/ 6 October 2017

Universities must adapt to the future

Update: The learning model used by universities has to incorporate the world’s ever-changing technological landscape.
Update: The learning model used by universities has to incorporate the world’s ever-changing technological landscape.

Technology will fundamentally affect the next era of higher education, and most institutions are aware that they must incorporate technology into their offering. But it is not a matter of simply bolting an online learning platform on to an existing teaching and learning approach — it’s far more difficult than that.

The changes heralded by the digital era question the role of a traditional education institution, particularly in relation to what is expected from them in an age when change is accelerating and information is widely and freely available.

Change is already here

There is no doubt that the education system is ripe for disruption. Historically, institutions have positioned themselves as knowledge leaders and the primary place to receive the know-how to prepare people for the workplace. Students would eagerly attend to obtain this exclusive access to knowledge to enhance their career prospects.

But now, in the age of free online courses from the world’s top universities and part-time study sites such as edX and Coursera, that information is becoming widely available. Universities are facing a future in which students will be able to study online with reputable and internationally recognised institutions for a relatively cheap fee, potentially even for free. In the online space, education is becoming more commoditised and there will probably be only a few global winners dominated by well-known education brands that partner with technology companies.

If this does not leave local leadership at traditional education establishments concerned, also consider that the value of work is undergoing major transformation because of the introduction of automation and artificial intelligence technologies. This means the old model of knowledge-heavy competencies being taught to students will not be the real skills needed to survive and add value in an ever-evolving world of work. The need to have knowledge-focused curriculums is giving way to the need to have curriculums aimed at developing “indirect competencies”. This includes critical and creative thinking, problem-solving, collaboration skills and an ability to be comfortable with ongoing change.

Without noting this change, institutions will not be able to rely on providing the golden ticket to a job as was perhaps possible in the past.

A relevant approach

What role should local education establishments play in the future? The better question is: What unique value do we see them providing in this new era of education?

Recognition needs to be given to the fact that developing the “indirect competencies” needed for creating valuable work in the future comes from prioritising learning opportunities that are authentic, dynamic, contextual and collaborative. These are characteristics that are difficult to do well in a purely online-scaled education approach.

We see local institutions moving towards a model of providing a journey of experience, rather than exclusively imparting knowledge. In this model, the institution acts as a guide, playing a facilitator role, becoming an expert in journey curation as opposed to just being a knowledge leader. The curriculum would be designed to develop students through a multifaceted experience in which knowledge is an enabler of the process, rather than the outcome itself.

This model is characterised by a much greater emphasis on integration between stakeholders and managed relationships between employers and the institution. Significant practical aspects would be embedded in the curriculum or, ideally, work-integrated learning opportunities would give students some form of apprenticeship. Recognition would be given to the uniqueness of each student and the journey made adaptable and flexible enough to accommodate their individual needs, including emotional, cultural and financial requirements.

Workplace integration is key

We need to stop seeing the university as its own little bubble. The institution must be intertwined with the workplace, working alongside companies to solve real problems.

The idea of the journey then extends into the period after the student has graduated, so that the relationship between student and institution continues well into their working career. In this way, lifelong learning opportunities are created, so that learning becomes a reflection of the actual world as opposed to a hypothetical one, and the ongoing relevance of the institution is maintained.

Developing a holistic student armed with “indirect competencies” is essential if South African institutions want to thrive and maintain their relevance against strong global academic institutions in an online world.

Professor Patrick Bean is chief operating officer of the Embury Institute for Higher Education and Andrew Horsfall is chief innovation officer of Stadio Holdings. The Embury Institute is a subsidiary of Stadio Holdings, the higher education business of Curro Holdings