Disrupting Higher Education – I – changing universities

DHE@TCDTrinity College Dublin today hosted a symposium in the Science Gallery on Online Higher Education – Disrupting Higher Education – to stimulate discussion about technology-enhanced learning, the opportunities and challenges associated with offering free online courses, and meeting the educational needs of online learners (hashtags #OpenHE #DHE #disruptinghighered on twitter; storified here). Here are some of my thoughts on the day. The presentations will be podcast, and the slides will be available, so you can go right to the source in due course, but this summary can serve in the meantime.

Prof Veronica Campbell (Dean of Graduates Studies, TCD) welcomed us to the symposium. She was too modest to say so, but the symposium was her brainchild. She said that the symposium will allow us to learn from those at the vanguard of online higher education, not least massive open online courses (MOOCs). They raise fundamental questions about optimum business models, especially where universities aim to stimulate critical thinking rather than merely transfer information. She left us with the thoughts of David Puttnam, recentlyminted Digital Champion for Ireland, who warns that the digital world has destroyed distance. So, the question for the day is, if distance is not longer an issue in higher education, where does it go from here?

Tom Boland (Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority), in his Opening Remarks, began to sketch an answer to that question. He argued that higher education should be an agent and driver of change; change is inevitable, and higher education should either influence it or become a victim of it. In particular, as he put during his presentation, higher education institutions must be engines for innovation, not least because knowledge is the new currency of innovation. And he pointed to a path by which these aspirations will become reality: the Irish higher education sector is currently undergoing comprehensive reform on foot of the National Strategy on Higher Education; and this will include major structural change, as a means to the end of adaptive and responsive higher education institutions. He expects that by the end of March, the Board of the HEA will advise the Minister for Education and Skills on the future structure of Irish higher education. Ireland is not an island in international higher education, so the concern of the the report will be how to position Ireland and Irish higher education in an increasingly globalised world.

He argued that a wholehearted (he said “fulsome”, but I think that word was inappropriate in that context) embrace of online education will meet many of the current challenges. For example, for non-traditional students, who need flexibility of programme provision, technology will be their saviour. More generally, when issues of accreditation are ironed out, MOOCs disruptive potential will be huge. But even then, leading colleges won’t disappear, they will just do things in new ways. Recalling Veronic’s quotation from Puttnam, he left us with the thought, central to today’s deliberations, that when distance shrinks, competition is intensified. So, how does the traditional university meet the competition from online education?

Dr Patrick Prendergast (Provost, TCD) spoke on “Changing Universities”; the double meaning of “changing” was intended, both as a descriptive adjective and as an active verb; and he focussed on the challenges of online learning to a traditional university setting such as Trinity. A classic university education has three main components: (i) it is research-led; (ii) it values learning outside the classroom (especially student involvement in college and society); and (iii) it educates for life (not just for a job, but for a career, and for an active and participatory citizenship). As such, it serves not just the private good of the student but also the public good of society. Online education could disrupt this approach, but not necessarily in negative ways.

So, on the three components of a classic university education: (i) by delivering one online lecture, and thus obviating the need to repeat large-scale lectures, this can free up professors’ time to increase face-time with students and thus improve research-led teaching. (ii) Flexible use of online education could free up students’ time to engage with non-classroom education. (iii) Online education could allow increased wider student access. Indeed, wide student access is part of the Trinity tradition. Historically, sizarships allowed poorer students to study at Trinity (Oliver Goldsmith was a sizar, though an unenthusiastic student of theology and law, and he is commemorated in a statue in front of College). And we celebrate this year the twentieth year of the Trinity Access Programme.

But there are limitations and drawbacks. Remote learning is not really a classic university education. Rather, we must use online technologies to enhance what we do, to allows to deliver in better ways on our core principles. Echoing Tom, he emphasised that change is always inevitable, and we we must handle and embrace it. As Edmund Burke (as a Trinity student, he founded what is now the oldest student society in the world, and – like Goldsmith – he too is commemorated in a statue in front of College) noted, a state without the means of change is without the means of preservation. Reflecting this, he emphasised that a Trinity education has inbuilt flexibility, and he concluded by saying that he looks forward to meeting challenge of online education whilst retaining and reinventing the best of what we do.