Are we witnessing higher education’s “digital moment”?

There has been much written about the rise of Massive Open Online Courses [MOOCs] in recent months and whether this represents higher education’s “digital moment”. Today the Open University announced the launch of an online learning service, Future Learn, to be run in partnership with nine other UK institutions. This may now signal the start of a decisive move into the world of online delivery in this country.

Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the OU was one of a number of panellists discussing developments in digital learning at a recent event convened by the Universities minister David Willets with the support of Universities UK and Goldman Sachs. The event provided UK universities with an opportunity to hear first hand from many of the US and British firms that have been making waves in the field of digital learning. Delegates included the founder of Coursera, Daphne Koller, Michael Smith, board member of EdX and representatives from other firms such as Knewton and Promethean.

These participants described how the utilisation of innovative technology solutions could increase institutions’ reach – both in terms of the number of students and courses on offer, as well as the distance between lecturers and their students. The panellists raised many challenging questions about the erosion of borders in higher education caused by the web, the unbundling of content development and delivery and the automation of higher education pedagogy.

The fact that major institutions such as MIT, Stanford and Harvard have jumped on board the “MOOC train” is adding to the sense of a tipping point in higher education. Many column inches in mainstream media in the US and UK have been devoted to the move to free online courses, as it sits in contrast to the concerns about how higher fees will affect access to higher education. These developments also come along at a time when social attitudes toward online spaces are shifting, underpinned by the growing availability of low cost broadband connections.

What is less reported is that these developments are not entirely new to higher education. The development of MOOCs can be situated in the traditions of distance learning, open universities and university extension programmes that go back to the 19th century. Similarly, many institutions have developed open courseware and educational resources through platforms such as ITunes U or institutional repositories. Almost all institutions have some form of virtual learning environment that they use for their distance and campus students.

There are also questions about how transformative some of these developments really are. For example, the pedagogy of high volume automated courses is basic, with an emphasis on broadcasting content rather than cognitive development. Open courses also seem to be used by more advanced learners who have completed or are engaged in some form of higher education and are able to navigate the course material with greater independence. The other big question is whether institutions, employers and students will come to recognise these courses as an integral part of higher education.

However developments are moving fast, both in the US and the UK, where the OU brings with it decades of distance learning know-how that the UK sector can tap into.

So what does higher education’s “digital moment” actually mean for institutions? It is useful to look at digital transitions elsewhere. For example, Coursera is a third party aggregator site that enables institutions to place free content online at relatively low cost in way that is easily discoverable and usable for students, a model that has some comparison to Amazon or Ebay. Similarly, Knewton’s use of data analytics to drive course and learner development has parallels in the business model that has turned Google into a household name.

I often look towards the newspaper sector for insight into digital transformation. Newspapers are organisations that produce complex content and have extended their reach through the web to new readers in new locations and in new ways. However, they have all had to assess where they sit in terms of the global market and the reality that readers can go elsewhere for information, all at the click of a button. In this new environment some newspapers have developed offers that justify a pay wall but many are still working out how to make their new open digital world sustainable.

Analogies from other sectors are illustrative of the potential scope and pace of change, as well as the signals to look out for. But they only provide partial lessons. It is clear that there are some big questions facing higher education in the years to come and we are a long way from knowing the answers. Borders book stores and Kodak offer salutary lessons of successful organisations failing to respond effectively to the rapid changes occurring around them.

Here at Universities UK we are looking carefully at these developments and will be producing a series of outputs and events over the course of 2013 exploring the questions that institutions will need to consider.

About William Hammonds

Policy Researcher at Universities UK
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2 Responses to Are we witnessing higher education’s “digital moment”?

  1. Pingback: OU Launches FutureLearn Ltd « OUseful.Info, the blog…

  2. JB. says:

    The rise of programs including Udacity and EdX is a huge step forward in education. Universities can be expensive and selective, these programs liberalize the process.

    Higher education and online education can co-exist though. The primary benefit of attending the Ivies, Oxford or Cambridge remains the ‘experience’. Rubbing shoulders with like-minded peers is an invaluable education in life.

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