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What is the future for universities?

July 28th, 2008 by Graham Attwell

Last week I expressed concern that the development of the Open Univeristy SocialLearn project was being motivated by business concerns rather than learning. But it is not difficult to see why a university – especially the Open University which is based on distance learning – might wish to explore new business models.

I am struck by he growing avaiability of free online courses and opportunities for professional development. Just this morning I have picked up on an excellent free seventeen week course on on-line community facilitation being run by Leigh Blackall from the University of Otago on the Wikieducator and the weekly events around Metanomics – the study of economics and policy in the “metaverse” of online virtual world – run by…I am not quite sure who. I found about the first from Twitter and the second form Skype. These services are becoming the new global prospectus of learning opportunties.

Certainly in the field of Technology Enhanced Learning it is perfectly possible to follow an advanced professional development programme for free and engage with the best thinkers in vibrant global communities without having to enroll with a formal education institution. OK – we might expect this in such a technology enabled subject but how long before other subjects catch on.

It has been said for some time that the selling point for universities will be their certifcate granting powers. I am unconvinced. Our study some time ago of the use of technology for learning in Small and Medium Enterprises suggested that apart from in reglated occupations there was limited interest in certification. Both employees and employers were more intersted in competence in terms of what people could do and what they had learnt to do rather than their certificates. And as in one form or another e-Portfolios – or more likely individual eletronic mash-ups showing achievement – become more common then pressures for certification will lessen.

So what is the future for universities? Obviously they have an important role in research. And they could hve an important role in teaching and learning provision. That the Wikieducator is offering a programme in on-line facilitation for free is brilliant. The enrolled students are from all over the world. But how will universities fund themselves in this new world? This is where the rub of the problem lies. The recent trends in many countries towards devolved budgets and funding based on enrolled student numbers does not help. Far better to try to assess the value of universities to the economy and society as a whole and fund their activities accordingly. Of course that is not easy. And universities are not cheap. But we need to start developing new models and that probably requires far more radical thinking than just tinkering with existing funding models.

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5 Responses to “What is the future for universities?”

  1. Hi Graham,
    I agree with your analysis of the situation, especially the question of what funding model is needed in the future. I wonder if the universities are ready to move from denial (“No use of Wikipedia for my high standards!”) to a recognition that they are in a whole new communication and learning world. I have a deep attachment to the learning I received through universities, and would like to see them move forward before they are made irrelevant.

  2. Hi Graham,

    In our case, this is how we think…

    Our course attracts professionals who are usually already employed in some degree. In the past, and still now, those employers offer their employees professional development funding. People use that funding to enrol in and take our course. In the Facilitating Online Communities course you cite (which by the way is run by me in Otago Polytechnic for a partner institution in NZ called Manakau Institute of Technology. No Otago University there I’m afraid) we get a core number of people who formally enrol this way. This ensures the course goes ahead. Once that is confirmed, we offer it as open to anyone.

    Now, why would people to continue to pay if it is open to anyone?

    1. It doesn’t run unless we get a core number who commit to paying
    2. Those who pay get intensive support (regular telephone calls, access to learning support services, formative and summative assessment services, and of course accreditation – which in our industry leads on to pay rises and promotions).

    Those who don’t pay will follow along exactly the same content etc, but cannot expect intensive support or guarantee of service. They also will not be assessed or accredited.

    My hope is that of the 80 or so people who have informally enrolled for free, that somewhere through the course they will see a reason to formally enroll. Whether it be to access more intensive support, or for the assessment and accreditation. It is up to me to build the reputation and status of the course to being world class – enough for people to see worth in having a piece of paper saying they took the course and did well at it. Of the 80 people, if we can get 8 to do that, we are sustainable.

    If not, then I’ve often considered running these course like a street basker… you know, playing a banjo with my hat out taking ‘donations’.. I could run a ChipIn widget and take little sums of money from people based on how much they like my services… with 80-90 people in the audience, its bound to pay something!?…

  3. Oh, and I forgot to mention, those 80 or so.. they are an incredibly powerful resource for the few that have formally enrolled.. I haven’t put a dollar figure to that

  4. Graham Attwell says:

    Thanks Leigh for explaining the model you are using. I think the idea of people as a resource has been underrated in the past. I have no problems with the accreditation being dependent on having paid a fee – I suppose I feel a little less comfortable with levels of student support being dependent on ability to pay.

    I would be very interested to hear of other models – is anyone out there busking.

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