A variety of commentators are suggesting we are witnessing a major transformation in higher education.
Thomas Friedman, of the New York Times, has written that he sees the end of the university as we know it and the beginning of an “unbundling” of college and university education enabling any student to build their qualifications from courses taken anywhere in the world. Others, such as Clayton Christensen, are also writing about the creative destruction of higher education. Indeed, he suggests that:
“A creative destruction is happening in higher education with technology as the trigger and the driver.”
The basic proposition of these writers and commentators is that technology, along with shifts in the demographics of those attending colleges and universities and both societal and individual financial circumstances, created a “perfect storm” for colleges and universities and their response is to reinvent themselves and change the fundamentals of how they function.
How convincing is the evidence that technology is leading to the transformation of colleges and universities? Does the rhetoric of “creative destruction” and “transformation” match with our experience of the post-secondary system in the developed world?
There is little convincing evidence that a real transformation of programs, colleges and universities is occurring because of technology.
The Evidence against Transformation
Nine specific observations illustrate this point:
- While blended learning is growing, it is not fundamentally changing timetables, program design, use of physical space, collective agreements or the way in which academic staff are hired, supervised and supported.
- There has been no substantial unbundling of programs and courses. For most institutions, residency requirements are still in place ensuring a significant number of courses within a program must be taken at the host institution.
- The transformation of program and course requirements, such that students can mix and match courses from a range of institutions, countries or system, is not occurring.
- Student assessment in 2015 looks very similar to the way it looked in 1995, the year the Internet “took off”.
- The boundary between colleges and universities has become slightly more blurred, so that mobility between these two solitudes becomes commonplace, both ways – but this is neither endemic nor substantive. There are still real divides.
- Only modest moves are taking place to improve the transfer of credits, prior learning assessment and recognition (PLAR) and work-based learning accreditation. Yes, the use of “badges” is out there, but it does not threaten the building blocks of the present system in any fundamental way.
- There is little evidence that massive open online courses (MOOCs) are being accepted for credit in institutions.
- Rapid growth in the use of competency-based assessment is not occurring.
- Students are not demonstrating for technology enhanced learning or petitioning the Senates and Academic Councils of institutions for a different model of teaching and learning.
Indeed, it is much more common to see, and be engaged with, students in conversations and debates about:
- The quality of the learning they are experiencing – whether online or in the classroom – relative to the cost in time, opportunity and money to receive it. Students are expressing a concern with the return on their investment.
- The flexibility afforded to students by institutions in terms of when and how they study. They see no clear mechanism for supporting different kinds of students working at different paces and places.
- The challenge of credit transfer.
- The desire to reduce redundancy and duplication in learning.
While it is the case that technology is sneaking into the nooks and crannies of the post-secondary system, it is not producing transformative change.
The Five Reasons for System “Stasis”
Five of the reasons for this lack of transformation in the post-secondary systems are:
- The nature of government funding is based on a specific model of student behaviour in time known as the Carnegie unit or credit hour. Despite being a hundred year old funding model, it still drives a great deal of post-secondary behaviour.
- The nature of quality assurance is such that being “outside the box” means “staying out in the cold” – doing things radically differently is not supported by governments, institutions and systems of quality assurance. Quality is essential to our system, but how we define and assess quality needs to change if we want transformation to occur.
- The nature of post-secondary collective agreements is such that significant change can be seen as a threat to employment and tenure. Such protection inhibits transformative change.
- This is further reinforced by international rankings of institutions, which are based on specific notions of teaching, learning and the student experience and not on the vision, values and strategy of each institution. Institutions strive to be “best in class”. Sadly, the best in class usually means exactly that - in class - not online or competency-based accreditation.
- The limitations that faculty – who are the sources of innovation and transformation – are working under such workloads, ensures that time for innovative approaches to analytics, assessment or unbundling is simply not available to them. The supports – the instructional design, technology expertise, professional development opportunities, and release time for innovation – are often very limited or unavailable.
No doubt others would point to a number of additional points, which act as inhibitors to the creative destruction and reinvention of our post-secondary system – the way in which faculty is rewarded and promoted, the way in which research funding is administered, preoccupation with time and so on. The key point is that such systems have built-in inhibitors to change which ensure that change is gradual not fast, deliberate not impulsive, mediated not mandated.
 For a discussion of this issue, see The Carnegie Unit: A Century-Old Standard in a Changing Education Landscape (January 2015) available at http://www.carnegiefoundation.org/resources/publications/carnegie-unit/