The global spread of the COVID-19 severely impacted higher education as universities closed their premises and countries shut their borders in response to lockdown measures. The crisis has affected the continuity of learning and the delivery of course material, the safety and legal status of international students in their host country, and students’ perception of the value of their degree.
Universities were quick to replace face-to-face lectures with online learning, but struggled with insufficient experience and time for conceiving new formats of instructional delivery and assignments. Examinations were affected as well, causing disruptions in learning trajectories and study progression.
Perhaps most importantly, the crisis has exposed the value proposition of universities. Students are unlikely to commit large amounts of time and money to consume online content. Students go to universities to meet great people, to have inspiring conversations with faculty, to collaborate with researchers in the laboratory, and to experience the social life on campus. Eventually, learning is not a transactional but a relational phenomenon.
“To remain relevant, universities will need to reinvent learning environments such that digitalisation expands and complements, but does not replace, student-teacher and student-student relationships.”
The quality of the learning experience as a key differentiator is only bound to rise as digitalisation drives forward the unbundling of educational content, delivery and accreditation that holds together today’s universities. We are living in this digital bazar where anything that is not build for the network age will crack apart under its pressure. When it comes to content, universities will face an uphill struggle competing with large and highly professional providers, and as the scale and nature of hybrid learning evolves, the locus of control or ownership of course development, design, and assessment may shift as university instructors rely more heavily upon tools provided by publishers and open educational resources providers alike. Accreditation still gives universities significant power, but digitalisation may challenge this too, e.g. through micro-credentialling and blockchain technologies.
That leaves the quality of the learning experience as perhaps the most valuable asset of future universities, and it may become harder for universities to hide poor teaching behind great research. And it is the quality of the learning experience what helps us keep the finger on the pulse of what is most relevant for the future of education.
That raises the question of how digitalisation may shape the quality of learning experiences. Think about the power of “collaborative consumption”, with online markets where people share their cars and apartments with strangers. Collaborative consumption has made people micro-entrepreneurs – and its driving engine is building trust between strangers. This works because behind these systems are powerful reputational metrics that help people put faces to strangers and build trust. When it comes to the future of universities, the most distinguishing feature of digitalisation in education may be that it not only serves individual learners and educators, but that it can build an ecosystem around learning. Technology can build communities of learners that make learning more social and more fun. And it can build communities of faculty to share and enrich teaching resources and practices. Imagine the power of a higher education system that could meaningfully share all the expertise and experience of its faculty.
What if we could get faculty working on curated crowd-sourcing of best teaching practice, perhaps even across institutional and national borders? Technology could create a giant open-source community of faculty and unlock the creative skills and initiative of so many people, simply by tapping into the desire of people to contribute, collaborate and be recognised for that. In that way, technology may liberate learning from past conventions and institutions and connect learners in new and powerful ways, with new sources of knowledge, with innovative applications and with one another.
Andreas Schleicher is Director for Education and Skills at the OECD. He initiated and oversees the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) and other international instruments that have created a global platform for policy-makers, researchers and educators across nations and cultures to innovate and transform educational policies and practices.