The future is here to stay

The influential think tank Demos launched The Edgeless University, a new pamphlet exploring the impact of technological and social change on universities on 23 June 2009. ‘The Economist’ had earlier explored this from the learners’ perspective in an article on colleges without borders in December 2008.

These ideas come at an opportune moment, when despite the doom and gloom of the prevailing social and economic climate, the perceived wisdom – according to rankings and studies, at least – is that the HE sector currently is in rude health.

As institutions, universities contribute to the local communities around them, to the national economy and to the vibrant cultural and intellectual life of the UK. Nonetheless, the Demos report suggests that universities find themselves in a fragile state.

The huge public investment that most of the sector relies on is said to be insecure. As a result, universities are being asked to adapt and do more for less, from meeting the needs of a larger and more diverse student population to withstanding increased international competition.

According to the report, technology and innovation should be placed at the heart of this adaptation, but not in the sense of building a room full of computers. Rather, they need to be driving the narrative of institutional change.

The report cites numerous examples of technology making research and learning possible in new places, often outside of institutions. Far from undermining the institutions, this is creating exciting opportunities for universities to demonstrate and capitalise on their value.

Universities provide spaces for developing expertise, validating learning and they bring prestige to those affiliated to them. This is not going to change.

Instead they will have to start to open up continued learning and innovation to a wider population. Giving more people more ways to learn and research will be the only way to reconcile aspirations to maintain a world-class education system with high participation rates and moves towards equality of access as well as equivalence of experience.

Giving access to a large volume of content can give a high profile to the quality of the institution’s work. It can contribute to the wider academic and learning commons. Several HEIs are already committed to publish all research online, with free access. The vast resources of globally ranked universities will be available to anyone with an Internet connection.

In the competitive environment of a global HE market, Open Access repositories provide a platform through which a university can showcase its research. Open Access helps prospective students make a judgement about which university to choose, shares blue-skies research with the widest possible audience and supports outreach activity to open up HE to new communities.

But it does raise questions about how the knowledge is sorted, and how we filter such quantities of information. When it comes to knowledge how does one sort out the wheat from the chaff? This is where a university’s values can reassert themselves. As more content is available, guidance and expertise in sorting and assessing it become more valuable.

As more people seek flexible and informal learning, they will need the accreditation and support of established institutions. As researchers and learners try to acquire the skills of searching, analysing and sorting information, the expertise of academics will be invaluable. As learners look to assert the value of their learning, and researchers their work, affiliation to established institutions will signal valuable quality.

It is also essential to get the relationship between the institution and the technology correctly aligned. Technology can help universities move from where they are now to where they need to be.

This might, for instance, necessitate a commitment to open content and shared resources, and investment in the management and curatorship of vast amounts of data and knowledge.

It will also mean re-skilling current and future staff and upgrading access, alongside offering new kinds of courses, accreditation and affiliation that use informal learning and research networks and aligning them to the existing, formal system.

Updating policy to keep pace with technological change is also a key challenge. The report quotes an education policy analyst as suggesting that the current predicament of the HE sector is similar to that faced by the music industry at the turn of the century, where technology – and particularly those clustered around sharing – undermined the existing business models and forced them to change their ways.

Building upon the HE investment in technology driven by enterprising academics and advocates within institutions, the next stage of technological investment has to be far more considered. The sector currently lacks a coherent narrative of how institutions will look in the future, or of the role that technology will play in the transition to new learning and research cultures.

Taking advantage of these opportunities will take strategic leadership from inside institutions, new connections with a growing world of informal learning, and a commitment to openness and collaboration. Only by adapting can universities continue to meet the vital public policy aim of creating more access to HE.

Working within a university R&D unit entrusted with developing the learning innovation agenda, the challenge is to ensure that our research to practice approach with learning technologies will continue to bring innovation to the mainstream.

Jai Mukherjee / 25 June 2009

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