Former University of New England vice-chancellor, Jim Barber, recently put a big bell on the Australian tertiary education sector cat.
“If the new generation of online providers succeeds in cutting the price of education while simultaneously creating credentials that industry will accept, it could well be game over for many universities,” Barber said.
There can be no doubt MOOCs (massive online open courses) and surrounding services are creating both massive opportunities for traditional university ecosystems. But they’re also a threat.
The growth of large-scale platforms such as Coursera, Udacity and edX is starting to disrupt the traditional education market and many have been surprised by their rapid growth.
But it’s the extent to which MOOCs will impact on the traditional university ecosystem over the next decade that is arguably even more important.
Investment into MOOCs is similar to the technology start-up phenomena we’ve seen in recent decades, and the venture capital market has responded accordingly. So too has the not-for-profit philanthropy sector with organisations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation investing more than $10 million into MOOC platforms.
Millions of students have signed up for massive open online courses, and hundreds of universities are offering some form of Web-based curriculum. Most students aren’t paying much for these classes, if they’re paying anything at all.
While MOOCs will not replace traditional education models in the near term, they will have an important place in the future of tertiary education. The question is: What sort of place will that be? And what will it mean for the receivers and the providers of education?
Most importantly for readers here, what does it mean for the CIOs and their teams at Australian universities?
The theme of this column has been that CIOs not only need to become more agile and flexible in service delivery, they also need to move out of the ‘computer says no’ mentality and lead their organisations through the great digital disruption on their doorstep.
There could be no clearer case in point for CIOs right now than to lead the digital change facing the tertiary education sector.
Take for example the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Sector, based at the University of Tasmania. Its MOOC, now running for the second time, has attracted 25,000 enrolments from 50 countries. Students complete the MOOC at an extraordinary rate of close to 40 per cent, compared with the 7 per cent to 9 per cent global average.
The Wicking Centre has gone from a small research and education provider of undergraduate and short courses to a global force in one the fastest growing demand sectors on the planet: Aged care and dementia friendly communities.
When I enrolled at the University of Tasmania in 1986, I was required to show up on enrolment day and sign my name, have my photo taken and make the obligatory first visit to the student union bar. In line with this, much of the ICT infrastructure is aligned to deliver to employees and students within the domain, campus or control of the institution.
As evidenced by Wicking’s growth, future knowledge channels of the future will be external to traditional environments. Courses will need to be delivered with agility, speed and excellent design via increasingly variable platforms, particularly via mobile devices.
While every Australian tertiary institution has the opportunity to find their niche knowledge speciality and share it with the world, these opportunities will be massively hampered if CIOs don’t lead the charge for change from within.
Student systems that allow 25,000 enrolments in a matter of hours and the ability to corral those students into online communities of practices instantly and potentially for revenue streams of the future will be mandatory.
The ability to serve up ‘pay walls’ or ‘freemium’ course models will fund further innovation. The value each student gets from these will increasingly come from interacting with fellow students online in real time.
CIOs in this space must start delivering this functionality or the Australian tertiary sector, constrained as it is by government funding, will find itself in ‘game over’ territory, as Barber puts it. While vice-chancellors collectively need to respond they, in turn, will need to be led by their CIO.
David Bartlett is former premier of Tasmania and one-time CIO. He is chairman of ASDEQ Labs and works with communities on the NBN through Explor Digital Futures.
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