Higher Ed and Continuing to Look Into the Future(s)

Is X the future of higher education?

No. No it’s not.

Whatever you choose X to be, it isn’t the future of HE.

Why? Because the answer is so singular. Higher education already appears in different guises. Nobody can say that HE is simple to define, because it means so much. The concept covers so much ground.

Similarities...Differences...All Directions... (photo by solidether)

Similarities…Differences…All Directions… (photo by solidether)

New websites that make learning available to a massive audience are great. There have been so many advances in recent months and I’ve loved taking a look at sites like Coursera and Udacity with their new approaches of bringing courses to an online population. It’s telling that many universities have been placing academic material on the Internet for years now. With MIT and Harvard starting edX, large institutions are attempting to see the future of education and tap into what’s possible.

But none of this is *the* future. These services are playing a small part in the current landscape. They are experimenting.

In the future, they may play a bigger part, with more on offer and more official recognition in one way or another. No matter how successful these services and institutions become, they won’t be the singular future.

Other questions are far more useful. Questions like:

  • “How important are these movements?”;
  • “What improvements could these services bring to the world (locally, nationally, internationally…)?”;
  • “Will new initiatives manage to open up learning to more people and with greater relevance?”;
  • “Can any of this help provide a more equal chance of getting the necessary help to the people who want it?”;
  • “Can these services identify and assist those people who don’t realise how beneficial this learning could be for them?”;
  • “Do these initiatives offer anything to enhance, alter, or perhaps even fundamentally change more traditional offerings?”;
  • “What, if anything, can traditional methods and services learn from new, disruptive technologies, in order to remain equally important and relevant?”

These are just some questions off the top of my head. They won’t have single answers. They’re not meant to.

The question “Is X the future of higher education?” is merely a starting point to allow other questions such as these to be asked.

A CNN piece that asks if Udacity is the future of higher education ends with a beginning:

“I asked [Sebastian] Thrun [founder of Udacity] whether his enterprise and others like it will be the end of higher education as we know it — exclusive enclaves for a limited number of students at high tuitions? ‘I think it’s the beginning of higher education,’ Thrun replied. ‘It’s the beginning of higher education for everybody.’
“Much of traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence. But to my knowledge, with one class alone, Thrun has provided a level of diversity, opportunity and academic rigor not seen before. People from any country, any background and any income level can receive an elite education at virtually no cost. We have been talking about equal educational opportunity for years. What is going on here may be its true advent.”

Higher education has been necessarily disruptive since its inception. The word ‘higher’ is a clue. ‘Higher’ shouldn’t mean ‘exclusive’ or ‘elitist’. The term ‘higher’ should be seen as looking beyond the fundamentals. Perhaps even looking beyond the furthest point currently studied (PhD folks, I’m looking at you especially here!).

HE for everyone is fantastic, so long as everyone wants it and will genuinely benefit from it. Nobody can guarantee that someone will benefit, which further highlights the lack of one, single answer. Neither can everyone agree what ‘benefit’ implies, because we want different things and see things from many perspectives.

No matter how higher education develops, equal educational opportunity is in the sights of many. No single offering can solve the problem of inequality. If we take the conclusion of the CNN piece as a major driving force behind the desire to change the future of HE, the next question should not be “Is X the future of higher education?”

A better question would be: “Can X help bring greater equality in future educational provision and, if so, how?”

I don’t think Udacity has cracked that yet. But that shouldn’t stop them searching. It’s early days. As usual, questions are followed with more questions, followed by yet more questions. It’s non-stop. Just as you’d expect!

Possible answers are great. I’m happy that so many startups and established institutions want to provide them.

But I don’t see this as the start, or a ‘true advent’. I see this as a continuation.

Keep asking questions. Keep seeking answers. It’s important to keep going, even if no absolute and single solution is found. If everything was so simple, we would never need to be challenged again.

When that time comes, X really will be the future of higher education. And it will eat itself in the process. Omnomnom.