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A university is imaginative or it is nothing – at least nothing useful

Alfred North Whitehead

Imagining the future of university is now more than a safe-game with multiple advantages. It can be a practical exercise of building on the dynamic flexibility and capacity to use imaginations for a sustainable future for our institutions. Most of us know that we live a moment of unprecedented challenges and changes for higher education, all in the context of a dramatic economic crisis and a fierce competition. “Stories about the future” may be the best way to prepare for what was called “a tsunami” of change in higher education. Universities are forced now to find new solutions for their own future and this (harder than it looks) task may be best achieved if we play thinking about the possible future.

It happened in 2012…

2012 was marked by the activation of a strategic consortium with the online instructional delivery firm Coursera and some of the most prestigious elite research universities, including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, Princeton University, Stanford University, the University of Pennsylvania, and others. This was a shake of a magnitude able to seriously move the foundations of the old paradigm. Many have seen this as an important and clear sign that reshaping education  is already happening and resistance to change and engage new technologies in teaching and learning is not a realistic choice anymore. In 2013 it was already clear that universities will not have the option to leave technology just as an alternative for learning and teaching and a large number of universities followed the MIT and Stanford examples of serving the public with ‘open access’ to their courses. What started as an experiment in joining emerging initiatives in online education gained speed in the following years with the need to provide flexible content, time and space for learning. However, the change in the role and function of universities was more profound than anticipated. If new technologies opened new possibilities for higher education and learning, years of economic crisis increased the pressure on universities to design career-focused postgraduate degrees in collaboration with industry partners. In this new context, students achieved their degrees in complex online platforms able to enhance engagement and institutions shifted focus on their role as facilitator of learning, social and professional experiences.

Focus on flexible learning and the demise of traditional lectures

In 2030′s in-person, on-campus attendance of students and what was once called “traditional lectures” was a feature for marginal institutions unable to adapt to a new cultural, economic and social reality. This happened years before and most universities’ assessment of learning and their requirements for graduation is dramatically changed by initiatives at the beginning of this century. Professors Cede Grading Power to Outsiders—Even Computers and universities actively explored the possibility to outsource marking and assessment as they have outsourced in the past their food services, print services, health services, learning management systems (LMS), IT services, staff recruitment, security, housing, the management of conferences, fundraising, student recruitment and others. Companies such as Edumetry were promising (and already offering services to some good universities since the first decade of this century) to “relieve the faculty of the burden of generating data on Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)“, and were successful by inviting universities around the world to “leave the mechanics of assessment to us”. This tagline is already obsolete in 2050 as most universities have to use complex software and specialized companies to deal with marking and strategic partnerships with workplaces for bespoke assessments for students.

The university of 2020′s could not operate anymore as a separate space where students come to be taught by those authorized by the institution to impart their special knowledge, mainly by lecturing on campus or online. What was once called “the online option” is now the common feature of most successful universities. It became more obvious that learning is an ongoing and dynamic process that cannot be realistically restrained within the walls of a classroom. New technologies and media opened “virtual curriculum” to endless possibilities and institutionalized learning opened for congruence instead of fighting for an impossible supremacy and control. Learning in higher education is now shaped around the option to have guidance in making wise epistemological and axiological choices for complex challenges and problems. Designing learning by models designed in the middle of 20th century as versions of curriculum arrangements common in previous centuries was at last forcefully rejected by students, employers and civil society.

Imaginations, Networks and Connectedness at the Core of Universities

Around 2015 universities moved from the past obsession on the illusory monopoly of credibility on qualifications, control and certification of learning to a clear commitment to use advanced technologies for innovation, production of relevant knowledge and research for civic, industry and academic partnerships. Consistent collaboration is at the middle of 21st century an intrinsic requirement, as universities have only the binary option to seek genuine connectedness, work on their engagement to create institutional, national and international partnerships with industry, community and other academics for innovative solutions or the alternative to play in the bush-league. The challenge of ageing population, the growing number of students and their diversity along with the realization that inclusive and lifelong learning solutions in flexible formats is a requirement for prestigious universities shaped new institutional processes. Academic institutions where the simple idea to collaborate with people on the same corridors was seen as an extreme step have changed under the increasing pressure to engage in diverse networks and collaboration with community, industry, and networks of national and international scholars. These active networks are now able to generate new ideas and innovative solutions for a fast changing reality for students and other stakeholders. Universities employ a consistent effort to stay as imaginative and creative entities in similar ways as the emerging creativity and innovation was promoted across an entire industry by companies like Google at the beginning of 21st Century.

2050 Research Drive: Universities as Research and Innovation Hubs

There was the problem that change involved by technology and economic crisis in 2013 was affecting universities in very different ways and it became clear that any institution thinking that the simple adoption of same (online) solutions as Harvard, Stanford or MIT is the cure or provides the competitive advantage was a naive and disastrous approach. It became clear in time that institutions have to focus their efforts to create a culture of innovation, develop their human capital and replace the unsustainable practice of casualisation with more stable forms of employment in exchange of a genuine commitment for innovative research, collaboration and production of knowledge. Not only universities, but entire countries learned the painful lesson that the stubborn refusal to move from rhetoric to practice in opening for ongoing collaborations with industry, civil society and the large variety of possible stakeholders translated in declining number of students, lost funds for research and financial collapse.

As learners increasingly used the web as their first port of call for information (and this encouraged even more independent inquiries and learning in all forms) employers moved focus from stale paper credentials to seek genuine mastery of new skills, flexibility and innovative minds. Higher education realized that learning journeys have to be different from previous levels of education and placed a strong emphasis on self-learning and discovery: universities provided choices for learning in a vast variety and forms for bespoke journeys. These learning stages are certified with the use of professional entities specialized in marking and assessment designed in line with different specific institutional demands.

Universities had to change in practice the isolation of ‘silos’ created by departmentalization, the emphasis on hierarchies and promotion of comfortable mediocrity, the use of slogans and surface reporting as these proved to be dangerously unsustainable in a context of a merciless competition. It became clear in time that all institutions leaving creativity, innovation and research in rhetoric rather than having a consistent effort to make it a genuine trademark of their living culture cannot survive the competition. Universities, countries and regions stay as successful examples where the emphasis of flexibility, the permeability of institutional boundaries and the openness to work with community and industry provided sustainable solutions for all. Some lost the meaning of this change and disappeared or still struggle in the margins for survival. The most important lesson was that universities can build on their potential as main catalyst for knowledge creation, creativity and change for society in collaboration with other sectors. Successful universities present these days the advantages of proliferation of experimentation and innovation, of building connectivity and collaboration, openness and encouragement of diversity, equity of access and in-depth thinking.

The university is at the middle of this century dramatically changed: the old walls stay now as a symbol for tradition used to work in open hubs for local, national and international collaborations. These are now the main meeting points where where scholars, industry and civil society come together to share perspectives and build on the high expertise of researchers engaged in the creation of knowledge and innovative solutions for challenges ahead.

Final note

It may be already clear that only universities capable to use the strategic advantage on their own steps will be able to see the 2050 from similar positions as today. Institutions (and countries) aware by their crucial importance on knowledge generation, innovation and overall contribution to society and economy have no time to waste if they want to be part of the scene in 2050. This is why vision – and knowledge to achieve this vision – may be one of the most valuable commodities in 2012.

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