On Technology and Higher Education

I have been going through a Conference Season, attending different conferences discussing the future of Higher Education with the most inevitable discussion on Technology in Higher Education. It is somewhat amusing to hear so many different views somewhat converging on the same answer: That it would change education, but contrary to what some of its most radical proponents say, it won't make the traditional structures of Higher Education obsolete. So whether a speaker launches into a revolutionary manifesto or a conservative soul-searching while speaking about technology, in the end, it is always the establishment message that returns - that Higher Ed isn't going to wither away.

This view, however, is more of a reflection of the people in the room than the possibilities of technology. The discussion about technology in education always start with the somewhat patronising and now cliched question about how many people have started a MOOC and how many have completed it. In the conferences I have been to, the proportion of the audience who ever signed up for a MOOC has been quite low, given that people in the room were usually college educated and considered themselves, in some capacity, to be qualified to participate in a discussion about innovation in education. However, the follow up question about completion rates, where only very few hands go up, expose the true nature of the discussion: Its predictable answer is used as the backdrop of the grand proclamation that the traditional Higher Ed is not going to go away.

My problem with this kind of reasoning is that this is somewhat circular. MOOCs are a highly conservative phenomenon, based on the prestige of the traditional Higher Ed. If there is no prestigious colleges, there will be no MOOCs, or at least, they will be very different. Positioning MOOCs as the Higher Ed killer, and then demonstrating their limited efficacy, is a game that serves the conferences well, but do not have much validity outside them. Because it is not the MOOCs that are rendering universities obsolete; and the alternatives to traditional Higher Ed may actually come from more unexpected sources.

Indeed, traditional Higher Ed has plenty to worry about. We talk endlessly about employability and that graduates don't get jobs, or worse, they are often unemployable, and present this being the biggest challenge to the legitimacy of Higher Education worldwide. However, the fact that growing employability is perhaps impossible, and graduate joblessness and uncertainties in career isn't about the economic cycle but a persistent economic reality that we may have to live with for a very long time, remain usually omitted. The employability proponents are usually playing a safe game, with the full knowledge that their prescriptions, that employers engage closely with educators in designing curricula and delivering education, may never actually be followed, because employers and educators live in two different worlds. However, even the educators feel it too daunting to challenge the proposition for the fear of being branded as an ivory tower resident: However, in private conversations, they usually complain that narrow skills, the type you get when you are driven by an utility/profit maximising employer helping define the curricula, is what creates the graduate jobs problem, and not the other way round.

Besides, the very fact that the Higher Ed has now been held to account for jobs provision, a task which they can't possibly achieve themselves (particularly when employment creation isn't seen as the employers' responsibility any more and most business organisations are completely divorced from community responsibility of any kind) is indicative that the traditional models are obsolete. The traditional model of Higher Ed, a system of preservation of social status quo and a mechanism to create and populate the institutions of state and commerce, adapts badly to the mass production of technical skills, which is what it is being asked to do. It is being asked to deliver, and being held to account, for the failed promise of the liberal politics, the trivial luxuries and securities of middle class life. They are out of sync even before technology entered into the equation.

See MOOCs in this context, and it may be clear that they are a defensive move rather than a revolutionary one. It is not about replacing Higher Ed, but about rephrasing the conversation: It is about exporting the inside life of the university to the outside world, supplementing the dreams of middle class life with a little more access to culture, about allowing a few moments of self-elevation within a stream of drudgery and boredom. It is an escape from the ever sinking feeling that accompanies life in a job, and it is an escape, or an attempt to, for the universities for their social mandate of producing graduates with jobs. It is technology enslaved, for preservation of status quo, rather than a technology revolution. 

However, a technology revolution is still under way, regardless: The fact that connectivity is easier, media is disrupted, collaboration is omnipresent and, most importantly, context, rather than content, is underpinning new knowledge, shifting the relationship between teaching and learning. The ability to learn without being taught is going up, at the same time the ability to making learning effective solely through teaching is going down. At the very moment the universities are being asked to produce the producers, both the nature of production and the motivation to produce are both changing: So the very unchanging idea of Higher Education that we have, and the one we tend to defend in the conferences, need to be interrogated and revalidated.

This revalidation may mean a number of different things. For example, one needs to revisit the calendar - of fixed term dates - aligned with the agrarian calendar of the past, and see whether this still remains valid. Second, one may need to balance all the different priorities, practical knowledge, critical engagement, development of character and enterprise, and therefore review the structure of the courses: Would we be looking at a competency based two year diplomas as the basic currency followed by one or two year of higher intellectual pursuit, rather than continuing the apartheid between the 'Higher Higher' and 'Mediocre Higher' education? Third, the learning communities, built around this lovely notion of 'university life', a preserve that the privileged certainly enjoys but may appear a luxury for the less endowed, may also need to be reinvented, not just to accommodate the masses, but also to create and disseminate the most appropriate type of knowledge in the current context. Also, the diploma, or the end of course awards, need to be thought through - the degree inflation may be changing the field completely and there must be better ways of doing this than just developing a fetish for university vintage.

So, by way of conclusions, let's not define the challenge to the university in terms of what MOOCs do, but in the context of the change of the role of and expectations from the university and the true 'disruptive' possibility of technology. There is education technology - of delivery and collaboration - which can enhance the learning experience within today's university and are already doing so; but there are technologies of learning, which encompass these and go beyond, enabling connections and conversations far beyond traditional university campuses are designed to facilitate. These are the technologies which will intensify the social pressures on the university as we know it. This is the challenge to watch out for.


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