The Conversation web site is currently half way through a series of invited posts entitled “The Future of Higher Education”. It has been a disappointing series so far in that five of the first six posts have focussed on MOOCS and the sixth has been a general post on equity in online learning. Now MOOCs are an important development but the future of higher education is bigger than MOOCs and the questions are much more fundamental. Here are are some questions that I think this series should be addressing.

How does the academy transform its role from the one it occupied in a society in which knowledge was scarce to a new role in a society in which knowledge is abundant?

This seems to me to be the fundamental question about the future of higher education. For universities (which are just a subset of higher education organisations) the question is wrapped up in their traditional late 20thC intrinsic (although by no means exclusive) role as knowledge creators. From this basic premise a number of other questions arise.

Assuming universities continue their role as knowledge creators then what is their role in knowledge dissemination in the future? Do they still do it? And let’s not kid ourselves about the teaching/research nexus. That hasn’t happened in any large measure for years. Do other providers do it? Other providers that are specialised in online and (occasionally) blended delivery techniques.

Furthermore, in a networked age, do all universities need to be generating knowledge in the same domains? Similarly, if universities continue to disseminate knowledge then do all universities need to provide the same range of topics to disseminate? Isn’t that all a little wasteful and, quite possibly, vain?

How does the academy cope with the increasing amount of knowledge being created and disseminated outside of the traditional idea of the university? And this goes to the question of what it actually means to be an ‘academic’ in the 21st century. Are we all academics when we are all contributors? Does an academic have to have a PhD? The vast majority of experts in their field do not have one and aren’t inclined to get one. They don’t work in higher education.

What about the role of higher education providers that are not universities? Who sets the curriculum for a ‘course’? Who determines what is appropriate assessment of knowledge and how is it done? Inevitably the role of ‘assessment for learning’ will decline. Auto-didacts will point out that they can learn in many different ways, often outside of formal higher education. They will (and do now) want their learning recognised.

Given these factors, what is the role of a course of study when information on just about any topic is readily available? Certainly some people will still want to undertake courses of study leading to an award. This will depend on their prior learning and experience in the field of study.

For students that still want to undertake a course of study, how will this course be structured? In semesters? Almost certainly not. When will they be able to enrol? I would suggest that enrolment will be much more flexible. How will that work? What will be the effect on university administration systems? Pretty huge I would expect.

What will the role of credentialling be? For example why would professional organisations continue to rely on universities to credential students for entry to practice in a profession? They often already require subsequent practice and credentialling. Why not do it all? In an age when it is more possible than ever to demonstrate prior learning is it really necessary to spend four years doing a degree first? Some people may just decide to rely on their professional social reputation. New techniques for independently measuring this are being developed all the time.

What is the role of a degree course? Will it be better to work at 18 and study part time through your entire life at appropriate providers maintaining a self managed e-portfolio of evidence that includes both formal and informal learning? I expect that the role of the life changing one off right of passage (and financial servitude) that the modern first degree represents may become less enticing.

These are just a few of the questions that a series on the Future of Higher Education should be asking. There are four more posts to come in the series. Let’s hope at least some of these questions get addressed and we can get off of the MOOC fixation.

6 thoughts on “Questions about the future of higher education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Questions about the future of higher education

  2. I agree, we should be asking better questions. With such a high percentage of young people graduating with degrees that cannot find work despite their degrees, and the tremendous amount of outstanding student debt, it is clear what has worked in higher ed is not working for today’s youth and economic situation. Over 65% of the work that will be done by grade school kids today hasn’t even been invented yet. With all of this in mind, we must start teaching our youth to think out of the box of traditional employment, and help them become self reliant and create their own futures. This is the one of the greatest gifts we can give our children.

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  3. Wow this kind of question make you shake. I do think higher education is not that relevant nowadays. I do have two professional titles, one of 5 years of UNI and the other of 3 year. I was in the top 5 in my UNI and even with all this qualification I could not get a decent job. Now I am part time blogger and affiliate marketer. To be successful you do not need to go to UNI you need to be and entrepreneur and take your chances when you see it, you will fail some times, however what you learn from your mistakes no UNI will ever teach you.

    This is my opinion. God Bless.
    How to be a Blogger

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  4. The school of life has become more important, and automatic connection between high school and university is precarious due to fees and unemployment. Further, successful higher education institutions no longer need to be physically large and bureaucratic in age of digital communications, but smaller specialised institutions maybe the future?

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  5. Excellent questions, Mark, and insightful answers too.

    I agree with your perspective of a changing world in which content is no longer a competitive advantage, and technology is shifting more power to the consumer (if you consider a university a service provider).

    One point on which I diverge though is the role of assessment for learning. You predict that it will decline, whereas I predict it will ramp up. The banal reason is because assessment will be an opportunity for the university to monetise its activity. (I don’t want to mention MOOCs again, but that’s the obvious example.)

    The more practical reason is that in the corporate sector, employers will want the employee to demonstrate their proficiency in various competencies. With the increasing flexibility and informalisation of learning, I see the role of assessment as the summary of all that learning (wherever and however it occurred).

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