Costly learning faces own credit crunch

16th October 2009 at 01:00
Brenda Gourley has just retired as vice-chancellor of the Open University. This is an extract from the University of the Highlands and Islands annual lecture, delivered in Stornoway last month on her final day in post

We live in extraordinary times. But, even before the financial crisis, we knew we were not doing well enough in terms of addressing the numbers needing education. We haven't enough schools, we haven't enough universities and we haven't enough teachers and academics. What can be done?

It is clear that, financially, building the vast infrastructure required by traditional bricks-and-mortar universities, colleges and schools to meet the demand is simply not a viable proposition

The blurring of public-private boundaries, the blurring of distance and residential, and the blurring of full-time and part-time study are all manifestations of an underlying metamorphosis in higher education. The question is whether this transformation is happening quickly enough and whether technology can help us.

These changes have at least promoted intense competition - between nations, economies and even universities - which is less and less respectful of national boundaries. And if you think competition is strong now, you ain't seen nothing yet!

As the demand for higher education worldwide becomes ever more critical, of course more and more private sector businesses are moving into the market. And thank goodness for that. It helps. Indeed, some countries have strategies which promote the private sector in order to meet the need, for example Malaysia and Vietnam. We now have "corporate" universities which can tailor the material to their own preferred outcomes, and private for- profit providers such as US-owned Kaplan Inc and the University of Phoenix.

According to a recent Universities UK report on private universities, over one in three students globally is now studying in the private sector. And as competition gets tougher in a tough financial climate, there is no doubt they change the game.

They are even changing the game in that most fundamental terrain of a university - research. Take InnoCentive, founded by the pharmaceutical firm Eli Lilly in 2001, the first global web community for open innovation which enables scientists, engineers, professionals and entrepreneurs to collaborate with Ramp;D-driven organisations to deliver breakthrough solutions.

Let us also note the example of Google, which is four years into the mammoth task of making digital copies of some of the world's largest university library collections. The point is, we don't have to go to the library: the library comes to us.

What are the consequences, and opportunities, these emerging technological changes will have for institutions? We have to ask ourselves some serious questions about the cost of our present model. At the moment, for the most part, we have an expensive "business" model where each university devises its own version of relatively straightforward material. One has to ask: how different can undergraduate chemistry or physics be? The high level and expensive staff resource that presently goes towards presenting different courses to different students in various parts of the world is difficult to justify in the face of the pressing need to reduce cost and reach more people.

The Open Educational Resource movement is very significant in this respect: it has the capacity for reducing the cost of education, while at the same time diversifying the provision - especially in higher education. Earlier this year, the online journal Innovate described some of the outcomes of iCampus, a recently concluded, seven-year, $25 million (16m) research collaboration between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Microsoft Research, which focused on building technologies that enabled more effective learning.

One such MIT project is iLabs, which puts real laboratory experiences - not virtual simulations but experiments running in real time - online so that students can experience them remotely. There are stunning opportunities for sharing here. This is collaborating on a grand scale. iTunes University also delivers access to course content from hundreds of colleges and universities (again including the UK OU), so users can easily search, download and play educational material as they do music, movies and TV.

The Open University has some marvellous projects. One called TESSA (the Teacher Education in Sub-Saharan Africa initiative) employs a web portal to provide an extensive range of audio and text materials covering the core areas of basic education, which are now being accessed and used by nearly 500,000 primary school teachers in 10 African countries.

The internet presents us with a fabulous opportunity to build bridges from informal learning into formal learning communities and to share our "common wealth". It brings untold research opportunities: into pedagogy, into the database rendered visible by digitisation of libraries, archives and so on, new voices, we think.

The impact of technology will radically change the academic's landscape. Much has been made of the fact that so much content is now on the web that the role of the academic in producing content is vastly reduced. That is true to a limited extent, but I think we need to be careful about the definition of content. Libraries have been filled with books for hundreds of years, but nobody has suggested that academics were no longer necessary in the dissemination of knowledge - particularly in the design and moderation of the learning experience, the navigator through the wealth of resources.

The financial circumstances we find ourselves in present tough challenges to the management of universities. The better-managed universities will survive; those which are not will falter - and, while they may not collapse, their quality will deteriorate.

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