Bill Gates has made the news with another of his predictions – that the idea of young adults having to go to universities in order to get an education is going to go away relatively soon, according to an address he gave recently at the Techonomy conference in Lake Tahoe. Gates claims that “Five years from now on the web for free you’ll be able to find the best lectures in the world.”
He’s not the first to say this, of course. I can recall the Australian academic Dale Spender was making similar predictions (although with a longer time-frame at that stage). Back in 1997, a year after she’d published her book “Nattering on the Net“, she visited Christchurch and spoke to the staff and management at the University of Canterbury, exhorting them to consider investing in online learning instead of the major building programme they had planned. But her advice was ignored, and a year later the construction crews were busy with slabs of concrete and glass, and, like most other tertiary institutions in NZ, the university is still ‘tinkering’ with online learning on the periphery of their ‘real business’.
At the heart of what Gates, Spender and others are saying are some key drivers that simply aren’t going away:
- the cost of attending a place-based institution is rising and becoming prohibitive for many
- the advantage of learning ‘on-the-job’ is increasingly attractive – both in terms of providing an income while studying, and in terms of the direct application (and creation) of knowledge in an authentic context
- the resources associated with learning are increasingly available from anywhere, at any time and on any device – location is less important – but good teachers who can provide instructional coherence are!
- specialist knowledge and the community of learners with a common interest in specialised areas of study can now be connected virtually – they are less likely to be located in one specific place.
This is not to say that physical places of study will disappear altogether necessarily (although some will) – but we need to be thinking about the activity of those institutions as being less place-based, and more virtual. We must seriously consider the notion of the edgeless university – both in practice and in policy.
Which brings me to my key thought – why is it that so many of our institutions in NZ are finding it difficult to move into the era of virtual learning? Obvious things come to mind, including;
- a fundamental lack of belief and vision
- academic latency
- institutional tradition and pride
None of these are show stoppers, and are all within the locus of control of the institution – and can therefore be changed if there is the will. But when I speak to many academic staff and institutional leaders, I find a bigger issue, something outside of the direct control of the institution – POLICY.
In 2002 I led a research project involving four tertiary institutions working in an online world to explore how improvements could be made to the quality of teaching in these institutions. Despite the very best efforts of those involved, and some excellent insights, the impetus of the study was continually subverted by the pressures of staff performance on the PBRF – in other words, national policy (and thus funding) prioritised research endeavour over teaching.
I spoke recently to the council member of a university who is personally very committed to the potential of online learning and the sort of future that Gates and others are promoting. He was concerned that while his university are considering increased investment in online learning, the policy drivers at a national level favour investment in buildings and facilities.
My point – it’s all very well talking about these exciting futures and visions of what our education organisations may become – but unless our national policies support such endeavour we’re committed to more of the same. Meanwhile our NZ tertiary institutions will continue to lose NZ students to overseas universities that have already entered this new world of virtual and online learning, and have developed programmes with the flexibility, support and structures that appeal to 21st Century learners.