Does higher education struggle with change?
by Roberta Nicora

"We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction."  Bill Gates

Keep up or risk redundancy, Bill Gates reminds us with this highly quotable line. The sentiment is certainly familiar to anyone currently working in the higher education sector. Lectures will become obsolete. Online learning will replace the physical campus. Universities will become fully integrated with industry.  Higher Education is ripe for ‘disruption’, we’re informed, and with rising tuition, people are now more open to alternative models.  

Every January, educational experts make predictions for the year ahead – some intriguing, others alarming. Robot teachers, low-cost virtual courses, the decline of the Brick and Mortar campus. Yet even when the predictions seem credible, it’s difficult to imagine a fundamentally different university experience.

It’s a widely-held perception that higher education is change-resistant. That pressures of time, budgets and an insistence that ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ will stand in the way of innovation.  There’s a stereotype of the entrenched academic who clings to his role as sage on the stage. Forget student-centred learning, they say, some haven’t even changed their teaching style in decades - universities are failing to keep up with the students and most are too slow to adopt new technologies. But is this a realistic picture?

Already, the university experience has changed in a way few would have predicted a decade ago. Our students interact through their personal devices on-campus, flipped learning practitioners take instruction off-campus and even the University of Cambridge has taken to Snapchat.  Data analytics help personalise learning to individual needs, students collaborate from different corners of the world and some even select their courses on the basis of open days attended virtually. It is, in many respects, a remarkably innovative sector.

The majority of universities now recognise the value of education technology and will enthusiastically use it to support learning, retention and the overall student experience. Students with access to the Kortext digital learning bookshelf, for example, can learn from set etextbooks, journals and lecture notes from any location they like using their own personal device. Here they can share notes, collaborate with popular social tools and engage more interactively with their reading. This very much reflects a shift from a passive style of learning towards a more active, learner-focused experience, all facilitated by technology. Research finds that students highly value access to digital learning resources with staff reporting that it supports academic best practice and enhances their overall offering.

High-quality technology that meaningfully enriches the learning experience is powerful and nobody better understands this than frontline teaching staff. Universities can’t afford to lag behind with technology enhanced learning, certainly, but this doesn’t mean they should rush to adopt everything that’s new. Nobody, least of all academics, can be expected to uncritically adopt a new educational tool without first questioning its value.

If anyone insists that Silicon Valley will disrupt higher education beyond recognition, if they criticise individual universities for being slow to catch up, then it’s worth remembering that Moocs haven’t exactly caught on in the way many predicted. Change can be slow and doesn’t always look the way we anticipated. Learning technologists might privately grumble about the pace of change in some institutions but almost always understand the reasons and work hard to encourage technology use in a way that makes sense for the staff, students and overall institution.

If it can be shown that a technology is genuinely valuable, promotes better learning outcomes and leads to higher levels of student engagement, then educators are usually the first to embrace it.