Saturday, 26 April 2014

What will the "most dramatic changes to the higher education in decades" really change?

I was excited to turn to Peter Hartcher’s article last weekend which began with the prediction of an imminent announcement of “the most dramatic changes to the higher education sector in decades”. Exciting, I thought, and good to see debate about what I see as much needed change in higher education. 

Australia urgently needs a plan for achieving massive educational reform to ensure that we have a workforce skilled for the future, not the past. With the increasing number and range of jobs moving off-shore at a rapid rate, combined with the predicted automation of others, we cannot continue to educate students for a world that no longer exists. Clearly, Australia can no longer compete on the cost of labour, so where is our plan to compete on the quality of labour? What kinds of graduates should we be producing for Australia to be competitive on the world stage? What capabilities do we need for the modern economy? Where is the true innovation in education that is needed to support Australia's future? 

We need to a plan to harness the transformative potential of new technologies to support new approaches to innovative learning centred around the development of skills for the 21st Century. These include a new focus on creativity and innovation; fostering higher levels of critical thinking, problem solving, decision making; collaboration and communication; technological literacy; being a local and global citizen; and personal and social responsibility. We also need much greater levels of literacy and numeracy.

But reading on, the changes predicted in Hartcher’s article are all about driving competition through “freedom and autonomy” for the sector and expansion of the "demand-driven” system to include government funding for both private providers and for sub-bachelor qualifications. Presumably fee deregulation is to be part of this package. The big question is however, what will ‘competition’ do for Australia, its taxpayers, the students and their families? Will it drive the kinds of educational reforms we need to produce graduates equipped with 21st skills?

If Hartcher’s predictions are correct, our future is likely to play out in the following ways.

Private providers (especially those publicly listed) are likely to find the cheapest ways possible to offer Australian Qualification Framework (AQF) compliant courses in order to make the profits their share-holders demand. Their students are therefore likely to encounter the mass information dissemination systems already available in the form of mass lectures, and smaller group tutorials with little or no focus on 21st Century skills.  It’s not the ‘mass education’ that’s the problem, it's the lack of innovation and reform in what and therefore how students learn.

The information acquisition aspect of learning is already easily achieved though online lectures, books, websites, open education resources and from peer-reviewed journals for those enrolled in a formal education system licensed to access them. Most of these are easily accessed, right now, from the Internet (including MOOCs). As I've said before, that being the case, any university that can be replaced by a MOOC, should be. Universities should no longer be primarily about acquiring and disseminating information, but should be focused on the "what you can do with what you know’ – can you solve problems and propose creative solutions, working in teams across cultures for example?

Alas, Hartcher seems to have adopted the "MOOCs as disruptive force" discourse that is so prevalent in the media. There are well established facts about learning via MOOCs in their current form: firstly, the experience of learning in this way is so unattractive that only around 5% of those who enrol actually complete the courses, and secondly, by far the greatest proportion of those who do complete, already have a formal university qualification. Thus it is difficult to see that MOOC providers will get far by "kicking down the doors of local universities and offering high-quality courses at very low cost over the Internet." Apart for these dire statistics, the most common approach to learning (the xMOOC approach) is via videos of lectures, readings and online tutorials. In other words, using the technology to automate existing approaches to learning and teaching. Hardly the kind of educational innovation we need or the "high-quality courses" Hartcher describes.

Undoubtedly some universities will double or triple student fees. Will that extra funding result in innovation and educational reform? Highly unlikely. The extra funding will quietly be directed towards more research so those institutions can achieve a higher ranking in the international rankings system.

Other higher education institutions will not be in a position to raise fees and hence will struggle to innovate as they compete for already scarce funds, and thus also highly likely to resort to mass information dissemination teaching methods that are so attractive because they are inexpensive to run.

So what will competition do for the Australian taxpayers' $6 billion annual outlay? Very little to ensure a sound future. Students attending the universities who have increased their fees will get pretty much the same education as they do today, but at double or triple the cost. The extra fees however, will mean that their university may rise a couple of places in the ranking systems.

Finally, I can't resist a plug for UTS as it progressively rolls out its new campus: purpose-designed for the kinds of learning innovations Australia needs - using a combination of the best of online learning with high quality face-to-face on-campus learning, so that students have the best possible experience and outcomes.We need more of this at scale!

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