Thursday, January 12, 2012

Notes and Thoughts About the Future of Higher Education

This week's #change11 topic is the 21st Century University and it is being facilitated by Valerie Irvine and Jillianne Code from the Technology Integration and Evaluation (TIE) Research Lab at the University of Victoria. At yesterday's session they described the challenges their institution is facing and some of the strategies they are using to deal with them.

Photo by Joe Shlabotnik
The challenges that they talked about included diminishing funding, decreasing 18 to 22 y.o. demographic, increased competition from more degree granting institutions, and more online programs.  They also talked about changes in what students want and expect from a University, specifically mentioning a demand for more choice and flexibility in how they complete their studies.

In response to these challenges, U. of Victoria is trying to attract more students by offering more choice in terms of what type of learning students can sign up for. This effort includes enhancements to the registration system and more online learning options so that the choice includes face to face, video conferencing, online, and blended options.

Enhanced technology are a big part of both of these efforts.  One aspect of this has been designing learning spaces conducive to video conferencing and blended online approaches.  There have also been upgrades to the registration system to make it easy for the learners to choose what types of courses they want. The goal here is to empower the student by giving them control and choice when it comes to the type of courses they enroll in.

In our next session, we're going to learn more about the new video conferencing tool they are using which is called Bluejeans.  One aspect they are excited about is that it is compatible with mobile devices. The plan is to give #change11 participants a chance to try it out.

I enjoyed the session, Jillianne and Valerie are energetic presenters and have a lot of enthusiasm for their project. It was refreshing to have a very concrete project as a focal point for the week, while the broader discussion that they have started about the future of the University in general is also very interesting.

As I thought about the question they posed in their initial blog post, I starting wondering about the long term effects of distance learning technologies.  There are two very different sides to this question.  What is good for students and what is good for the institutions is not necessarily the same thing.  At the core of the University as an institution is research and teaching but the student experience, especially for 18 to 22 year olds who generate most of the revenue (is that true?) learning is only a very small of the experience. Semi-independent living (often for the first time) is probably one of the biggest undertakings for these students. Socializing probably consumes twice as much time as studying.  And consider sports, many students are funded via sports scholarships and the teams they're on are just as important to them as the classes they are taking.

On the other hand, at the end of the day (or ~4 years) the degree they leave with is based solely on their academic performance and doesn't particularly take into account their social or athletic achievements.  Yet, a large part of the ostensible value in the degree is for employability and on that front, the social aspects might be just as valuable, if not greater.

What this line of thinking led me to was the idea that perhaps many of the non academic functions of a University could or should be separated out.  If a big University hit a financial wall, could an investor (or step in and create a totally different business model (or perhaps a cooperative be formed.) Young people could sign up to join in a communal living situation with all the great aspects of campus life minus the learning, which they could access online by their choice of method.

So, that's my off the cuff idea- any thoughts?


  1. Communal living at that age being the most important learning aspect - return to conscription in the armed forces? Now that would be a way of socialising and learning about life.
    Peace Corp work, other community programmes could also be used?
    Leaving home and learning about life without s******g in your own nest but being able to fly back for home comforts seems to be, as you point out, the valuable yet ungraded part of university education.

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