves by incorporating more advanced assessment management. I suspect that the open source LMSs such as Moodle or Sakai would be in a better position to do this than proprietary systems.


I think that the rise in open content is a huge issue for universities and one that many universities have been slow to respond to. As learning increasingly happens outside of the university the role of assessment in maintaining an institution’s reputation increases. This means much more effort will be required to provide flexible (in terms of timing) and yet rigorous and consistent assessment. Sophisticated and yet user friendly systems will be required to support this activity.

9 Comments On “Some Ways Universities Will Change Over Ten Years”

  1. Thanks Mark, enjoyed your post, and that it started me thinking about this whole education thing.

    The idea of open content is something we all need to come to grips with, the sooner the better (I’m not going to address assessment here). Information is out there and while some contribute new knowledge to canon (via a commercial means), there is more than enough that is freely available. Many more people blogging about their research, online journals, and the ubiquitous Wikipedia. So, while we can make judgements about the quality of material used in university courses, I think there’s another factor that needs to be acknowledged.

    So, if we agree that (quality) content is available (and fairly freely), what’s left? Doesn’t it come down to the relationship between teacher & learner (not that I’m all that comfortable with making distinctions – we’re all learning) and how learning (or awakening) can be facilitated? I believe that capital (or competitive edge, if that’s what you need) will be in how well you can engage people and develop their interest in learning. It’s about the process and the tools you use to approach and examine the content/material, this leads to an experience (& hopefully a good one), and I reckon that’s what students will be looking for. Maybe this is what you mean by Quality of Teaching, so looking forward to more of your ideas on that.


  2. @Colin
    Thanks for the comments Colin.

    I agree that undoubtedly there is and will be a place for high quality interaction between learners and academic facilitators (I won’t use the word teachers in this situation) at universities.

    Having said that, I don’t think that this will necessarily be the only way in which the capabilities of students are recognised. There is so much learning happening all over the place that it seems a bit presumtious of universities to think that it can only happen within the confines of their courses or programs.

    Why shouldn’t I be able to provide evidence of my capability to an assessing institution in order to be credentialled regardless of whether I have attended a course or program with that institution?

    That is, of course, assuming that the notion of a degree qualification continues to be the measure by which capability is recognised. Who is to say that other measures may not arise in future?

    I was mulling on the fact that I have no educational qualifications and no IT qualifications and yet I am in a reasonably senior position supporting educational technology at one of the largest universities in Australia. A friend of mine is the IT manager for a large organisation and his degree is in Aquaculture. So some other measures of capability are already at work.

    I have some more thoughts on this but I’ll leave them for another post.


  3. Mark;
    Thanks for your thought provoking post
    Your perspective on Open Source Content are interesting, new to me, and I’ll be thinking about for a while. I agree with David Jones who blogged about faculty resistance on this, but I do believe students will appreciate more and better content at no or low cost and may be the primary drivers. I also agree with Colin about the possibility and the benefits of a move toward relationships over content in teaching.
    I have been thinking (and blogging) on the subject of boundary crossing especially regarding time. I believe that students (of all stripes) see assessment as hoop jumping, from the 101 courses quiz to the dissertation defense. What might catch peoples attention more are post-graduate assessments that show real world success and . . . could be facilitated by pedagogical relationships (possibly facilitated through social media type tools) that extend the university resources to students well past the date of graduation. This would require different pedagogical forms and I’m not sure what that would be, but I bet it would be a collaboration between pedagogy and technology. While this might seem most relevant to vocational oriented courses, I think that even the liberal arts might be able to rise to such a challenge. I also believe that this is part of serious lifelong learning, which today is little more than a slogan. The baccalaureate degree is rooted to a time when the entire knowledge of a discipline could be conveyed in 4 years. Learning needs have changed since that time, much more so than pedagogy.


  4. Pingback: New Players in Higher Education – Challenges for Universities | Mark Smithers

  5. @Howard
    Thanks for the comments Howard.

    I think there is a movement at the moment towards more ‘authentic assessment’ but like many such movements I do not see it extending away from the educationalists to main stream academic staff for whom assessment will remain a hurdle that the students have to pass. I have to say I was staggered by my experience at one university where what were known as ‘hurdle assessments’ where actually encouraged. These activities contributed nothing to the summative assessment of the student but had to be passed in order to complete the unit of study. The actual summative assessment was focused largely on essay writing even though it was a highly vocational course. Getting the academic staff to think in a different was was very challenging.

    I agree with your thoughts on life long learning. I’ve been thinking today about how that might happen in future. For the professions it may be the accrediting bodies that do that. Not sure about the arts and humanities.


  6. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the thouht provoking post. Just to throw my two cents in from a vendor’s point of view, one of the shifts I’ve seen in the last twelve months has been the increasing interest in ePortfolios, and the quetions being raised about ePortfolios being something that exist as an ongoing service for alumni. One Uni has gone one step further and removed themselves from the loop almost altogether, saying to students that they need to set up an ePortfolio separate to te Uni hosted environment and use that as a part of their learning environment. Of course this is still talking about a ‘formal’ ePortfolio environment rather than the unstructured ePortfolios of work learners (me included) keep all over the place, but it does seem like a step in the direction you’ve indicated in terms of open contnt – even if the content is being created by the learners themselves 🙂

    Look forward to reading the next instalment,



    • Hi Mark,
      Thanks for taking the time to comment on the use of ePortfolios. It still an area that I find difficult to define my thoughts about although I am coming to be of the opinion universities should not be in the business of running eportfolios and that in doing so they are attempting to maintain an institution centric model of learning that is rapidly changing in this era of personal learning networks and social learning. We’ll see how it goes 🙂



  7. I remember about 10 years ago there were predictions that every major college in America would have a larger number of courses offered through America Online. My, how things change.

    We’ve been considering assessment in the LMS at EduGeek Journal. We’re trying to come up with a new vision for the LMS, which you can read all about on the blog if you haven’t already. But, the big idea is to make it so that the LMS is smaller and flexible enough to move with educational trends, rather than react to them after it is too late. I think aggregation is the key to moving forward with assessment – have the students do their projects where they choose, and then aggregate that back into a grading area.


  8. Hi Mark

    I am interested to hear your view on what this means for printed materials used for teaching and learning? Will there ever come a time where the demand (or need) for printed course material etc will no longer exist?


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