Higher Education, MOOCs and global fluency

What is the purpose of Higher Education? I don’t pretend to have the answer – after all, it isn’t a simple question. But having read George Siemens’ recent assessment of the debate around MOOCs it strikes me that the unwillingness of Higher Education to respond to the networked environment is at the heart of its existential crisis:

Today’s students are in some way connected almost every hour that they are awake. But while they (and we) are using 21st century technologies to access knowledge the majority are being forced to learn according to 20th century delivery models.

According to Siemens (2013)…                  …but from what I’m reading…

That’s not to say there aren’t some interesting innovations. The adoption of competency-based learning frameworks at several US universities is just one example of an innovative response to the challenges of higher fees. But these are tempered by worrying stories of entrenchment, such as the recent news from Duke University that Faculty have rejected a plan to enable graduates to gain credits for online courses. Then again, if it is true that “digital literacies are still too chaotic and random a concept… to deal with at a senior level” then it is unsurprising that the paradigm shift represented by MOOCs is a conceptual leap too far for many universities at present.

But in business, if your customers get networked, social, self-organised, adaptive and global, and you don’t, you days are numbered.

Remaining relevant

If Higher Education is to remain relevant to the future needs of its students it will have to accept the fact that a new delivery model is needed, perhaps even several. Bonnie Stewart observes that MOOCs are a symptom of the change currently taking place in HE rather than the source, and makes a strong argument that universities should be seeking to adapt in response to the new ways of knowing and learning that the networked era has created. We’ve already been warned that an avalanche is coming, and MOOCs currently represent the first flurry of snow. But whether the snow settles or not, MOOCs will be followed by innovation after innovation, each potentially more disruptive than the last, until traditional models of Higher Education disappear under a glacier. Grainne Conole’s paper calling for a new classification of MOOCs is a positive step towards convincing university decision makers of their value in terms of pedagogy and social inclusion.

50 years ago the top 5% of school leavers went to university to become professors and push the boundaries of knowledge. In today’s society the top 50% of school leavers go to university to avoid being in the bottom 50% of wage-earners. But despite this, many Higher Education Institutions are clinging to an operational model that belongs in the previous century and are unwilling to accept the changes that digital technology has forced upon the music and publishing industries. And look what happened to them.

The purpose of Higher Education

It is clear that universities fulfil a complex function in today’s society. Although it can be argued that the traditional view of Higher Education as a public good unto itself is largely outdated, nobody is advocating that universities’ sole focus should be on employability. But it is important to realise that the overwhelming majority of students go to university in order to access more highly paid jobs than would otherwise be possible.

Higher Education should therefore aim to prepare Bachelors students for the changing world of work, while at the same time providing postgraduate students with an environment in which they can develop the base knowledge of their disciplinary area. Graduates should leave feeling confident that their investment has prepared them for a wide range of jobs, rather than fearing their degree was a waste of time. Business should be able to have confidence that the majority of applications they receive will come from candidates who are literate, capable and appropriately skilled.

Universities could be better at aligning some aspects of their provision more directly with the needs of the global economy. The Higher Education Academy highlights the value of skills such as creativity to employers, but at the same time states that universities need to articulate more explicitly the 21st century skills that students are learning during their course.Students considering a Bachelors degree should have a clear understanding of how the course will equip them with the skills and abilities to obtain a good job. Graduates at Bachelors level should then be able to demonstrate the skills and literacies they need in order to be globally fluent and able to succeed in the global economy, incorporating:

  • creative & critical thinking
  • collaboration
  • network and social media literacy
  • information literacy
  • knowledge management
  • connected leadership

I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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