The shaky future of higher education

In the opening session of ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2012 keynote speaker Sir Michael Barber argued an avalanche was coming to disrupt the future of higher education. He spoke about the falling value of a bachelor degree in today’s economy and the onslaught of knowledge that technology has brought with it. His viewpoint came under careful scrutiny throughout the conference in several sessions which aimed to open a dialogue about the potential future of higher education.


By Claire Adamson


‘The Empty Campus’ picked up Barber’s argument and speaker Donald Clark of the University for Industry (UK) compared the current state of higher education to the property bubble: pointing out a situation where costs rise but content remains the same. Like Barber, he argued that the value of a university degree was dropping as youth unemployment rates rise and students feel more and more obliged to go to university.


Clark looked to technology to offer possible solutions, all the while emphasising that technology was just the tool and that real change had to come from psychological insight. He talked about the ways in which universities were already using technology to their advantage, and used the example of the Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC, as an example of effective pedagogical change.


One of Clark’s big concerns was the model of the lecture – a traditional part of the university experience but an ineffectual way of teaching. He saw video lectures as being a way forward, giving students repeated access to knowledge to reinforce memory. Recording lectures was also beneficial to students with English as a second language and for students who missed a lecture or who got lost halfway through. This process also allowed the student to cut out irrelevant material and enabled more interactive face time between the student and the lecturer.


The session ‘MOOCs Examined’ looked in further detail at the Massive Open Online Courses referred to by both Barber and Clark in their talks. The session, featuring Hannes Klöpper of Iversity, Gary Matkin of the University of California and Robert Cummings of the University of Mississippi looked at the different ways that universities and companies can use MOOCs to their advantage, and the issues surrounding business models and potential monetization of the sector.


Matkin looked at the ways in which MOOCs were disrupting the field of higher education, arguing that in just a few short years the idea that education should be free and open had gone from being a pipe dream to a potential reality.


He looked at the creation of learning communities around a MOOC and the format’s ability to reach everyone in the entire world regardless of geographical location. His grand prediction was that education would eventually become universal, ubiquitous and free.


Klöpper assessed the potential of the MOOC as a marketing and recruitment tool for companies. He argued that offering a course for free promotes goodwill for the brand, and the product or service can be mentioned and promoted throughout the course. This essentially offers the company a branding tool that is less overt than advertising and provides positive PR. MOOCs could also be seen as being an extremely useful recruitment tool, with companies able to tailor the course material to the actual skills required in the job and to find the most outstanding candidates.


Cummings rounded out the session by talking about the pressing concern of potential business models of MOOCs and the effect this might have on the academic landscape. Although no clear business model has emerged yet, MOOCs have had huge amounts of investment from the private sector. Coursera, a San Francisco based startup that launched in April 2012 has already had $16 million worth of funding. Cummings suggested that because MOOCs are changing the expectations of higher learning and the way people think about it, the introduction of venture capitalists could bring a business sensibility to the sector. He also argued that the unbundling of the university experience could very well bring about change in course certification or accreditation.


It does seem extremely likely that change is well on its way in the higher education sector. The sessions at ONLINE EDUCA BERLIN 2012 have helped to open minds and discussions about disruption and revolution in universities and institutions, and it is quite fascinating to see where this industry is headed.


2 Responses

  1. Babatunde Olofin

    I participated in the 2012 Online EDUCA Conference in Berlin. I believe higher education can be successfully obtained through online. The trend of technological development is advanced that we all need to imbibe this new way. I expect standardization in the curriculum and regular accreditation exercises of this online institutions so as to curb its abuse. There is a way forward to this. I believe we shall discussion further at the forthcoming 2013 conference and e-learning Africa.

    Thank you

  2. Alan Tait

    One way to express the problem is that we have rightly expanded post,-secondary opportunity to a mass scale, rightly for both individual and societal needs, but substantially on the same model as the elite system we inherited. This is wrong on every count: curriculum, pedagogy, student engagement and cost. Very worrying is that opportunity will once again be significantly mediated by social class.


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