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Emerging technologies to provide new platforms for traditional higher education

By Wang Youran | 2016-01-25 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

John Fischetti is a professor and head of the School of Education at the University of Newcastle in Australia. He received his doctorate in education in 1986 at the University of Massachusetts in the United States. His key research interests include school reform, preparing leaders for new roles or responsibilities, secondary teachers’ education, global educational issues, curriculum, instruction and assessment technology, and research on teaching and learning. He promotes learning equity to enable the educational success of all children.


Recent years have seen an explosive growth in the number of massive open online courses, otherwise known as MOOCs, across the globe while cellphone or tablet learning apps are proliferating at a rapid pace. At the same time, many European and North American countries are slashing higher education budgets and research funding, and students are having difficulty finding jobs after graduation. What changes can be expected in higher education in the next few decades? A CSST reporter sat down with  education specialist John Fischetti to discuss the future development of higher education.


CSST: With the rapid expansion of Internet access worldwide, especially in developing countries, recent innovations in educational technology, such as MOOCs as well as mobile phone or tablet learning apps, have had a great influence on higher education. So do you think traditional universities—their teaching models as well as brick-and-mortar campuses—will be partly replaced by online learning platforms? What could be the implications for career prospects in the academy?


Fischetti: We are now in the collaborative, global innovation age, in which the future of the planet rests on people working together to solve problems or create knowledge that influences the human condition. The advent of emerging technologies now provides platforms for content that previously was the dominion of universities in brick-and-mortar environments. While there is still room for great lectures, the reality is that the same lecture can now be posted online with dynamic virtual discussions and discourse, making obsolete the need to bring people together in lecture halls. In addition, it challenges tertiary educators to revamp what occurs when we bring people to campuses.

This involves apprenticing with experts, collaborative research and live demonstrations or modeling events in which the online venues are still not equal to the personal feedback, access to studios, clinics, laboratories and face-to-face guidance of a campus experience. Just as most of the massive steel mills of the 20th century now lay dormant, campuses around the world are no longer needed if they are simply places where students listen to lecturers.

Those universities that make it through this transitional period will be those that assemble the staff talent that can work across the face-to-face and virtual platforms with ease and whose research impacts their teaching and the regions that they serve. This is a great period of innovation for the higher education market around the world. By “attending” an online university, students can stay in their homes and receive much of what was accomplished in the past. Now, the urgency is to reinvent the experience so that campuses thrive as collaborative learning centers in the innovation age.


CSST: What will remain the same, and what may change in terms of the value and role of higher education in the coming years, which will probably continue to be marked by the challenges facing us today, such as global economic instability, political and religious conflicts, climate change and other environmental risks, rising inequality, and population aging?


Fischetti: The value of higher education and other forms of post-secondary schooling actually increases in the innovation age. To be successful, we must continue to learn and grow throughout our lives and careers. Any job that can be automated will be, so especially those fellow citizens who currently work in labor and service jobs must continue to enhance their skills. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs a BA in English, psychology or history. It does mean that they need strong skills across literacy, numeracy, innovation sciences, interpersonal communication, health, leadership, ethics and change management to adapt to a dynamic work and living environment.

Universities will need to reframe their current degree programs in light of the changing nature of what constitutes “courses,” “programs” and “degrees.” All of us can earn a “traditional” degree without leaving home, i.e. mastering content and regurgitating it for assessment tasks, so a degree in the innovation age needs to embed the best of the traditional canon in each discipline with the connectivity of the current wired and trans-disciplinary world.


CSST: Claire Taylor, vice-chancellor for academic strategy at St Mary’s University, Twickenhan, United Kingdom, argues that we will see significantly more differentiation between higher education providers by 2030, which is to say local providers versus international brands, and there will be more specialized providers, either public or private, such as the University of Law, BPP University, and Arts University Bournemouth in the UK. These changes will drive universities to offer portfolio degrees—“pick and mix” modules bolted together and delivered by multiple providers. What do you think of Taylor’s predictions? Are there equivalents of “specialized providers” and “portfolio degrees” in Australia?


Fischetti: We will see the market attempt to differentiate across the “old school” degree providers, the “online providers” and the “hybrid” ones. In addition, we will see a tendency to push back against the elite universities for providing an education that is not as relevant from their “ivory towers” in this age of badges, bolted-on degrees, MOOCs and social networking. However, that tactic is doomed to fail. Universities, particularly the major ones in the world, procure talent in their faculties. That talent can now be housed virtually anywhere in the world and be easily convinced to “move” to another provider. So, the elite universities will use their vast resources to grow their talent, much as elite football teams stockpile players. With research informing practice at these same universities, it is then more likely that the top brands of university education will actually get stronger with their programs guided by experts from across the world, while those relying primarily on a loosely coupled set of staff will provide degrees but will be less respected. I believe we will see the elite universities co-branding degrees across the globe, providing students with access to the best and brightest minds. This will enable more access to the world’s keenest experts.


CSST: There has been much discussion about over-qualification and underemployment in the post-college labor market in the past few years. The world’s economic malaise is an important cause of the difficulties graduates face finding a job that matches their skills and career interests and pays them enough to repay their student loans or other costs for college. But on the other hand, do these problems also reflect deficiencies of higher education itself? For instance, universities fail to teach students what they need most to find a decent job after graduation and succeed in their future career. In your eyes, what should be improved or reformed so that higher education can fully meet the practical needs of students and our society, while preserving its intellectual value and academic tradition?


Fischetti: This oversupply is not really reflective of the current situation or what we can expect in the future. Those with degrees have higher earning power across their lives, live longer, are generally healthier and can adapt to the changing nature of the economy more rapidly. Even in the last several years of economic downturns in much of the Western world, those with degrees have remained more employed and more able to maintain a reasonable standard of living than those who are not as well educated. However it is also clear that in higher education—and at all levels of education—we need to help everyone become multilingual, technologcally savvy, ethically inclined and healthy. The number one issue we face is access and equity: finding ways to enable and empower those who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds, are first in their families to attend post-secondary school or are from ethnic or cultural groups that have been marginalized in the past. Education is the only real solution to ending poverty, empowering women, fighting tyranny and anarchy, overcoming injustice, and providing hope for a planet riddled with problems and ready for new solutions and a great future for us all.


Wang Youran is a reporter at the Chinese Social Sciences Today.