MOOCs and the University of the future – shaken but not stirred?

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.” W. Edwards Deming

The perfect storm of reduction of government funding, austerity and the seduction of new and emerging technologies together with ready access to a spectrum of free, open learning platforms is creating an expectation that universities are on the cusp of a tertiary education disruption, the magnitude of which has not been seen since their inception over a thousand years ago.

A prerequisite for this disruption is contemporary, globally interconnected information technology. Without the internet and mobile technologies such as tablets and Smartphones capable of delivering easy to use systems, the seemingly inevitable march towards the democratisation of knowledge seems inevitable.  Or is it?

That may or may not be the case in the long term, however in the here-and-now, for Universities coming to grips with innovative, new and emerging technologies that are seen as disruptive, there are a range of significant challenges that Universities face in making a successful transition to a new business model.

MOOCs and the ‘perfect storm’ of anticipated change

The looming ‘perfect storm’ of change for the education sector is fuelled by the combination of forces:

  • Short term focus.  The volatile mix of economic uncertainty and austerity  facing all Australian organisations, whether public, private or government results in decision making which is biased towards meeting short term demands. The proposed Federal Government funding cuts are set to accelerate this influence sharply. For the accountants and investors looking at the dollars invested in tertiary education, the whole concept of ‘build once – deliver many times’ is very appealing when it comes to reducing the costs of delivering an ‘education’ – which plays into the hands of eLearning evangelists.
  •  MOOC evangelists are promoting this delivery model as the next ‘big thing’ in tertiary education.  It should be recognised that MOOCs are very much a Work In Progress. One key metric in all formal education is the completion rates for courses.  The completion rates (when published) of MOOCs is low, although the range varies.  Those serious about delivering a challenging, rich and multi-modal learning experience recognise that MOOCs and related systems will form an important supplement to the overall education experience.  The 100% MOOC trained Doctor is unlikely to ever become a reality.
  • The uncorking of expectations by students and staff alike, as to when, how and where technology could or should be used within the university presents real challenges to many University IT Departments. This is often a direct consequence of users having first hand exposure to user friendly, low cost (or free) consumer grade IT technologies and solutions, not to mention appealing and pervasive marketing from IT vendors as well as persistent and enthusiastic appeals from specific technology evangelists to adopt a specific technology or solution.
  • Most large, established universities have a significant tail of legacy IT infrastructure that still needs to be supported in the medium term.  Many of these large legacy systems contain mission critical transactional data on which the Universities operations absolutely depend. Replacing, reconfiguring or upgrading these integrated systems is anything but low cost, trivial or risk free.

The digital democracy

The digital democracy is indeed alive and well. The recent National Intelligence Council’s report Global Trends 2030 – Alternative Worlds has identified that the top megatrend over the next 15-25 years will be individual empowerment.  Fuelled in part, by the combination of the progressive reduction in global poverty, increasing levels of education and the continued uptake of innovative, ubiquitous information and communications technology is expected to reshape how organisations, societies and countries operate.

There are a number of facets to the digital democracy in this context.

Democratisation of technology

The democratisation of technology is the cornerstone of the digital democracy. For the first time, individuals and organisations alike are able to select from a burgeoning array of innovative, powerful, easy to use and low cost information and communications technology solutions. The cloud computing paradigm, combined with powerful mobile Smartphones and tablets has let the IT genie out of the bottle, never to be returned. Access to IT systems were previously the domain of larger organisations, mostly due to the fact that expensive hardware and IT support services were needed, combined with the fact that most earlier generation IT systems were not that user friendly.

Democratisation of knowledge

Democratisation of knowledge is not a new concept.  From cave paintings, books and now to the digital domain, the ability to access a seemingly infinite array of knowledge is akin to drinking from a fire hydrant.  The democracy of knowledge can also be a double edged sword, however.

 The dissemination of knowledge that has been subject to appropriate review, validation and rigour would be seen as more ‘trustworthy’. The peer review process and associated academic rigour is what sets the academic process apart from mythology and opinion.

Democratisation of skill

University sector is not alone when it comes to the transformative power associated with the democratisation of skill. The legal industry, one of the classic ‘professions’, is being transformed by the democratisation and globalisation of skills.  As more and more companies bypass law firms in obtaining selected legal services by directly approaching Legal Process Outsource (LPO) providers, local Law firms are now realising the influence LPO providers have in the market.

Certain categories of skilled work can be done by anyone, anywhere in the world with access to the internet. The fact that school and university students can now freely outsource their assignments for the cost of a can of soft drink to low cost countries through sites such as and is one such disturbing trend. As these assignments are hand crafted, automated plagiarism filters would be rendered ineffective

Democratisation of IT – Shadow IT, in particular

Also known as ‘voting with your feet’, the phenomenon of Shadow IT is where departments and individuals can source enterprise IT systems without involvement from their IT departments. This has the potential to foster innovation through the rapid prototyping of new systems and business processes. However, having Shadow IT play a key part of a universities’ enterprise IT strategy presents serious risks. In its 2012 CIO New Year’s Resolutions, Gartner stated: “Shadow IT can create risks of data loss, corruption or misuse, and risks of inefficient and disconnected processes and information”: a warning that should set off alarm bells in the offices of all VCs and Faculty Deans.  What Gartner is talking about is not just an IT problem but an organisation-wide, systemic problem that requires an organizational response. This is not an IT problem to be solved.

Pedagogy and emerging technologies

We are all immersed in our own multifunctional, concurrent digital worlds. Multitasking seems to be de rigueur for the contemporary student.  Plugged into Facebook, listening to music and studying at all the same time seems to be the default position.

So, what role does the technologically rich, concurrent learning experience have to do with the overall pedagogy? According to Professor Clifford Nass of Stanford University “The top 25 percent of Stanford students are using four or more media at one time whenever they’re using media”, however, he continues to say “The research is almost unanimous, which is very rare in social science, and it says that people who chronically multitask show an enormous range of deficits. They’re basically terrible at all sorts of cognitive tasks, including multitasking”.

In the world of new, emerging and disruptive technologies, when applied to the student learning environment, Educational professionals should be cognizant of the potential drawbacks of how these technologies are used.

From Learning to eLearning to mLearning then pLearning then ….?

The journey of the transformation of learning is seemingly endless. From old-school, teacher led learning, to eLearning, to mLearning (Mobile Learning) to pLearning (Pervasive Learning), the tags and brands given to learning modalities are often the realm of consulting organisations, IT vendors and marketers attempting to define a framework that helps to create the need that can define a market.  This is analogous to pharmaceutical companies who are accused of influencing the definition of diseases. The routine human condition—unhappiness, stomach aches and boredom—are increasingly being re-defined as disease, which helps define the market. Know what you are dealing with by defining your business model first, may be a good start.

Appetite for change

Question is, what is the appetite for a change from the organisation’s perspective?

The opportunities for Universities to maximise the upside potential of disruptive, new and emerging technologies undoubtedly exists. The challenge however, is ensuring that these volatile, new and emerging technologies fit within a coherent, commercially viable enterprise business strategy which IT departments and the associated ecosystem of IT providers should support. The intentional fragmentation of IT systems, technologies and related services across faculties has the potential to contribute to the duplication of effort, especially in the back-office and administrative functions within faculties.  Striking the appropriate balance is the goal..

Physician, heal thyself

Defining the institution-wide roadmap for the adoption of new disruptive technologies as complex as a large, established University is no trivial matter.  The first, and probably most important step on the road to success, lies in having key executive stakeholders having a common, and well informed understanding as to what potential the new technology landscape can deliver.

How to achieve that common understanding in the short term, when immersed in a sea of volatile opinion, however, is quite another matter.

Universities that are able to appropriately apply some of the rigour taught within their academic institutions in the development of a sustainable, agile and innovative business model that appropriately harnesses new and emerging technologies.