By Robert Hickson 10/03/2016

A few years ago “disruption” in the university space was mostly about Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). The hype on that is over, with providers in this area rethinking their strategies.  But a lot of venture capital is still going into these types of “ed tech” companies.

There are also other approaches to improving the quality of teaching and training that universities provide.

The UK think tank Nesta has just released a draft paper –The challenge-driven university: how real-life problems can fuel learning  – looking at different approach, focusing more on relevance than access.

They aren’t advocating a complete change in what universities do, but complementing what they do, and “they may be better suited to preparing young people for the needs of the world.”

More than a challenge

That’s harder to assess than current methods, and I’m wary of more and more things being promoted as “challenges” and “moon shots”. But Nesta provide some good examples of universities that are trying different approaches. It is an interesting read.

It is also in line with what businesses say they are looking for in graduates, but infrequently find.

In addition, the very rapid changes occurring in science and technology, and the complex problems societies are facing, means that ability to work in truly interdisciplinary teams will be critical.

I’d be tempted to not restrict thinking to just “challenge-driven universities” but to also look at including the other tertiary education providers in such challenges too.

This ecosystem view of higher education, where “innovation” is stimulated through greater partnerships and collaboration with new stakeholders is also being advocated by others.

Gerd Leonhard notes that with rapid developments in artificial intelligence, and automation, the ability to demonstrate “just-in-time learning” rather than having a fancy degree may be a critical factor.

To be able to do “just-in-time learning”, though,  requires good training in learning how to learn.

Are universities sustainable?

Raewyn Connell questions whether the current university organisational model in Australia is sustainable, and the same can be asked here.

This is a sentiment also made by the consulting firm EY a few years ago. A consulting firm would say that wouldn’t they. But even though they talk about “creating new markets” and “streamlining organisational efficiencies”, and don’t look at the what and how of teaching, they do describe the changing environment universities are operating in.

The risk is that organisational or “ed tech” changes to make a university more viable or competitive in the short term will not address the more fundamental societal needs of fostering the creative and practical people and skills required to solve the big problems, and enhancing everyone’s quality of life.