The hidden tech shift in higher ed

It is quite common to hear statements along the lines of “education hasn’t changed in 100 years”. This is particularly true from education start-up companies, who are attempting to create a demand for their product by illustrating how much change is required in the sector. At a conference I attended once a speaker invited the audience to think about what they were doing now and what they were doing 10 years ago and how it hadn’t changed, and everyone agreed. But I think these statements miss a lot of the change that has taken place.

If you were to come to a university campus, superficially it looks as though things are pretty unchanged. The sports centre is better, the bar is less of a dive and the restaurant serves better food, but there are still lectures, laboratories and students sitting around on the grass. But these mask a real technological and demographic change that has taken place over the past 20 years.

Firstly, the concept of the traditional student – someone who leaves home at 18 and studies full time at a university – is no longer dominant. Many students are living at home (and will still have the same groups of friends), studying part-time, studying at a distance or are in the ‘mature’ group, ie over the age of 22.

Secondly, the role of technology has become much more central. Imagine turning off learning and teaching systems at a university (we’ll ignore admin systems for now). Many universities would simply be unable to function. Students submit assignments, access teaching material, use digital library resources, use software for research, engage in group work and socialize via these systems. While I have many reservations about the way the VLE path has panned out, this technology is central in just about all universities. Even relatively uninteresting (from a pedagogic perspective) technologies such as lecture capture can have a profound impact for many students.

Comparison with the music industry is also a trope you will hear fairly often. The MOOCs were the MP3 of higher education Shirky warned us. In fact, if you take the view above, then higher education, far from being a sector that is still waiting for the internet to happen to it, is a good example of how to incorporate new technology while still retaining its core functions.

Which is not to say it’s all okay. I think a real problem for higher ed is the legacy of the physical environment for example. We do lectures because we have lecture theatres. More significantly we can’t conceive of doing anything else because the lecture theatres says “do lectures”. It would be very difficult, for instance, to implement a flipped approach in many university courses because the face to face space is built for lecturing and not doing the other things you might want to utilize that time for. Shirley Alexander is a good example of someone who is rethinking that university space, but it doesn’t come cheap. Similarly, if you’re being generous, maybe it took this long for the VLE to be accepted, but more innovative use of online tools should now be more commonplace.

There is much more that is fun, innovative and challenging that can be done, and we should push hard on this, but at the same time I would challenge anyone who claims glibly that higher education hasn’t changed. They simply haven’t looked properly.


  1. “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated” said the institute of higher education. While the change may not be as quick, or in the ways that some may wish (ie: often the people who want to sell us the solution to our problems), change does happen.

    1. That’s right Clint. People see no change and say that is a sign of failure. But you could see a lot of change, while also retaining the same role and function and see it as a sign of success.

  2. Change is inevitable, but not all of it is good change. Sometimes, progress really is illusory, and the profusion of technologies and collaborative spaces can become confusing and threatening to learners.
    Our job is to make sense of the productive changes and still point out the emperor’s new clothes from time to time…

  3. I think things are even worse on the ‘innovation’ front coming from the disruptors of education. Because they are much more likely to replicate or bolster very old and traditional modes of schooling than anything particularly innovative. The evolution of VLEs is just one example.I recently listened to an interview with the founder of which is supposed to be education for those who find textbooks too long or boring. But if you look at the site, all the example courses are incredibly dull and traditional.

    But I don’t think your two examples of change on the campus are all that deep. The e-infrastructure is nice but pretty much in the service of the traditional school structure. The changing student profile is certainly an important shift but I’d suggest that it doesn’t impact on the fundamental ‘grammar of schooling’ as we have known it for a while. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Some additional thoughts here:

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