The Times Higher Education issue which straddled the Christmas and New Year period carried an article in which 7 distinguished academics told the readership how they imagined higher education would look in 2030, fifteen years from now.
In this blog post I want to engage with the predictions made and offer my own prediction based on my understanding of how flexible learning is likely to contribute to the HE landscape of the future.
The seven articles were diverse, but in many ways introduced little new thinking. Between them they covered questions about the purpose and definition of universities; the nature of the emerging HE landscape both in the UK and globally; the role of technologies; and the importance, nature and measurability of student learning. Specifically, they predicted that individual universities will find new ways to survive (specialising, collaborating and forming federations, gaining a reputation for excellent learning outcomes); that the acquisition of knowledge will give place to the development of skills, especially skills in learning, and of attributes that will become increasingly valued in the 21st century ('wisdom' was probably the most predominant term across the seven vignettes); that the teaching role will give way to intelligent machines; and that the traditional campus and associated semester structure will disappear in favour of year-round learning. Some were backed up by evidence, others were more experiential and based on observation. With the exception of mobile technologies, none considered the wider context within which HE now operates and which I suggest is likely to have the greatest impact on higher education in the future.
Let me elaborate.
There are a number of ways in which the whole world, and the developed world in particular, is changing. We are moving to a 24/7 global culture which means that the traditional daily structure of 8-hour work, 8-hour sleep and 2x4-hour periods of leisure is breaking down. Technology facilities this and we are now able to have meetings with people on the other side of the world, albeit at an unsociable time. Put this alongside the rapid developments of mobile technologies, meaning that people can work, study and play wherever they are, and we move towards a global culture where flexibility is the order of the day. One big characteristic of this is that physical locations cease to have the key role they used to. No longer do employees have to go to an office to do their work. No longer are gamers tied to the television in their living rooms. No longer are students obliged to go to a lecture theatre on campus. The physical place is 're-placed' by the virtual, and people already experience and think of the digital in place-like terms. We go 'into' our institutional VLE, experience social media platforms as places where we meet friends, and store much of our individual identity 'in' digital 'places'.
It seems to me that it is the ubiquity of these developments, across a diversity of sectors, that means that higher education will need to change in order to ensure an effective interaction with its surrounding culture. One might argue that HE has never been terribly good at doing that. The ivory tower continues to reign supreme, requiring others to adjust to it, not it to them. But times are a-changing. HE now has to forge a much closer path towards the employment of graduates than previously. And employers too, especially those which are office-based and employing largely white collar workers, are now not only permitting but actively encouraging flexible working hours and home-based working. Creating a 'mother ship' with a skeleton staff is much cheaper than providing desks and facilities for a large workforce. If HE wants to intersect seamlessly with employers it will need to adjust. Universities may choose to consider adjustments themselves. As employers, they too may choose to introduce far greater levels of flexibility for their administrative and support staff, if not for their academic staff.
My prediction is that, as Trachtenberg in the THE article suggests, the concept of individual campuses will disappear, or perhaps more accurately, be significantly changed. There will be no need for large lecture theatres. At least 50% of those attending a lecture will join remotely. Most libraries are already investing exclusively in e-books, lessening the need for a physical space. Academics will work from home, interact with each other and with their students electronically for routine matters and come together on campus for small group discussions. Since this is less realistic for sciences and lab work, campuses will have a more focused scientific character. In the emerging flexible world, knowledge will be task-specific and therefore learning and study are likely to be much more targeted. CPD will have a much greater role as an income-generating activity for institutions than is currently the case. As Taylor suggests in the THE article, there will be opportunities to enrol on a portfolio degree where learners pick and mix modules which they bolt together according to their interests and employment aspirations.
Such a world requires individuals who can cope with the challenges of rapid change, instability, constant movement and the need to learn and construct new knowledge on a daily basis. Taylor speaks of attributes such as wisdom, tolerance, emotional intelligence, ethical understanding and cultural literacy being those valued and cultivated by HE providers in their students. To these I would add resilience, a willingness to let go and move on, and yes, very possibly, a thorough understanding of how to keep physically and mentally healthy: Schwartz's Health 101 as not just an institution's most popular course, but its only obligatory course across the board.
Such a future is, of course, fraught with challenges and questions, none of which I can engage with here. They need to be recognised, however. Flexible provision is not generally a cheap option given its strong emphasis on individualisation. It also requires a huge change in an institution's infrastructure which, after decades, if not centuries, of catering for and managing homogeneity, will not be done overnight. Quality assurance and standards are old, but very legitimate concerns, even if they may need to be reconceptualised and reconfigured. New pedagogies will be required which will certainly embrace the digital and demand skills of academics that even now only a small proportion of teaching staff feel confident about.
As a result, I can't see this coming about within 15 years. But who knows. 15 years ago the internet was in its infancy. 30 years ago we were celebrating the advent of CDs which replaced cassette tapes. 45 years ago my father's PA typed up my hand-written dissertation and I used a transfer sheet to correct all her typos.
This blog post is based on reading and research about the future of higher education and flexible learning. The key resources drawn on are listed here.
Dr Alison Le Cornu is a freelance Consultant in Academic Practice working in higher education. She specialises in flexible learning which she understands as empowering learners by giving them the ability to choose how, what, where and when they study. This is very dependent on institutional systems and structures having the capacity to facilitate this. She works with institutions at all levels to help them bring about the institutional/student partnership that this requires.