Tomorrow’s academic institutions will need to offer a range of learning options – online teaching offering podcasts and live-streamed lectures through special networks – as well as the traditional approach through seminars and face-to face-tutorials – writes Professor Stephen Caddick
Last year was a defining moment for massive open online courses or MOOCs – as a period when they burst into the mainstream of public consciousness. It was also a time when a consortium of British universities launched FutureLearn, a centralised learning platform to offer online courses – for free – to enthusiastic learners from across the United Kingdom and beyond. And, as a result, the future of the bricks-and-mortar university was questioned. While most agree that technology will transform higher education, quite how MOOCS fit in is another question entirely.
On the one hand are MOOCs evangelists, who proclaim that the online revolution will profoundly disrupt higher education – enabling anyone in the world to engage with the top minds of their generation; and all at a fraction of the price of a traditional degree or even for free. On the other hand we have those who see MOOCs as a flash in the pan, an amazing way for someone to indulge their passion for computer programming as a hobby. But as many in the media know, there are challenges in developing viable business models based on giving away content – especially given the high costs of development.
While both arguments have merits in the round, to my mind the biggest potential of MOOCs is the opportunity they present for universities to offer learning tailored to the individual. But the pressures of student debt mean that increasingly students are demanding learning, which fits their circumstances rather than the current one-size-fits-all approach.
We will see even more people undertaking higher education. Indeed, now there are more than 178 million students in tertiary education with predictions of even larger numbers in the future. But many students of the future will eschew the traditional model. Instead, students will increasingly demand learning that suits their needs for flexibility – giving them the opportunity to combine working or caring for children with studying for a degree, for example, and meeting the desire to keep costs as low as possible.
This means in practice that the university of the future will need to offer a range of learning options – online learning offering podcasts and live-streamed lectures; through special networks and the traditional way, through lectures, seminars and face-to face-tutorials. And of course there are many universities already making great strides in embracing technology.
Of course, there will always be subjects where hands-on experience is necessary. Medicine, for instance, or many of the sciences that require practical experimentation in the laboratory. That is why so many of our top institutions are investing in significant physical expansion – not least in London, with new developments announced by Imperial, Kings and University College London in the last year alone. There will still be relevance in the future for the conventional campus where communities of scholars and students can come together to learn, research and innovate.
That relevance will depend, though, on a new type of physical campus that offers more than just traditional learning opportunities. One which blends blue skies research with innovation, academics with business collaborators on-site and provides opportunities for students to learn business skills, start their own businesses and gain work experience in a much more integrated way than is currently possible.
In this context, the MOOCs paradigm will stimulate a profound change in the way that students and academics experience and work in universities. The university of the future will be flexible, porous and cater to the needs of people outside its walls more effectively than ever before. Online learning will enable students to integrate higher education into their lives in a similar way – flexibly, in tandem with other interests and to fit in with their lives. Exciting times are ahead.
Professor Stephen Caddick is Vice-Provost for Enterprise at University College London. He is also a member of the Mayor of London’s London Enterprise Panel and the British government’s Tech-City advisory board