All views and opinions expressed here are entirely my own and do not represent TU Dublin in any way.


Is the future online? 

Earlier this week the online education provider Hibernia College launched a range of new undergraduate programmes in creative computing and business. This is a significant move for a college that has made its name in teacher training and has become the leading provider of primary teachers in the country. When it started some ten years ago it was in the face of considerable opposition from the established colleges and a general scepticism about the likelihood of success for a private fee paying school. The Irish Times suggests the latest launch:

will test the growing market for private third level education in the Republic.

More significantly, I believe, it will test the market for online education. There is nothing particularly new in distance education but it has never had a particularly high profile here. Oscail, the DCU distance education programme, has been offering degrees since 1982. The Open Universitiy also has a base here and many other higher education institutions have some form of distance, remote or outreach offerings. More recently we have seen the rise of the Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) with proprietary systems such as Moodle or Blackboard and the use of platforms such as Second Life. Until the arrival of Hibernia uptake by students has been modest. Nevertheless, a survey of five higher education institutions in 2008 suggests that students don't believe that lecturers make good enough use of their VLEs.

Closer examination of what precisely is being described by terms like online, distance, remote, blended and elearning is important. For example, the Hibernia, Oscail and Open University offerings are exclusively by distance. They are not based around a campus and delivery is by correspondence and over the internet. Typically, however, there is a programme of tutorial support at study centres. In addition, live online tutorials via the web are becoming a feature of this provision.

But much of what is described as online learning, or elearning, is designed to supplement traditional delivery. Whether it is simply making lecture notes and PowerPoint slides available online or moderating online discussions outside normal class time, allowing students to review recorded lectures or referencing some of the excellent material already available on sites such as You Tube, Vimeo or TED. Clearly the intention is not to replace traditional delivery.

Bigger claims have been made by some. Last month I wrote about the MIT and Harvard Edx partnership which issued 7,000 online students with certificates recently. The Australian online academic publication The Conversation recently posted an article titled Virtual campus: online universities are the future of higher education. The discussion comments following the article are worth reading to get a sense of the diverse opinions held by academics. Many still mistrust the impact of technology on education.

My own direct experience of using distance and remote strategies on DIT's Visual Art degree delivered in Sherkin Island off the west coast and delivering the module Virtual Environments: Is one life enough? lead me to believe that one of the principal benefits of harnessing technology is the widening of educational opportunity. Those once isolated from participating, whether through economic, geographic, political or personal circumstances, can now access education—should we wish to provide it in this format.

So, back to Hibernia's success over the last ten years. It seems to indicate a very definite market for private higher education—a message unlikely to be lost on the Minister for Education and Skills who is determined to generate additional income streams. It also appears to identify a demand for flexible delivery—something we constantly talk about in higher education circles and a topic to which I will return.

There is a final significant element to the announcement—the decision by Hibernia College to seek validation from the University of London. I don't know the reason for external validation nor whether Irish institutions were considered or approached. Either way, it highlights the importance of reputation in higher education. Not only institutional reputation but national reputation. We have always prided ourselves on the calibre of the Irish educational system: in fact we have developed a brand Education in Ireland that is managed by Enterprise Ireland (meaning the brand is aimed at the export market). Brands need to be nurtured and protected. No doubt the new Qualifications and Quality Assurance Authority is watching with interest.


On being creative …

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, kirk or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.
—Robert Louis Stevenson 

I took the time to reread Stevenson's essay An Apology for Idlers before leaving home for work this morning. I found the Anthology of Prose Writing that introduced my fifteen year old self to this, and many other essay writers, while still at school. It is interesting how some concepts stay with you even though you may not fully understand them at first.

My early morning search of the bookshelves was prompted by a realisation that lately there has been little time for idleness in my own busy life. Stevenson's well crafted exposition on the importance of idleness to creative thought has been reworked many times since. A recent opinion piece in the New York Times reshaped it for a contemporary audience concluding that:

Life it too short to be busy.

It suggests that idleness is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body. John Cleese also proclaims the importance of making space for creativity. He puts it quite bluntly saying that if you spend your day running around ticking things off lists you are not going to have any creative ideas. Usefully, he goes on to describe a methodology for integrating idleness with our busy lives. It requires the creation of a time and space bound oasis where your 'mind can come out to play', where creativity is allowed to arise and the more usual critical faculties of the mind are put away for a while.

I have a tendency to indulge the conceit that our modern world is so much busier than ever before, that we have so much more on our plates than our predecessors. At various times I have this blamed this on email, the internet, computers, mobile phones, or simply the ubiquitous nature of communication. This, despite the fact that Stevenson described an equally busy life in 1877. It might be argued that he was writing as the effects of the Industrial Revolution were creating our modern world but, it is quite clear Stevenson was arguing that busyness is more a self-imposed state of mind than an objective reality. He was warning of the consequences of not allowing the mind to come out to play.


What might disruptive education look like?

I have been listening to Horace Dediu's analysis of Apple's success since Aiden Kenny introduced me to The Critical Path podcast last year. His theory on competition through disruptive technologies is particularly interesting. Based on the writing of his former professor at Harvard, Clay Christensen, it proposes that companies like Apple achieve success by disrupting the existing market. In The Inovator's Solution Christensen describes how major industry leaders can be overtaken by smaller players applying disruptive technologies rather than simply making better products or services. They do this by analysing 'The Job to be Done' and finding a way to do this job that people want done rather than merely developing new products. So, for instance, Apple realised that many of us need full-time assistants to help us organise our lives … and invented the iPhone to do the job.

Speaking at Mobilism 2012 in May Dediu describes this process of asymmetric competition as …

finding new jobs to be done because you are studying the needs of the user not the needs of the market.

But he also explains how difficult it is for established organisations to behave disruptively. Their very DNA conspires to keep them doing the same thing and kills off any attempt at innovation. For instance, how does an organisation make the strategic decision to transfer resources from a successful product line that is delivering profits today to a new disruptive technology? But the right strategy is often to destroy value because doing so now is better than waiting for it to be destroyed later.

Now, I think it is necessary for those of us in Higher Eductation to consider what a disruptive intervention in the the sector might look like. Christensen addressed this in The Innovative University which I discussed this in my last post Why Pay for Education? At the moment I am merely attempting to frame the right questions rather than expecting to find immediate answers. But, it seems to me that in the changing and dynamic world we now inhabit where technologies change completely during a student's four years on a degree programme we must reconsider the job to be done by education. What is the Job to be Done for students, for industry and the professions, for nations and for the global economy of which we are so much a part?


Why pay for education? 

In the autumn Harvard and MIT expect to welcome 500,000 new students who will take courses delivered on their newly launched edX plantform. Of even greater interest is the fact that the courses will be available free to anybody with a computer and internet connection – no admission requirements either.

Stanford, Princeton and other universities in the US are also offering courses online. Stanford professors Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig deliver an Introduction to Artificial Intelligence to 160,000 students in over 190 countries. This is offered free also.

So, what's the catch? Well, other than the fact that students don't earn credits or receive a university certificate, there doesn't appear to be one. The principle appears to be that knowledge for its own sake should be freely available to all who seek it. If the universities continue to provide this knowledge without charging then the conclusion must be that the fee being paid by traditional students is for their parchment – and the value it carries in the employment market.

There is a significant philosophical principle underlying this development. In effect, it appears to decommodify education while acknowledging the cachet of reputation. For example, being a graduate of Harvard opens doors that would otherwise remain firmly shut. Thus it seems reasonable that those who can afford to join the club should have to pay for the privilege while those who are simply interested in becoming knowledable are free to do so availing of what is presumed to be the best teaching in the world. There is something of the Age of Enlightenment about it with gentlemen amateur scholars pursuing knowledge for its own sake.

But, is it really as simple as that? Will the online experiment remain free? Is the demand sustainable? Will fee-paying students continue to value attendance on campus? 

Thrun suggests that in fifty years the world will have only ten institutions delivering higher education. At the current rate of take up on his module that seems a reasonable prediction but it would put education, the development of society and the discovery of new knowledge in the hands of a very few – giving them unprecedented power and a means of control never envisaged before. Nevertheless, it is a very real possibility. Harvard Professor Clay Christensen (The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education From the Inside Out) argues that the standard model of university education in the US …

… has become unsustainable. To avoid disruption, institutions of higher education must develop strategies that transcend imitation. They must also master the disruptive technology of online learning and make other innovations.

He goes on to remind us that …

… the job that students and policymakers need done is the bestowal of the insights and skills necessary not just to make a living but to make the most of life.

 How do online courses address the latter part of the job? How, indeed, do for profit institutions address it? These questions are set to become increasingly important in Ireland as the Government develop their National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030.


Art, Science and Innovation

I have been noticing an increasing emphasis on the STEM (Science Technology Engineering Math) subjects in the current debates concerning the role of education as the key route out of our economic woes. The proposition is that innovation emerges from these areas. But, is that really a sound proposition?

As consumers we generally become aware of innovation in the form of a new product or service, made manifest through some form of technology. We also know that contemporary technology requires an understanding of science, engineering and math. Therefore, it seems logical to assume that teaching these subjects will lead to greater innovation and, of course, innovation is wealth generating. So, what's wrong with all that?

What is wrong is that the proposition misses that elusive ingredient: creativity.

Last year John Maeda, President of the Rhode Island School of Design, launched a programme called 'STEM to STEAM' to alert business to the importance of adding Art to the STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) in education and research. The website reporting on the initiative suggests the

value of art and design to innovation is clear: artists and designers humanise technology, making it understandable and capable of bringing about societal change. The tools and methods of a studio-based education offer new models for creative problem solving, flexible thinking and risk-taking that are needed in today's complex and dynamic world.

In a way, it is somewhat surprising that we need to be reminded of this in the first place. It is broadly recognised that STEM subjects on their own cannot lead to innovation. The much misunderstood element of creativity is a prerequisite to developing an innovative product or process. But, becuase the creative process is so fundamentally different from the scientific method it is misunderstood by those whose methodology is based on it. Creativity is imbued with mysticism and consigned to the arts – safely segregated to the arts community.

This belief – or, more accurately, lack of belief – was also accepted by the business world for most of the last century and into the early part of this century. That is, until Bruce Nussbaum and others began to study how entrepeneurs came up with their ideas. They began to develop a new approach to business which they called Design Thinking. At its simplest, this means applying the iterative process of design to business. The idea was was taken so seriously that university business schools in Stanford and Columbia championed it and built curriculla around it. (Nussbaum has recently suggested that Design Thinking has run its course and is now using the term 'Creative Quotient'.)

The aspect that interests me is why, when we think about education, we appear to have forgotten the advances in our understanding of how business, and the wider economy, works. The repetitive mantra emphasising the importance of STEM smacks of desperation... it ignores the need for a more holistic approach to development. The key factor of the STEM to STEAM campaign is to remind those responsible for the future shape of education that we need to be producing graduates who don't see creativity as a mystical gift granted to the chosen few but a real tool to be harnessed and used alongside those of science technology engineering and math.

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