Are we seeing the devolution of university education?

cracked institutionYesterday the Australian Minister for Education, Simon Birmingham, announced cuts to higher education funding and increases in student fees. In addition, the income threshold for repayment of student debt will be reduced. Funding for teaching will be reduced in 2019 by $380 million relative to the current funding formula.

Universities are huge institutions requiring significant funding to maintain their operations. Yet they face hefty competition from global and increasingly accessible, technologies. Instead of a future of under-funded universities, I see their devolution altogether – at least in terms of education, if not of research.

The change will not be quick. A higher degree (bachelors or above) is now the entry point for the regulated professions. These professions, including law, use course accreditation as a means of guaranteeing standards of graduate entry. For unregulated professions (such as marketing, or banking) the market determines the entry requirement, and that is generally a bachelors degree.

But things are changing, and universities’ role can no longer be taken for granted.

Universities…that special ‘something’

Traditionally, those attending university ‘knew’ its value. A degree spoke for itself for an elite group of students, graduates, and employers. The massification of higher education opened up higher education to a far more diverse demographic. The university could no longer take for granted that its stakeholders understood its value. Consequently, universities started to articulate graduate capabilities – what it means to be university educated.

Now universities must ‘assure student learning’: they must be able to prove to the regulatory bodies that their graduates depart with the knowledge, skills, and attitudes inherent in the relevant qualification. Higher education in Australia has been systematised and vocationalised.

Over the years as standards and deliberate educational design have filtered through higher education courses, a few other important changes have taken place. First, many students now work, have families, and do things other than study.

In the 2011 census, 62.4% of tertiary students were in work, with nearly twice as many working part-time as working full-time.

Yet we still design courses with reference to the benchmark of a full time, embodied student. Universities involve complex timetabling systems including semesters, deadlines for assessments and results, sometimes we have scheduled attendance requirements, and time limits on learning.

Secondly, digital technologies have exploded. As a consequence, we are drowning in information and universities no longer have a monopoly on knowledge. Increasingly, professions no longer have a monopoly on its application. (Think robot lawyers, etc.)

Universities will proclaim that they have embraced the digital revolution, and are adapting education accordingly. They offer blended learning, flexible learning, lecture streaming, learning management systems, online databases, e-learning, m-learning, MOOCs, SPOCs, personalised learning… But is that enough to sustain the institutional monopoly on education in the face of information saturation?

Learning analytics

When Twitter released Periscope my first thought was that I did not need to work in a university to educate people. I could live stream lectures, upload materials to YouTube, on WordPress, on iBooks. Even if I did teach in a university, technology could free me and my students from the university’s learning management system (‘LMS’) – the institution’s online platform on which we build our subjects. But my assumptions did not account for the new power of the LMS in the face of big data. Now, the LMS is less about ‘content delivery’, and more (all) about learning analytics.

From the beginning the LMS has allowed lecturers to track student use of their subject sites. We could find out when and how many students accessed particular parts of the site, or clicked on links. We would learn, for example, that 75% of students clicked on the lecture slides at 3am the day of the lecture. And so on.

The next generation functions allowed us to set up ‘rules’. For example, if a student had not accessed the subject site for two days, the lecturer would receive a notification that the student was ‘at risk’, perhaps prompting an email to inquire after their wellbeing.

The potential of the current generation of learning analytics is that we can apparently measure student learning itself, through predictive analytics. The system can tell the instructor, and the student, the optimum time a student must spend on the LMS to pass the subject – in other words, to ‘learn’. The learning environment is ‘personalised’, meaning that students can be given automated prompts to ‘engage’ in the learning materials at the optimum times: eg in the lead up to assessment.

These capabilities arise from big data. It is not only the students in one class who provide their data to their instructor. The LMS providers are themselves capturing the data of students all over the world.

Learning analytics will identify students at risk of failing, or dropping out. Because universities are beholden to student retention targets, there is a powerful incentive for universities to invest in the LMS. Although the system is ostensibly in the guise of student learning when universities sign up, they give global LMS corporations access to ever more student data. This improves the LMS product sold to universities and which universities then market to students.

As for student learning? I wonder. Students may well be helped to stay at university. And, there is an important need to support students from diverse backgrounds. But I can’t help but think that the more we track students and tell them what to do and when to do it, the less students are learning independent and autonomous behaviours. These attributes are, perhaps, the ‘something’ that has tended to be assumed within higher education. My question is: what is ‘higher’ about learning that is so programmatic. Perhaps this is the inevitable outcome of the systematisation of the education experience. Perhaps also it is a function of our digital world.

In any event, the more predictive analytics is embedded within education, the greater will be the difference in the nature and quality of that education. Not inherently good or bad, but certainly different.

University futures?

The contemporary university is huge, and requires a lot of money to subsist. Its size makes rapid change difficult. The professional bodies that accredit courses are also bound by the constraints of their own traditions. Yet the reputation of the university and its cultural cachet, together with its traditional relationship with the professions and government, are powerful conditions for maintaining current educational structures. 

On the other hand:

  • Universities are no longer the repositories of society’s knowledge and expertise. The majority of teaching in universities is done by sessional academics (56% in of academics were employed sessionally in 2013). The expertise formerly within the institution are now freelance.
  • The internet has brought information and expertise to the public, for free. Those interested in learning can get information online, without it being mediated by any institution at all.
  • Universities used to assure learning – but they have now effectively given this up too: to the LMS, through predictive learning. A corporation can now assure student learning based on analysis of big data (presumably) gifted to the corporation by the university.

While professional accreditation of university degrees will likely endure to some extent at least, the market is possibly the only other thing standing in the way of devolution of university degrees. Meanwhile, professions are transforming, largely due to technology. Universities will struggle to keep up with the rapid change. Employers will increasingly employ diversely skilled employees whose qualifications and experience are gained outside formal education as we know it.

In turn, students will not want to go to university. Young people are time (and financially) poor. They need to earn money to live. They cannot afford to spend years timetabled into the university’s schedule. They need to learn quickly enough to meet current market demand, but universities teach knowledge that is outdated (due to lag time implementing courses) – and available elsewhere. Universities are unlikely to be able to keep pace with the skills that meet employers’ needs now.

Instead, young people will see opportunities for work. They will search online for relevant knowledge, skills, and if need be, qualifications. LMS corporations will be in a good position to offer assurance of learning direct to ‘students’, if evidence of formal learning is required. The LMS corporation will employ former academics and professionals to write the testing for accreditation.

The loss of funding is not the end of universities, but the steady erosion of the institution over many years, coupled with the rapid rise of technology, has left the university degree in a weak position. Despite the MOOC largely appearing to be a fad in Australian higher education, it is increasingly likely that we will see technology-mediated alternatives to institutionally accredited qualifications (uni degrees). 

This will not sound the death knell for all universities, but I doubt that all of them will survive unless they change significantly. Instead, one possible future is devolved higher education. Learning will be everywhere – and accreditation will be available as required, probably commercially, for each component of learning.

This possible future is not necessarily bad – or good. But the current funding challenge highlights the existing tensions within higher education. It calls into question universities’ capacity to keep pace with broader social and economic change.

One thought on “Are we seeing the devolution of university education?

  1. Pingback: Universities & the future of legal education - Leĝa Associates

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