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.