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Thursday, December 24, 2015

Future perfect: what will universities look like in 2030?

"From robots to the most popular course, academics share their predictions." reports Times Higher Education.

Recently the media had fun comparing the vision of life in 2015 depicted in the 1989 film Back to the Future Part II with the reality – with the internet being the glaring omission. But what if we were to try to predict the academy’s future? Could we do a more accurate job? After all, isn’t that one of the tasks of university leaders, given that the future is coming even to those who don’t have a time machine in their sports cars?

We asked several distinguished academics to tell us how they imagine higher education will look in 2030. The responses, however, could hardly be more disparate. While one contributor suggests that the rise of artificial intelligence will consign the university to history within 15 years, others believe that technology will continue to have minimal impact. A variety of shades of opinion in between are also set out.
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Photo: Times Higher Education

"In 15 years, we will have no one to teach. The professional jobs for which we prepare students will be done by intelligent machines." according to Eric Cooke, retired senior tutor from the department of electronics and computer science at the University of Southampton.

The impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on every aspect of our lives is grossly underestimated. If we cautiously allow a doubling of technological impact every 18 months, 10 doublings in 15 years gives an increase of 1,000 times by 2030. Imagine your mobile device 1,000 times more effective.

Machine learning shatters the notion that computers can only do as they are told. There are increasing examples of machine creativity. An artificial intelligence recently “discovered” Newton’s second law, and derived the equations of motion of a double pendulum system by doing experiments for itself on a double pendulum. ROSS, a “super intelligent attorney” that scours the entire body of law, has trained IBM’s Watson cognitive computer to do paralegal work; Watson already handles simple cases by itself. Artificial intelligence is also able to make medical diagnoses, and there are robot surgeons. Financial systems run on algorithms. A University of Oxford report, The Future of Employment: How Susceptible are Jobs to Computerisation?, argues that nearly 50 per cent of US jobs are at risk from technological advancement – and this is almost certainly an underestimate. Optimists say that new jobs will appear, but they are unable to give a single concrete example. There will soon be no jobs needing proof of academic ability.

Looked at that way, it is clear that the university has no future. In 15 years, we will have no students to teach. Students want a good, professional job and degrees are evaluated against employability. But the professional jobs for which we currently prepare students will be done by intelligent machines. So why would students take on the debts involved in undertaking a degree course as it is conceived today?
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 "The pedagogic pendulum will swing back towards the lecture as the importance of an analytical mind becomes appreciated once more" according to Warren Bebbington is vice-chancellor of the University of Adelaide, Australia.

At present, universities are in a race to “flip the classroom”. In the name of superseding tedious, droning lecturers and their passive, sometimes slumbering – or even absent – student audiences, we are embracing electronically enhanced “active learning”. Now students can stay at home, absorb lecture content online and then come to campus merely for tutorials to discuss what they didn’t understand from their laptop.

The printed textbook market is in worldwide decline, as students increasingly rely on online search engines, online lecture notes and recorded lectures for their information. Digital disruption is everywhere, as more and more universities establish massive open online courses, offering their best professors to a universal public through global online platforms, entirely free of charge.

But is this a revolution with long-term, transformational consequences? Or is it simply an extreme phase in the cycle of pedagogic fashion, from which the pendulum will have swung back towards more traditional campus norms by 2030?

Lost in the clamour for active learning and digital enhancement has been any defence of the unique, vital skills the traditional lecture develops. Tangibly, our tweeting, blogging, app-loving students are losing the capacity to listen at length, absorb a complex argument and summarise, dissect and evaluate what they hear as they hear it.
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"Exams that emphasise mastery of taught knowledge will no longer be the primary tool for judging student performance" according to Dan Schwartz, dean and Candace Thille, assistant professor at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Education. 

In many Jane Austen novels, the plot involves landing the best bachelor, at which point the story ends. We find a similar narrative in secondary schools across the US. This plot involves getting into the best college. For students and parents, landing a college place has become the defining symbol of a successful childhood, and their lives are organised towards hooking the prize catch.

So bricks and mortar universities will not disappear any time soon. But while it might be where Austen leaves off, acceptance by the object of their desire is only the beginning of our happy young protagonists’ life stories. Indeed, students at least need to finish their college years before they even get their bachelor – of arts or science. And that is where a number of enhancements are likely to be introduced by 2030.

First, educators will have figured out how to teach really hard concepts – imaginary numbers, quantum physics, a satisfying interpretation of T. S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Science will have made substantial progress in understanding how people learn and how to produce conditions that optimise learning. New technologies that deliver instruction will also collect precise data on what’s helping students the most and what is not working. A virtuous cycle of rapid feedback and revision to pedagogical innovations will permit the continuous improvement of both instruction and the scientific theories behind it.
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"Technology has found a place in universities, but nothing significant has changed" according to Steven Schwartz, former vice-chancellor of Macquarie University and Murdoch University in Australia, and of Brunel University London.

Times Higher Education has invited writers to imagine what higher education will look like in 2030. But how will our prophecies look to future generations? To get some idea, let’s look back and see how yesterday’s pundits imagined things would look today.

In 1913, Thomas Edison predicted that “books will soon be obsolete” because educators would “teach every branch of human knowledge with the motion picture”. As we know, books survived (even if they are now migrating on to digital platforms), and motion pictures have had almost no influence on education. Still, Edison’s failure did not dampen the optimism of technology gurus. Over the past century, every new technology supposedly heralded a revolution in higher education.

In the 1930s, it was radio; in the 1960s, it was television. The world’s leading experts would be beamed into lecture rooms, reducing the need for skilled lecturers on every campus. A few decades later, it was videodisks (remember them?). In 1998, The Age, the Melbourne-based newspaper, claimed that “teaching will [soon] take place...using the latest in advanced technology...the mobile phone”.
Students and lecturers communicating by voicemail seems quaint today, but this is a common reaction when we look back at past predictions: they are almost always wrong. Nevertheless, a potent combination of enthusiasm, tunnel vision and cockeyed optimism keeps them coming...
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"Devices will replace academic faculty by 2030. The concept of individual campuses will slowly disappear. The two-semester pattern will be replaced by year-round learning" according to Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, university professor of public service and president emeritus of George Washington University in Washington DC. 

For the first 300 years after Harvard University was founded in 1636, American higher education consisted of young upper-class white men sitting in classrooms listening to lectures by older upper-class white men. Then, in the 1950s, a wave of change began that shows every sign of becoming a tsunami by the year 2030.

The first major change was the gender and racial composition of the campus, beginning with the introduction of women, followed by people of colour, into the student body, faculty and administration. Universal access for anyone who wishes to study or work in higher education will be significantly achieved by 2030.
Then came the rise of digital technology. The ubiquity of Google and Wikipedia means the days of rote learning are gone. From the collection of big data (used in administration and research) to the development of massive open online courses, the once intimate, hands-on college environment is morphing into a more impersonal, automated world in which students no longer absorb a faculty-designed curriculum but instead develop a high degree of academic self-direction.

Devices will replace faculty by 2030. There will be reliable e-learning options from numerous providers on multiple platforms, and students will select the ones most compatible with their preferred learning style. Earning “a degree” will lose importance as the range of credentials widens. Certificates from schools, workplaces and industry, alongside something akin to the merit badges earned by Scouts, will gain in respectability – especially once a new system of accreditation for them is developed...
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"We will see a form of higher education that truly values a broader range of characteristics than those linked to subject knowledge or employability skills" according to Claire Taylor, pro vice-chancellor for academic strategy at St Mary’s University, Twickenham.

There will be no higher education revolution over the next 15 years. Rather, we will see evolutionary development in several areas.

The first is provider types. Market forces demand that higher education providers clearly define their distinctive contribution to the catalogue of “choice” available to students, and I believe that we will see significantly more differentiation by 2030. Providers will be either very local, plugged into a powerful societal and economic network of regionally defined business, industry and cultural hubs, or they will be international brands, recognised as the “go to” organisations for the creation and dissemination of knowledge and for seeking solutions to global problems.

We will also see more specialised providers. In the UK, such providers are currently limited to certain discipline areas, such as the arts, law and business, but they are ripe for significant expansion into areas such as science, engineering and technology, perhaps sponsored by huge corporates. Will there, for instance, be “The Google University” by 2030?
Meanwhile, a renewed emphasis on partnerships, collaboration and networks will see university federations operating more formally across the globe. These, for instance, will bring together provider types with shared specialisms, or shared defining characteristics such as religious foundation...
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"The real game changer will be viable measures of comparative student learning outcomes. These will lift teaching to a status closer to that enjoyed by research" according to Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute of Education, and director of the Economic and Social Research Council/Higher Education Funding Council for England Centre for Global Higher Education. 

Some changes over the next 15 years will be incremental and others transformative. One incremental change is that participation in higher education will continue to grow everywhere, despite the flattening of average graduate starting salaries; those who leave education at 16 or 17 will find it ever harder to embark on a career. Meanwhile, sharp-eyed university leaders and marketing departments will entice students with new work experience-based offerings and German-style technical and vocational programmes.

But the real game changer will not be vocational education. Still less will it be the wholesale adoption of massive open online courses in place of pedagogies. Neither the lecture theatre nor the campus will fade into history. There will be one big transformation: viable measures of comparative student learning outcomes, including value added between enrolment and graduation. These measures will be as revolutionary in their effects as global research rankings have been. They will quickly overshadow the subjective consumerist metrics derived from student satisfaction and student engagement surveys. They will enable national and international comparisons of student achievement. They will also pull attention away from crude instrumental measures of outcomes and back towards the core processes of knowledge and intellectual formation.
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Related links

Photo: Times Higher Education
The most popular higher education articles of the year, based on website traffic.

Photo: GoodCall
What Will Higher Education Look Like 5, 10 or 20 Years From Now? | GoodCall Special Report.

Source: Times Higher Education