A personal reflection on “Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?”

My daughter drew my attention to an article in The Observer yesterday … Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university? It’s a really well-written summary of where we are today with online higher education. I don’t think anyone has quite worked out how the business model will end up however. I’ve always felt that accreditation by a traditional university is probably the best way – and that is why Edinburgh’s attempts are interesting.

However, I’m convinced that it’s culture that’s the most significant barrier to change and that this is the most significant barrier to adoption of change. The emphasis is still on research in the older universities; that’s where cudos is gained and that is where significant funding comes from. I can’t see them wishing to move away significantly from that mission. However, we may see new-style universities embracing MOOC and offering accreditation of such courses, and adopting strongly blended learning onsite and supporting online distance learning as well as a counterpoint for under-graduate education. Or, and this will really challenge a large part of the Higher Education marketplace, well-established prestigious institutions will setup different organisations, franchise their brand to others, or have collectives of partner organisations that work with them to award their degrees. This has all been experimented with before. Some institutions have got their fingers burnt in the process, but the incentive to do it again – at least onshore in the UK – is compelling.

This will lead inevitably to consolidation in the sector and less universities and probably more local attendance at universities, if attendance at all. There will have to be real added-value to attend a university as an undergraduate; that’s why another article in The Guardian – Our universities are at great risk. We must act now to defend them – should be read alongside the one in The Observer. My take on the second one is that it is not just academics that need to change, but more importantly the policy-makers and then the administrators. The Guardian article is also interesting because it foresees the student as a customer determining the future of those organisations. Not so much a beauty contest, but more an outcome fest – “what can you deliver for me, that will ensure my future success?” That’s not a bad thing in the fee and debt culture they’re being forced to embrace, but it does mean that university undergraduate education has already changed and will never be the same again.

Of course, all internet start-ups benefit (in the States especially) from vast amounts of venture capital. The culture appears to be more able to embrace technological change and be able to risk failure. What however is significant is that the idealism that drives the innovator eventually has to generate a return on investment; so the success of Udacity, edX, or Coursera is not assured. There’s still time for a different model to emerge that combines the best of online and onsite higher education. However, I still remain convinced that the world of higher education is changing and there will be a lot of casualties along the way for those institutions that don’t address these threats to their current business model.

[Update: On the same day I wrote this, Clay Shirky writes a very entertaining and illuminating blogpost on Napster, Udacity, and The Academy – read it!]

“Social Ways of Working in Higher Education” by Dr Kelly Page

I really enjoyed reading this post from Kelly Page (+Kelly Page – Google+ @drkellypage – twitter) . When the message is so strong and the actions that need to be undertaken so clear, the analysis and recommendations need to be clearly stated. Kelly manages this, so well. I wish I’d written it, because there’s not a word in this post that I would disagree with.

Yes, it’s hard to see how it can be achieved sometimes because there’s a load of cultural change that needs to occur in parallel, work practices need to change too, against a background of scarcity of time and resources to embrace change and often little support too for the innovator. However, universities should not believe themselves to be detached from the revolutions in communication technologies and popular engagement that are sweeping the world. It is surely better to lead than be led.

Once upon a time in the past

I go away on holiday and look what happens – you get sloughed (a new verb I do declare).

There are real worlds, virtual worlds and ideal worlds. Which one do we all want to inhabit? Or at least which one do I want to inhabit? Can I do so though? No. So …

… that is why I developed a well-honed slice of pragmatism to go with my undoubted large slab of idealism, vision, passion and excitement (forgive the hyperbole). Being pragmatic is both a protection to self and a way-ahead for all. You know the answer, it’s just you have to engineer the route by which nirvana is delivered. Yes, I am saying that serendipity CANNOT happen in the enterprise, it can only happen to the individual – that’s why we do need to find and develop those that will become the emissaries of new ways of working, and whilst doing that we must NOT lose faith, and NOT lose track of the way we believe things SHOULD be … because as a colleague once said (and it is from my favourite film, so I should know) “if you build it, they will come”. We’re not talking about a Field of Dreams though, we’re talking about change that will improve the working practices for the next generation of University staff, and the exposure to new ways of working that our students will desparately need this year, let alone next year – that’s how fast the pace of change actually is.


I’ve just completed a questionnaire for a colleague who’s doing an MSc and her final question in the survey which referes to the use of social media tools was

25. Could you suggest any other ways in which these tools could be used to engage you more effectively in the work environment?

The real issue is not so much the tools, but more the culture within an organisation; the need to change that culture so that change is embraced which in itself includes empowering the worker to look at what they’re doing themselves and question/challenge it. So engagement is hugely important but in many ways empowerment is even more important.

Engagement is a precursor to marriage; it is the period of examination and exploration of self and partnerships. If engagement is successful, a successful partnership (marriage) usually follows. There’s not that much different in the workplace. You can’t engage with someone in isolation, it is with a view to partnership working, so engagement without a vision/belief that it will lead to partnership is bound to fail.

Therefore the use of “tools” can be an aid to establishing the viability of the partnership. Essentially this boils down to seeing how communication and collaboration (shared working) can best be developed. So the tools are not the problem, it’s the desire to seek partnership through shared working that is the “missing link”; crack that one and engagement becomes meaningful.