By Lambert Schuwirth

Will universities matter in ten years time?

Many industries are being unexpectedly nullified by major disruption to their core business, made possible by technological progress.  Some of those, such as the taxi industry, may not be completely eradicated but are certainly floundering.

Universities are susceptible to the same fate.

Corporate advisory firms, including KPMG and Ernst and Young, have published reviews of the higher education sector and unanimously conclude it must reform dramatically to stay relevant and attractive to students. Five disruptions may be critical:

Disruption 1: from “knowledge as a possession” to “knowledge as a co-creation”

When I studied medicine in the 1980s, skills and knowledge were seen as something the expert held, and the non-expert did not. The experts shared their knowledge. Now, knowledge is viewed as a co-creation. Different perspectives do not indicate disagreement but add richness to knowledge. Wikipedia, an information resource informed and updated by the collective, illustrates the disruptive ability of co-created knowledge and the ease of technology in developing informed and dynamic information flows.  The ramifications for education systems based on lecturing are obvious.

Disruption 2: the management of transactions and trust

Traditionally, complex transactions were managed by an intermediary who would manage both the transaction and the trust. This combination takes place everywhere. If I want to buy clothes from a retailer, I expect honest, expert advice. If my expectations are not met, I go online and buy the same clothes at a cheaper price.

However, the peer-to-peer economy is making it easier to separate transaction from trust. Companies such as Uber do not offer transportation but merely regulate the trust that I can safely get into a car with a stranger and be transported from A to B, whereas the beleaguered traditional taxi bundles both the transportation and trust.

Traditional higher education also bundles the transaction (teaching) and trust (quality through the award) but increasingly, students are questioning whether ‘purchasing’ these together is a good investment. Some are exploring alternative ways to build their own trusted portfolio or CV. If prospective students lose trust in the value of their university award, the transaction – or educational process – could be taken elsewhere. This opens up opportunities for others to manage the trust; organisations may emerge that focus solely on recognition of prior learning and only provide awards, diplomas or certificates but no education.

Disruption 3: cognitive surplus

Before the internet, assistance was not always easy. If you wanted to solve a problem, for instance how to change the battery of an electronic car key, you needed to find somebody with the requisite knowledge.

Now it’s much simpler. A simple online search will usually uncover several instructional videos: people are willing to share their knowledge. People helping and teaching each other without even having met them is quite new. Moreover, multiple people share their knowledge freely without even knowing whether others desire it. In medicine for example, there are freely- available recorded lectures, instructional videos, and ‘explanimations’  that may be more educational than the offerings of one’s own medical school.

The challenge is to guide learners to distinguish useful, correct and relevant information from that which is useless, incorrect and irrelevant. This requires higher education to focus on its core business of educating people to become critical learners who can independently search, source and judge information. Unfortunately, most traditional educational approaches do very little of this.

Disruption 4: open ledger technology

Open ledger technology is a promising new approach to authenticating information and transactions. Instead of relying on an officially trusted party to accredit a transactional process, the process itself is made visible in a way that every transaction is traceable. Blockchain currency is an example of how this is happening in the finance sector.

Our educational systems rely on certificates and transcripts awarded by accredited institutions, but these expose themselves to disruption through their lack of useful information. They don’t evidence the extent of learning, and won’t help a future employer understand a graduate’s strengths and weaknesses or their suitability to a job. Imagine all learning and achievement transactions were tracked in an electronically searchable public ledger. A graduate could simply submit their authenticated portfolio.

Disruption 5: decrease of expertise asymmetry

In the past, people would seek the advice of an expert and trust their judgement. A patient had little choice but to trust that their doctor’s diagnosis and proposed treatment was up to date and evidence-based, or obtain an expensive second opinion.

Patients now have access to all kinds of information. With limited expertise in identifying relevance and accuracy, it is contentious as to whether this empowers them to better contribute to the management of their health journey. But it does empower them to ask better questions and to create a better level playing field for themselves. And, the ability and desire to source knowledge ourselves is strong.

The same applies to learners, with students able to access a world of information through their devices. One could infer that courses relying heavily on the traditional group lecture risk impact from this decrease of expertise asymmetry.

Where are we going?

It is unpredictable when disruptive forces will impact on higher education. Indeed, they have commenced, but substantial upheaval is highly likely in the near future. Universities are taking steps to be future ready, such as programmatic assessment for learning in Flinders University’s College of Medicine and Public Health and ‘making the whole course count’ in its College of Education, Psychology and Social Work.

The opportunity is to be part of something entirely new, something that will challenge centuries-old customs. To be part of this disruption, to distinguish hype from genuine improvement, is after all what critical academics do.

Lambert Schuwirth is Strategic Professor in Medical Education at Flinders University


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