Innovation Provides the Key for Higher Education to Reform and Change

Having been involved in higher education as a student, researcher, manager, Professor and executive, for over twenty years, and having worked with government on national policy, and then having worked and studied in three countries, one thing has really struck me. That is, the significant challenges associated with higher education institutions introducing change around technology that is wholescale, whole of institution and lasting in impact. While it does and can happen, and I have been involved in around ten successful cross-university transformation programmes, ranging from full curriculum changes to the introduction of blended learning into 172 modules. Often these kinds of programmes are unsuccessful or implemented partially or worse still are reversed in later iterations. This can lead to increasing demoralisation of staff, a lack of trust and respect for senior team management and even a hardening resistance to change. While I have had to develop my own models, tools and frameworks to ensure successful implementation, I have shared these tools with other practitioners and managers in a series of papers and books (esp. four dimensional framework, exploratory learning model, Seven Lever Framework and PROGRAMME method).

But in order to adapt these tools, I think it is helpful both to understand why change is so resisted in the academy, and what we can do about it. For this reason, I have over the years grappled with the deeper reasons of why this is. My most recent book: Education in Computer Generated Environments, which has recently come into paperback, aims to identify the main reason for ineffective change programmes and to outline a vision for future learning that will inspire tutors and learning practitioners as well as students to get on board with why change can be effective and help us to deliver more engaging experiences for all our students regardless of their background, learning preferences or mode of delivery.

I will not reproduce the book here, due to restricted word count, but I will say that the book outlines a traversal from traditional learning to new learning and on to future learning. Traditional learning we understand and know well, new learning is based upon the work and thinking of John Dewey and outlines learning as experiences. Teaching here is not didactic, the teacher does not know everything, instead the teacher is a mentor or choreographer of learning experiences, based upon a problem, inquiry, a challenge or an exploration that is guided and reflected upon using the experiential model (Kolb). Future learning, which is coming soon takes us a step further away from traditional learning, promoting a hidden curriculum, seamless experiences between work and learning and a greater focus upon personalised learning with AI scaffolded support, data analytics and a full digitization of learning with unique learning patterns.

The move in pedagogy from didactic to dialogic to personalized represents a significant change in the way that education is delivered and conceptualised, so it is not surprising that practitioners are a little wary of the changes and might resist it, however, I think that the changes must be embraced as a matter of survival. We hear every day about how the university system is not working, does not prepare students for work and is too expensive, and granted the introduction of blended and online will make cost savings, but if we really believe in university education and its power to transform lives and meet the needs of industry, we need to lead and innovate not shy away and refrain from any change at all.

In my thinking, it is clear that other industries that have been timid are now paying the price of not adapting to digitization (and virtualization as Virilio puts it). You just have to think of public libraries, music publishing companies and the postal service to see examples of where digitization has transformed the sector. In higher education we still have time to make the necessary changes, but we are running out of road, and the changes to how Generation Z students (born after 1995) think about university education and interact socially pose us with the first major challenge to the limits of traditional and even new learning modes.

In my experience, the practitioners are keen to transform learning if it means more engaged students, greater creative control for practitioners and better outcomes for students in terms of employment, they also like to feel in control of development of their own content, but we are in a tricky place right now, and there are many corporate players waiting to take up the slack and offer low cost education via online and blended modes, which is why fortune really does favour the brave, and why there will be winners and losers in the university sector, and the losing universities will be characterised by inability or a reduced capability to change.

I believe, the reason why we are resisting change comes down to one thing fear, a very real fear of losing our jobs, but the alternative to change is bigger even than personal job loss, and that is loss of our universities and the loss of many jobs as AI bots take over many of the responsibilities of humans in a future learning scenario of personalized learning. This is not a situation we can sit by and accept. Instead, we need to work together to lead on innovating our teaching practices, open up our minds to blended and online, and lead the way for future learning via promotion of new learning. Learning design and pedagogy lie at the heart of these changes and if we work together, use data and evidence and engage our students, we can reconfigure our system of education to be more effective for students and employers, provide greater engagement of students, and bring work and learning together to propel the next revolution in education. Let us not follow the public libraries example, instead let’s bravely walk towards our future where student and employer engagement drive learning experiences and adventures, enthuse our students and ensure that their success, health and wellbeing is at the heart of what we do.

Written by Sara de Freitas, Author, Executive Consultant and Former Deputy Vice Chancellor who focuses upon effective transformation in universities, has an extensive network of international contacts and researches into student engagement and the adaption of educational technology.

She is a member of OEB’s Advisory Committee. Her latest book: Education in Computer Generated Environments is published in the Routledge Research in Education series and available for purchase here.

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