Across higher education there is a genuine feeling we are at some kind of tipping point in the use of e- learning. On the other hand practitioners are wary of the risk of over-hyping and point to the recent feverish marketing of MOOCs.
At the Association for Learning Technology Conference earlier this week, for me one of the most thought-provoking sessions was the opening keynote from Jeff Haywood, University of Edinburgh. Jeff is both Professor of Education & Technology and VP Knowledge Management and has among many other things led Edinburgh’s pioneering initiative with MOOCs.
The talk put the hype in perspective and looked forward to where higher education might be in the next decade, but Jeff was conscious of Terry Mayes’ notion of e-learning’s Groundhog Day phenomenon “the cycle of raised expectation followed by disappointment” (e.g. Groundhog Day again?, 2007)
Looking back he concluded that although change was inevitably slow in universities, it was definitely occurring. As an example he suggested much of students learning was nowadays facilitated by devices and applications not provided by the institution. General attitudes to online teaching and learning were also becoming more positive as students and staff were getting more familiar with them, the “socialisation of technology”, and many universities were seeing online delivery as a ‘worthwhile’ business supplement to existing residential provision.
He suggested however universities had been using technology to improve the quality of what we currently do, rather than increase the efficiency of the underlying economics. One thing MOOCs had shown was that a reasonably effective learning experience can be delivered economically at a scale hitherto unimagined. This raises – though so far in my view doesn’t yet answer – the question of whether we can increase productivity while maintaining quality.
Jeff asked if we use purposefully use technology to help students break out from the timetabled pacing of learning or enable staff to teach some parts of the programme to many more students.
So what could higher education look like in ten years? Jeff’s person list was; on demand, self-paced, location-flexible, relevant to life/career now and in the future, global and local, personalised, affordable, high value added and covering a wide range of subjects.
This vision is not about technology per se, but is unachievable without technology. Some kind of vision is necessary but we know universities as big complex organisations transform slowly so the vision must be combined with patience and persistence. To keep momentum and direction over a decade we therefore need a road map made up of systematically planned ‘modest, purposeful’ steps. These steps must be at the same time ‘agile’ and be adaptable to emergent change or evidence.
An interesting and ambitious vision for the increasingly ‘off-campus’ University of Edinburgh was laid out. He suggested their 50 fully online Masters degrees and the well-subscribed continuing education programmes may be a better indicator of future core business direction than the 15 MOOCs currently running. He saw ‘on-campus’ and ‘off-campus’ provision becoming more integrated and balanced, “nobody would graduate from the university in any degree who had not taken one core fully online course” and that “all our teaching staff would have some experience of teaching online”. At Masters level he foresaw a 50:50 split of on/off campus students, with a steady blurring of the distinction at programme level. Continuing education would be enriched by technology and Edinburgh would continue to develop its ‘open’ components to increase the reach of and global/local engagement with the university – open will therefore become a “core part of the business’.
To get there Edinburgh suggested a series of systematic ‘serious experiments’ in key areas (e.g as derived for example from the Horizon reports) which not just for local use but always with a view from the beginning of how to scale to an institutional level. This will introduce the key technical and digital literacy elements needed to achieve the University’s vision.