EduTech Australia 2015, Day 1, Session 1, Higher Education Leaders @jselingo #edutechau

Emeritus Professor Steven Schwartz, AM, opened the Higher Ed leaders session, following a very punchy video on how digital is doing “zoom” and “rock and roll” things. (I’m a bit jaded about “tech wow” videos but this one was pretty good. It reinforced the fact that over 60% of all web browsing is carried out on mobile devices, which should be a nudge to all of us designing for the web.)

There will be roughly 5,000 participants in the totally monstrous Brisbane Convention Centre. There are many people here that I know but I’m beginning to doubt whether I’m going to see many of them unless they’re speaking – there’s a mass of educational humanity here, people!

The opening talk was “The Universities of tomorrow, the future of anytime and anywhere learning”, presented by Jeffrey Selingo. Jeff writes books, “College Unbound” among others, and is regular contributor to the Washington Post and the Chronicle. (I live for the day I can put “Education Visionary” on my slides with even a shred of this credibility. As a note, remarks in parentheses are probably my editorial comments.)

(I’ve linked to Jeff on Twitter. Please correct me on anything, Jeff!)

Jeff sought out to explore the future of higher learning, taking time out from editing the Chronicle. He wanted to tell the story of higher ed for the coming decade, for those parents and students heading towards it now, rather than being in it now. Jeff approached it as a report, rather than an academic paper, and is very open about the fact that he’s not conducting research. “In journalism, if you have three anecdotes, you have a trend.”

(I’m tempted to claim phenomenography but I know you’ll howl me down. And rightly so!)

Higher Ed is something that, now, you encounter once in our lives and then move on. But the growth in knowledge and ongoing explosion of new information doesn’t match that model. Our Higher Ed model is based on an older tradition and and older informational model.

(This is great news for me, I’m a strong advocate of an integrated and lifelong Higher Ed experience)

(Slides for this talk available at

Be warned, you have to sign up for a newsletter to get the slides.)

Jeff then talked about his start, in one of the initial US college rankings, before we all ranked each other into the ground. The ‘prestige race’ as he refers to it. Every university around the world wanted to move up the ladder. (Except for the ones on the top, kicking at the rungs below, no doubt.)

“Prestige is to higher education as profit is to corporations.”

According to Caroline Hoxby, Higher Ed student flow has increased as students move around the world. Students who can move to different Universities, now tend to do so and they can exercise choices around the world. This leads to predictions like “the bottom 25% of Unis will go out of business or merge” (Clay Christensen) – Jeff disagrees with this although he thinks change is inevitable.

We have a model of new, technologically innovative and agile companies destroy the old leaders. Netflix ate Blockbuster. Amazon ate Borders. Apple ate… well, everybody… but let’s say Tower Records, shall we? Jeff noted that journalism’s upheaval has been phenomenal, despite the view of journalism as a ‘public trust’. People didn’t want to believe what was going to happen to their industry.

Jeff believes that students are going to drive the change. He believes that students are often labelled as “Traditional” (ex-school, 18-22, direct entry) and “non-Traditional” (adult learners, didn’t enter directly.) But what this doesn’t capture is the mindset or motivation of students to go to college. (MOOC motivation issues, anyone?)

What do students want to get out of their degree?

(Don’t ask difficult questions like that, Jeff! It is, of course, a great question and one we try to ask but I’m not sure we always listen.)

Why are you going? What do you want? What do you want your degree to look like? Jeff asked and got six ‘buckets’ of students in two groups, split across the trad/non-trad age groups.

Group 1 are the younger group and they break down into.

  • Young Academics (24%) – the trad high-performing students who have mastered the earlier education systems and usually have a privileged background
  • Coming of Age (11%) – Don’t quite know what they want from Uni but they were going to college because it was the place to go to become an adult. This is getting them ready to go to the next step, the work force.
  • Career Starters (18%) – Students who see the Uni as a means to the end, credentialing for the job that they want. Get through Uni as quickly as possible.

Group 2 are older:

  • Career Accelerators (21%) – Older students who are looking to get new credentials to advance themselves in their current field.
  • Industry Switchers – Credential changers to move to a new industry.
  • Adult Wanderers – needed a degree because that was what the market told them but they weren’t sure why

(Apologies for losing some of the stats, the room’s quite full and some people had to walk past me.)

But that’s what students are doing – what skills are required out there from the employers?

  • Written and Oral communication
  • Managing multiple priorities
  • Collaboration
  • Problem solving

People used to go to college for a broad knowledge base and then have that honed by an employer or graduate school to focus them into a discipline. Now, both of these are expected at the Undergrad level, which is fascinating given that we don’t have extra years to add to the degree. But we’re not preparing students better to enter college, nor do we have the space for experiential learning.

Expectations are greater than ever but are we delivering?

When do we need higher education? Well, it used to be “education” then “employment” then “retirement”. The new model, today, (from Georgetown, Tony Carnevale), we have “education”, then “learning and earning”, then “full-time work and on-the-job training”, “transition to retirement” and, finally, “full retirement”. Students are finally focusing on their career at around 30, after leaving the previous learning phases. This is, Jeff believes, where we are not playing an important role for students in their 20s, which is not helping them in their failure to launch.

Jeff was wondering how different life would be for the future, especially given how much longer we are going to be living. How does that Uni experience of “once in our lives, in one physical place” fit in, if people may switch jobs much more frequently over a longer life? The average person apparently switches jobs every four years – no wonder most of the software systems I use are so bad!

Je”s “College Unbound” future is student-driven, student-centred, and not a box that is entered at 18 and existed 4 years later, it’s a platform for life-long learning.

“The illiterate will be those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn” – Alvin Toffler

Jeff doesn’t think that there will be one simple path to the future. Our single playing field competition of institutions has made us highly similar in the higher ed sector. How can we personalise pathways to the different groups of students that we saw above? Predictive analytics are important here – technology is vital. Good future education will be adaptive and experiential, combining the trad classroom with online systems. apprenticeships and, overall, removing the requirement to reside at or near your college.

Jeff talked about some new models, starting with the Swirl, the unbundled degree across different institutions, traditional snd not. Multiple universities, multiple experiences = degree.

Then there’s mixing course types, mixing face-to-face with hybrid and online to accelerate their speed of graduation. (There is a strong philosophical point on this that I hope to get back to later: why are we racing through University?)

Finally, competency-based learning allowed a learner to have class lengths from 2 weeks to 14 weeks, based on what she already knew. (I am a really serious advocate of this approach. I advocated to switch our entire first year for Engineering to a competency based approach but I’ll write more about that later on. And, no, we didn’t do it but at least we thought about it.)

In the mix are smaller chunks of information and just-in-time learning. Anyone who has used YouTube for a Photoshop tutorial has had a positive (well, as positive as it can be) experience with this. Why can’t we do this with any number of higher ed courses?

A note on the Stanford 2025 Design School exercise: the open loop education. Accepted to Stanford would give you access to 6 years of education that you would be able to use at any point in your life. Take two years, go out and work a bit, come back. Why isn’t the University at the centre of our lifelong involvement with learning?

The distance between producer and consumer is shrinking, whether it’s online stores or 3-D printing. Example given was MarginalRevolutionUniversity, a homegrown University, developed by a former George Mason academic.

As aways, the MOOC dropout rate was raised. Yes, only 10% complete, but Jeff’s interviews confirm what we already know, most of those students had no intention of completing. They didn’t think of the MOOC course as a course or as part of a degree, they were dipping in to get what they needed, when they needed it. Just like those YouTube Photoshop tutorials.

The difficult question is how certify this. And… here are badges again, part of certification of learning and the challenge is how we use them.

Jeff think that there are still benefits for residential experience, although assisted and augmented with technology:

  • Faculty mentoring
  • Undergraduate research (team work, open problems)
  • Be creative. Take Risks. Learn how to fail.
  • Cross-cultural experience.

Of course, not all of this is available to everyone. And what is the return on investment for this? LinkedIn finally has enough data that we can start to answer that question. (People will tell LinkedIn things that they won’t tell other people, apparently.) This may change the ranking game because rankings can now be conducted on outputs rather than inputs. Watch this space?

The world is changing. What does Jeff think? Ranking is going to change and we need to be able to prove our value. We have to move beyond isolated disciplines. Skill certification is going to get harder but the overall result should be better. University is for life, not just for three years. This will require us to build deep academic alliances that go beyond our traditional boxes.

Ok, prepping for the next talk!

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