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Higher Ed Today

Higher Education Disrupting

The number of news and blog items about the imminent disruption of higher education are increasing daily. Today I read three in the space of an hour:  The Reimagining of Higher Education, The Higher Education Monopoly is Crumbling as We Speak, and The Stanford Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever. Yet, it's not as though we haven't known this was coming for some time, despite the second article above suggesting the first sign came only last year. There have been signs of the change around for years, but the trigger point that moved the disruption into the mainstream space seems to be the Stanford professors who ran massive, online courses last year. One of them, Sebastian Thrun, has set up Udacity and left Stanford.

This move, from a highly prestigious institution, was a signal that the game was changing, and that we need to pay attention. And now, it seems that institutions are scrambling to work out what it means for them. And we are talking about it as if it was something that we'd just seen.

All disruptive change has early signals of its coming, but it is not until this sort of trigger moves the disruption to the mainstream that we start to take notice. And by then, it's usually too late to shape the change - we are left with little choice but to react. Take a look at this slide which shows my mash-up of the work of a number of people on the life cycle of a trend.

The signals of change emerge on the left, and strengthen over time, until they reach mainstream on the right. Only then do we reject the types of responses we have if we do find a signal that goes against the status-quo (like that's rubbish!). Only then do we begin to think this trend might be something we need do need to pay attention to now. Our responses are limited now though - consider how could responses might have been different if attention had been paid to the disruption at the emerging stage?

Apply this to disrupting higher education. Think back a few years. Educational technology, which has been around for some time, started to strengthen in terms of what individuals were able to do beyond videos of lectures. Social media allowed people to begin to collaborate with students, and the sage on stage model of delivery began to erode. Is social media integrated fully into classes today? I don't think so.

Online education has been around for years, but has taken off as a viable alternative in the last few years. Most institutions have responded by trying to replicate their face-to-face classroom set up, and called it blended learning - a bit of face-to-face, a bit of online. I am probably being unkind here, but my personal experience of a 100% online course last year was intellectually painful because of how the technology was used.

Then the Khan Academy, Academic Earth and other online educational sites began to be established. There has been resistance and challenge to this form of educational content and delivery; however, it seems this form of online education is here to stay.

Content curation was emerging - but we didn't call it that. It was - and is - called open educational  resources, but with the rise of content curation, it's becoming open resources that can be used for educational purposes. This trend is a signal of the disintermediation of content from delivery and it's getting stronger. Has it changed how most academics prepare their lectures? I don't think so. (Check out these content curators: E-Learning and Online Teaching, Digital Media and Learning, Social Media in Higher Education, The iPad Classroom.)

The cost of education for students has been increasing. In the past year or so, cost has been identified as a disruptor. Have we developed new costing models or still tweaking the existing models? Are we thinking about costing models that would work on a mass scale? I don't think so.

DIY Education has been mooted - only possible because of all these earlier developments. This requires a particular type of student to self-educate, but it's coming. Do we see DIY education as viable? I don't think so. But it might be in the future.

Clayton Christensen's book, The Innovative University, started a conversation about how the traditional university can change from the inside out in response to disruptive forces - rather than being forced to change when the disruption becomes so strong it can't be ignored by anyone. An important point if you want to shape change and its impact. Has this thinking started to change the way we structure universities, or design curriculum, or manage our work? Maybe, but probably not.

The signals of higher education disruption were there if you choose to look. Signals are weak though, and difficult to see. When you are busy and 'infowhelmed', looking for signals takes time that you think you don't have. So you pay attention only when the trend hits mainstream - when your only choice is to react. If you pay attention to the signals, you could be proactive - which people tell me when I work with them is one of their dearest wishes - to be able to have the time to be proactive in their strategic responses to change.

Now I'm obviously in favour of continuing environmental scanning, and looking for weak signals, and having an open mind about what is possible in the future. However, finding the signal is only the first step. You then have to think about the implications for your organisation in a very systematic way, and do further research to confirm that the signal is important. You have to spend time on it, and choose action over waiting.

And, most importantly, you have to be willing to change the way you think when you find a signal that challenges the status-quo and what you think is real or rubbish.  As Marshall McLuhan said:

"When any new form comes into the foreground of things, we naturally look at it through the old stereos. We can’t help that. This is normal, and we’re still trying to see how will our previous forms of political and educational patterns persist under television. We’re just trying to fit the old things into the new form, instead of asking what is the new form going to do to all the assumptions we had before.” (Thanks to the fabulous Maria Popova at Brain Pickings and her article on Marshall McLuhan for this quote.)

The last sentence is the key: how does this signal challenge our assumptions about the forms, structures, processes and norms we have in universities today? Questions then start to surface:

  • Will face-to-face-education last? If it does, what will it look like?
  • What are the implications for our organisational structure, our staffing capabilities, our technological infrastructure?
  • Where will our students come from, and how will they want to learn?
  • How will universities be funded?
  • How and in what ways do we need to think differently about what we do?
  • What changes do we need to make today?

The first four aren't new questions; many have been asking these for some time, and we are grappling with them. The last two doesn't get asked very often though, because thinking differently here means significant change, and we humans resist change, particularly when it undermines assumptions at the very core of how we work and that we hold dear. Strategy today rarely means quantum leaps to a new model, yet disrupting education calls for a new model, not tweaking the old. Answering the first four questions requires us to answer the last two at the same time.

Universities do risk disappearing as an organisational form if we don't change the way we respond to higher education disruption. If the reaction to managerialism in universities over the past 20 years or so is anything to go by, however, then struggling and fighting against the coming disruption will only make life more difficult for those who work in universities, and do little to position them as a viable knowledge community in the future. Or is the disruption so strong that the old models will ultimately be cast aside?

I'm reminded of a metaphor someone used in my research on the academic-administrator divide, when I asked them what would happen to the university if nothing changed:

A decaying empire – a great monolithic thing on the landscape. Structures and processes to allow it to grow, but becoming stagnant on the inside and increasingly irrelevant. Choked by vines growing up and over it.

I really dislike this metaphor for a whole lot of reasons, but it's one that could become reality if we don't start looking for weak signals and paying attention to them, and if we don't truly change the way we think about the future of higher education and universities, and how we approach disruption to traditional models of learning.

This means freeing ourselves of the assumptions that constrain our thinking while identifying the assumptions that need to underpin new models and ways of working.

Most importantly, we need to re-think the idea of the future university as collaboratively as possible, and in ways that involve many voices. We need to find the time to think about what weak signals mean for the future of the university - today. The dominance of the ivory tower is past, and it's up to us to shape its replacement(s).

Universities, Higher Education and Change

I attended a forum last year here in Australia where there was much discussion about change in universities. I've been pondering it ever since, as it left me wondering about the state of strategic thinking in the higher education sector. Then I attended the Educause conference earlier this year, and listened to people who were leading that change, and heard about their experiences of trying to adapt to the changing environment in which their institutions operated. My biggest problem with the Australian forum was that the discussion focused very much on what Richard Slaughter calls the pop futures level, and what Sohail Inayatuallah would call the litany. There were a lot of unchallenged assumptions in the room about what was 'right' and possible, and so the discussion was focused, with a couple of exceptions, on the symptoms of change being felt in universities and addressing those symptoms to make them hurt less, rather than identifying how they could respond more effectively and proactively to the drivers of that change.

There were many comments about how hard life is for staff  now. Overwhelming workload, pressures, deadlines, stress, lack of direction, busyness were all typical words used in discussions about individuals at work. Moving to discussions about the sector generated a focus on trends such as student demand, internationalisation and quality, not about possible responses to challenges to fundamental shape and form of the higher education sector. Several presentations used newspaper headlines to demonstrate their points, which was an indicator for me of how shallow the thinking appeared to be.

There was little discussion about how we might need to change the way we see the world and what is 'right' or possible. Or, that we might need to try and understand the potential impact of change in the external environment and prepare for it, rather than reacting when change happen to us (like declining international student numbers). Or making new assumptions about doing what universities do to suit the new environment that is being shaped around us.

The Educause conference had a different focus to the Australian event, and explored, among other things, using educational technology to change the way learning is delivered.  I heard more about what was possible rather than what was 'right'. Gary Hamel, one of the keynote speakers, reminded us to treat all our assumptions as hypotheses, and that the longevity of universities is no longer a guarantee of future survival. His comment that resistance to change, or explaining it away, is due in a large part, to the emotional investment of our leaders in the status quo - so getting those leaders to 'let go' to see what's possible becomes a critical challenge for the sector.

The other sessions I went to talked about how new technologies were helping students access content on mobile devices, how wordpress blogs were changing the dynamics and interactions among students and teachers, and allowing students to co-create their learning experience, how students are developing social based learning to build their own personal network of experts, and becoming free agent learners, untethered to institutions. I heard about the potential for busting some paradigms by etextbooks and mobile devices in learning and was then wowed by Neil Gershenfeld from MIT talking about FabLabs and how the merging of physical and computer science is real, here today. These people are changing the way they work to respond to changes in the external environment in ways that enhanced their work, and student learning.

Rather than resist the technology, such as keeping laptops out of classrooms or turning off mobile phones, they were embracing it, testing it, and using it to respond to challenges 'out there' - they were changing the way they worked. They were open to letting go of their emotional investment in the status quo to build something different, and emergent.  They were in the middle of rapid change too, but rather than complain about it and seeking to maintain what is, they were using it to explore what was possible. I don't think their lives are any less busy, or that they feel any less overwhelmed than people in the room in Australia, yet there was a sense of energy and possibility at Educause that I didn't feel here.

I know that people working in universities are doing it tough - I used to be one of them and I was often heard to utter "it shouldn't be this hard". The busyness syndrome is a product of short term thinking, where you focus more on the urgent than the important. And if you succumb to the busyness syndrome, you will feel like a mouse on a treadmill, and getting off it will seem impossible.

To get off the wheel, you must allow yourselves to spend time thinking long term to set the context for your short term work - this is what strategic thinking is about.

Instead of talking about and describing what is happening today, you must spend more time working to understand what is driving the changes you are dealing with today, how those drivers might evolve over time, and how you need to respond to what's coming, as well as what is with you today. Instead of waiting to react to government education policy, for example, it is possible to better understand the drivers and assumptions behind that policy, and develop a range of strategies to respond quickly when the most likely policy is introduced. The drivers underpinning government policy assumptions aren't secret, and scanning the environment to identify and interpret those drivers isn't rocket science.

But it does take a commitment to spending time on building a futures-focused strategic thinking capacity, and a willingness on the part of leaders to change the way you think about what is possible.

Imposing Assumptions on Learning

I came across this today in a story about a new book on What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education by Mary Burgen. While I'll admit up front that I haven't read the book yet, the following quote triggered my thinking: "But the hype for distance ed ignores the essential social contract involved in the teaching/learning exchange as enacted in live settings. Most cultures have viewed such an exchange as a sacred, communal duty — one that involves socialization as well as the intake of information." (

I studied my Graduate Certificate in Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University of Technology totally on-line, and then did my Graduate Diploma year in a traditional classroom. I was so disappointed with the quality of my experience in the second year that I complained often to the lecturers about the comparison with my first year experience online. I do not think I have ever had such an intense, productive learning experience as I had in that one year course. The quote above suggests that the only 'good' learning is face to face, and I have to say after my experience that this view is outmoded.

The social interaction we students had in our online course was structured and managed by our course convenor who is one of the most inspirational teachers I have ever had. She challenged me to be intellectually strong and to test myself and my ideas, and she worked hard to develop a learning community that was so strong that it endures today, two years after that part of the course finished.

The argument that we will need to maintain face to face learning into the future needs to be tested against the changing communication and learning styles of our children today. MSN and similar online communications keep our children in touch with each other just as I might have used the telephone when I was a teenager. Children today learn about group work and task achievement through their MMORPG (massive multiplayer online role playing games). They learn about tolerance of diversity and difference through these games as well as they interact with people from all over the world. Why is this sort of experience less of a learning experience than what they learn in classrooms at school during the day?

Learning is such a personal thing that blanket quotes like the one from Burgen's book are probably dangerous. It is the assumption thing again - just because one assumes that learning can only be well done in a face to face setting doesn't mean that it will always be so. A good lecturer can inspire and generate good learning in any environment. It is time that we stopped imposing our assumptions on the learning environment, and learned how to be a bit more open to different learning styles and preferences. Maybe the faculty of today need stop focusing on how they have been cut out of management decision making, and instead focus on how they can engage with learners of the future?