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:
- Quality of research
- Rigour and consistency of assessment
- 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.