September 30, 2014

The World Academy Forum on the Future of Global Higher Education.

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UC Berkeley

UC Berkeley

I just came back from this conference at the University of California at Berkeley that took place between October 2-3.

The World Academy of Art and Science (WAAS) is an international non-governmental scientific organization, a world network of individual fellows elected for distinguished accomplishments in the fields of natural and social sciences, arts and the humanities. The Academy strives to promote the growth of knowledge, enhance public awareness of the social consequences and policy implications of that growth, and provide leadership in thought that leads to action. (Wikipedia)

The World University Consortium is one of the activities of WAAS. The consortium seeks to bring together innovative universities, MOOCs and technology providers with committed governments, IGOs, NGOs, and other interested stakeholders to brainstorm new ideas and creative solutions for the future of global higher education.

This was the first general meeting as part of a process to develop ideas towards a world university and  the aim of the conference was mainly to open up discussion around a very interesting question:

If you were going to develop a system to deliver the highest quality, innovative higher education to the entire world, how would you do it?

There was an interesting range of speaker/participants including:

My presentation

I was one of three speakers responding to the question: ‘What factors and forces are driving change in global higher education and where are they headed?’ My mandate was to give a quick, 10 minute overview of the main technology drivers, which I suggested were:

  • LMS-based online credit programs
  • blended/hybrid learning
  • MOOCs
  • Mobile learning
  • Virtual labs
  • Web 2.0/social media.

For each I gave a very brief ‘status report’, with where appropriate an analysis of challenges for using specific technologies in developing countries.

The presentation is unlikely to surprise any readers of this blog, but some of the data did come as a shock to some of the participants. For instance in most parts of Africa it costs US$2, the average daily income, to download one YouTube video. Also, the cheap mobile phones used in developing countries can handle only limited amounts of voice and text. Thus streaming video of lectures is not an appropriate technology for all those areas of the world without high speed Internet access, i.e. 75% of the world or more. (Some, like me, would also argue it’s not even appropriate where there is high-speed Internet access.) The need to use local, accessible technologies, the need to adapt the teaching to local cultures and needs, and the need for local partners to provide learner support, were three principles I stressed.

If you want a copy of the slides, send an e-mail (tony.bates@ubc.ca) requesting the World Academy presentation, and I will send you an invitation to download them through Dropbox.

Main takeways

I was able to attend only for the first day, so I have a limited view of the overall conference, and in particular I missed the session on the mission, goals and activities of the World University Consortium.

Nevertheless, I listed above some of the wide range of participants to indicate the bubbling turmoil that is beginning to swirl round higher education institutions. Nearly all those listed above are trying innovative approaches to post-secondary learning, and while many of these efforts will fail, fade or disappear, some are bound to stick. Others are already making a difference.

However, in my view, the vast majority of universities have yet to grasp the enormity of the changes that are taking place, or at best are aware but have no real strategy to respond.

This raises a question in my mind. How does one plan a global university if we are not even sure what a local university will or should look like in the future? My concern is that in all the talk of technology, globalization, accessibility, accountability and affordability – all incredibly important – that there is a danger that universities, in their efforts to adapt to change, fail to clearly identify what their core values are and what core benefits they provide within a democratic society. Here I am thinking of independent thinking, the ability to criticize government, industry and special interest groups, the search for logical and empirically-based knowledge, the stewardship of prior knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge.

How can these core values be maintained and strengthened, while at the same time nimbly adapting to changes in society, so that universities can deliver their core services relevantly, cost-effectively and equitably? We need universities to come forward with clear mission and value statements combined with realistic plans or strategies that take into account the changing world. I have to say that this seems more urgent than trying to find a global solution, given the vastly different needs in different parts of the world.

The BIG question

Consequently, I raised a question which did not for obvious reasons get answered:

Organizations such as Pearson, IBM, and Google have had to transform themselves or build new business models to survive in a world of rapidly changing technology. Do universities need to re-invent themselves to survive, and if so, what pragmatic advice to universities can these corporations offer?

Answers on a postcard, please.

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