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!]

Just a dash of coffee

I’ve been busy just recently, so apologies for the late notice of a confirmed date for our next #tgsmc meet-up …

Wednesday 31st October from 10:00am at Costa Coffee, Park Place

… what will we talk about? That’s up to you, but I’ll be interested in hearing people’s views on new Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Google products and how they may be used in research, and learning and teaching. Then there’s digidol – the JISC digital literacy project the University is running and of course it’s Social Media Strategy – where does that stand at the moment?

I’d also be interested in views on where twitter is heading; has it now become just a marketing and PR tool and lost its value. Or, is it re-inventing itself with new uses and users. Then again, should we be defining an essential toolset for academic use, or do  VLE / VRE still have a place.

Then we all follow certain colleagues who we feel we can learn something from – it might be worthwhile exchanging that information. For me, I’ve been struck recently by Martin Hamilton’s blogpost Suddenly, Everything has changed – it brings many themes together in one place rather well and is worth a read; and then again Steve Wheeler’s excellent summary of where we are with Theories for the digital age: the Digital Natives discourse is also certainly worth a read. Have you got a similar hot blogpost?

Finally, to avoid getting caught out as I did recently when I didn’t know the difference bewteen Green and Gold Open Access and found my knowledge of OA rather lacking – take a peak at the PhD TV video on Open Access; what was happening in Cardiff last week for Open Access Week?

So … old-hands, or newbies, we’ll look forward to seeing you and of course there’s always the coffee …