Let me begin with the histories of two different industries, the newspaper industry and higher education as embodied in the modern research university.
Both took their modern forms in the early 1800s. This was when the research university as we now know it originated in Germany and the newspaper industry took on something like its present form with the arrival of steam-driven presses.
If you were to take a newsroom journalist from the early 1800s and transplant him (for it was certainly a him) to a newsroom in, say, the mid 1990s, he would recognise the business model. Take a student from Berlin, circa 1815, on the ultimate student exchange to a university of today, and he too would recognise most of the educational structures: the lectures, seminars, research journals and degrees.
For nigh on two centuries these two institutions seemed impregnable. Until, within an astonishingly short period, one of them wasn’t. In December 1999, a share in the media conglomerate Time Warner would have cost you US$254; in 2009 you could buy that same share for US$25.
What had happened was the Internet. Suddenly newspaper subscribers were going online for their news; advertisers were using the Trademes and Seeks; and a host of screen-based diversions – Twitter, Facebook, blogs and news sites – were competing for people’s attention.
Could the same thing happen to higher education?
In recent times there has been a series of open access education initiatives. The Khan Academy, introduced in 2006, hosts more than 3300 instructional videos. On iTunes U, introduced in 2007, Oxford University’s Great Writers Inspire and Stanford’s Quantum Mechanics are on the What’s Hot course list. And then there is the latest development, the MOOC: the Massive Online Open Course.
Of these, Coursera and edX – both less than a year old – are perhaps the best known. Coursera, a commercial venture (though one yet to settle on how to make money) boasts 16 universities signed up (among them Princeton and Stanford), 124 listed courses, and a roll call of around 1.3 million students. edX, a not-for-profit alliance between MIT, Harvard and Berkley wants to educate a billion people worldwide.
These MOOCs are in many ways more like their offline equivalents than their predecessors. They have set enrolment dates, schedules of tests and assignments, and, using the magic of social networks, study groups. But whether MOOCs are the coming force that will remake education as we know it is something else again.
If you follow the pundits, you will know that something radically disruptive is always just about to happen to education. Back in my student days, the sage of the moment was Alvin Toffler, who in his 1970 book Future Shock wrote, “Long before the year 2000, the entire antiquated structure of degrees, majors and credits will be a shambles. No two students will move along the same educational path.” In fact, as it turns out, the “antiquated” system is doing quite nicely, and there may be life left in it yet.
For another thing, if universities themselves were worried about being displaced, they would hardly be such willing participants. At work here is a blend of philanthropy, turning education into a global public good; of self interest, for there may be ways of making money from this and for now it achieves brand recognition; and of curiosity, everyone wants to know what will come of this extraordinary experiment.
At Massey, the person charged with taking Massey into the digital future is Professor Mark Brown, who is among other things the director of the Distance Education and Learning Futures Alliance (DELFA). For Massey, distance education is a traditional core business: around 250,000 New Zealanders have graduated from Massey’s distance education programme over its 50-plus years of existence, and around 17,000 students are currently enrolled via this mode.
Here, bits and bytes are well on the way to replacing the mailed book or assignment. In Massey’s second semester, when distance learning students were offered the option of having essential course materials delivered to them digitally or in print at no additional cost, fewer than 15 percent chose the printed option.
But according to Professor Brown, it would be a mistake to think that digital teaching and learning is solely about distance education. Massey has around 4000 online learning environments to support its courses, and digital learning has just as much to offer the on-campus student. Campus-based students increasingly expect the same flexibility and convenience that digital learning provides.
In a very non-Tofflerish way, Brown has some predictions of his own. He foresees a gradual shift in how education is conducted as the new technologies disrupt traditional, passive, transmission-based models of learning with ones that are more interactive and engaged. He predicts that the rise of the MOOCs will see university study come to be regarded less as a once-in-a-lifetime early-twenties rite of passage and more as a personalised and life-long experience, there to be turned to whenever the individual needs to renew old skills or gain new ones. (By headcount, half of Massey’s students study by distance and are already in part-time or full-time employment. They want courses tailored to their needs.) The fit with Massey’s enduring commitment to lifelong learning and the widest possible access to education is perfect. Opportunities beckon.
So what are we doing? This year Massey is significantly upgrading it’s digital learning and teaching environment known as Stream. In November in Wellington we host a major international conference on digital teaching and learning. Next year, Massey commences a large project that will greatly enhance its capacity to support rich media learning and it will take the first steps in an open courseware initiative. In other words, much is planned.
Watch this space.