Assembling the heterogeneous elements for (digital) learning

How will universities change over ten years?

I came across a post title “Some ways university will change over ten years by Mark Smithers via a tweet from Claire Brooks. The post is, as Mark puts it, an attempt to anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities and how it will effect educational technology. To some extent it’s the sort of thing that I might be expected to do in my current position, if not to develop institutional policy, at least to inform it.

So, I plan to follow Mark’s blog and see what he comes up with. I also hope to be able to blog some reflections and reactions on what he and others have written. The aim of this is, in the first part, force me to start to formulate, make concrete and question my own views so that it can inform my practice. In part, I’ve already started this process with a post reflecting on a EDUCAUSE Review article by Bryan Alexander.

In the following I start by trying to summarise Mark’s post, before giving my reaction to it.

What Mark thinks

There are a couple of assumptions that underpin Mark’s views:

  • It’s “crucial to try and anticipate the changing roles and functions of universities over that period so that we can think about the effect on educational technology.”
  • “that the next ten years will be one of fundamental change for universities…..faced with the hugely disruptive changes being bought about by new ways of learning and sharing on the internet.”
    The comparison to record and publishing industries is made.

There are a wide range of factors involved, meaning that little is certain and his (and mine) thoughts are changing all the time. This post covers two of the more important changes, with more to follow. The two changes he starts with are

  1. Open content becomes the norm.
    The change is that learning material is increasingly becoming freely available from a variety of sources. The potential ramifications of this change which Mark identifies are:
    • Students judge a university through the quality of its open learning materials and research.
    • Universities will be forced to compete on the quality of these resources.
    • This might drive the open content away from recordings of lectures etc to more interactive/engaging content.

    Difficulties include: higher ed culture mistrustful of sharing, recognition and rewards.

  2. Rigourous and consistent assessment.
    The suggestion is that universities will need to increase “the quality, consistency and rigour of assessment in order to maintain or enhance their reputation”. This arises from the massification of higher education, dissatisfaction from high performing students and the increasing availability of learning resources enabling/creating the need for a disintermediation between learning/teaching and assessment.

    The implication from an IT perspective is that the current use of LMS gradebooks will need to be replaced by more sophisticated systems. He points to the Loosely coupled gradebook work as an example.

Some thoughts

The following are a collection of initial, ad hoc thoughts on this question – mostly because I’ve got a limited time to put this together. There are two parts to my thoughts:

  1. General observations
    I start with some observations, theories and beliefs I have a tendency towards which make me think this type of prediction are really difficult and in some cases, might even be somewhat less than useful.
  2. Specific observations
    These are thoughts about the two cases Mark mentions – open content and assessment.

As Mark has pointed out in his post, there’s a lot of complexity and perspectives around this stuff and ideas change regularly. There’s always a better way. In that, it’s a good example of a wicked problem.

General observations


As stated above, there are (at least) two assumptions underpinning Mark’s post. If you disagree with either, then you may not see this process as useful. I tend to think it’s useful, but because of the following points, possibly not for the same reasons as others.

The first assumption is that attempting to anticipate the way in which roles and functions will change is crucial. Based on what I cover below, I’m not sure whether or not it is actually possible. To some extent I’m a believer in the Alan Kay quote that the best way to predict the future is to build it. More on this below.

The second assumption is that the next 10 years will see universities having to face fundamental change. There’s been a bit of this type of thing in the blogosphere and elsewhere recently. Examples in newspapers, publishing and the recording industries have been used as examples. And this may well be true. But I’m not certain.

Students remain a very conservative collection of beasts. They have long established patterns of what a university education entails. I’m not sure they are as ready yet for this radical change. Also, at least in Australia, the Federal and State governments provide a lot of the resources and have a significant say in what University can or can’t do. They are also fairly conservative. So this will be a constraint. Whether or not you buy a newspaper or how you purchase the latest top 10 single is not exactly the same as choosing how you will study at University.

In terms of the government influence, currently there seems to be a growing trend towards an emphasis on the regions. Certainly it appears that my current institution is being encouraged to establish strong connections with the community within its region. It seems a return to a more traditional relationship between community and university.

I’m not suggesting that there isn’t a lot of change going on. I’m just not 100% convinced that change will be fundamental or that it will result in the death of Universities.

Amara’s law

This could be seen as a potential example of what I was going to call Amara’s law, however, through this post from Doc Searls I find that the naming is more open to interpretation.

Regardless of the source, the point of the law/maxim remains.

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

Back in the mid-1990s when the Internet and the World-Wide Web were the next big thing. Senior management at my institution were fearful that MIT would monopolise higher education. After all, if you could go to MIT over the Internet, why would you go to some local institution? Well that hasn’t happened, not yet anyway.

Complex systems

Personally I see universities and the societies they operate in as complex systems in the sense Dave Snowden uses in his work, including the Cynefin model/framework. To keep it short, in a complex system is one

in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe – Sense – Respond and we can sense emergent practice.

The nature of the system means that it is impossible to correctly identify cause and effect before hand. We might be able to guess, but the chances of laying it out logically are probably nil.

That said, in 10 years time Mark and I could probably get together and over a drink or two develop a causal connection of linkages to explain what has happened. But that’s not the same as being able to predict it beforehand. And a point Snowden makes is that if we were able to do it all again, the outcome would be different.


Open Content

I do think this is going to be an interesting one, but will it produce fundamental change? First a statement of bias, I’m a strong believer in open content. My course sites have been open since 1994 and some with significant content (Google 85321 systems administration for one example. Even with that background, I am not sure about the impact of open content. Two queries

  • Widespread acceptance of open content for course materials.
    I don’t see a majority of academics releasing their or using the open content of others, at least not easily. Mark mentions the rewards aspect that will prevent staff sharing, but the other perspective is that most the academics don’t think their content is all that good and want to limit those who can see it. The fear of being “evaluated” on the quality of their course material is a real fear. I also think a lot of those in management have this fear. They don’t want the poor material shared.

    There’s also the mindset. Being open is, I think, a mindset. Not many have it. I know of academics who are pushing the institution to adopt open content, but who get really upset if another academic colleague gets access to their course sites.

    Most staff I’m aware of already use the content of others. In the form of textbooks and the associated resources. Those resources come in a ready and easy form to use and are provided by a 3rd party. i.e. it’s not directly from another academic at another institution.

  • Content becomes the means of evaluation.
    I’m not sure that students, in any large scale, will evaluate institutions based on the quality of the content. People aren’t that rational, they are predictably irrational. Open content may become one factor but there will be others.

    This point also assumes that content is the entire learning process. There’s a lot more to teaching than the content. The history of learning objects tends to suggest this. Really good teachers who develop and build relationships will still generate word of mouth.


A short comment here. I think this point masks a bigger point when it comes to technology within institutions. The example of the loosely-coupled gradebook that Mark mentions includes the following

  1. Institutions of higher learning should focus on what they do best and on what only they can do. Namely, they should admit and register students, manage course enrollments and degree program rosters, and maintain secure records and communications tools for faculty and students engaged in the learning process.
  2. We can then leverage the best online, third-party applications for student publishing, networking, and portfolio creation. Individual institutions (or even institutions working together) would be hard pressed to produce applications comparable in quality and stability to Google Docs, YouTube, Blogger, Acrobat Online, MS Office Live, Wikispaces, and WordPress.

For too long, because technology has been expensive and scarce universities have had to provide all the technology used by its staff and students. Modem pools to get Internet access is one example from the 90s. Increasingly, however, technology is simple and abundant. Increasingly, it doesn’t make sense for a university to provide services such as blogs or email. Students and staff can get access to free services that are better supported than institutional systems.

The loosely-couple gradebook is one example. Actually, it sounds very much some of the principles underlying the BAM project


Sorry Mark. The day has gotten away from me and I haven’t engaged as well as I would have liked with your post. I look forward to your future posts.


PhD Update #19 – Falling just a little short


How do you measure success with institutional use of an LMS/VLE?


  1. Thanks for the response David. There are a couple of things that I would like to comment on.

    Firstly, I agree with about the best way of predicting the future is to build it. My concern is that others (not universities) are busy building the future while universities are busy contemplating other things.

    The other important point you made was in regard to open content for course material and the ‘fear’ of publically sharing material of ‘low quality’. This fear by academic staff who may lack confidence in their own abilities coupled with academic managers fear of releasing ‘low quality’ material is stifling the move to open content development by many universities. In the mean time other universities and organisations press home their advantage.

    Of course huge staff development and cultural change is required at many institutions in order to catch up. I suspect smaller, organisationally simpler and more self confident institutions will be the ones that can move quickest to change, leaving behind large, complex, middle of the road universities.

    More on that in a future post.



    • No worries on the comment. I just wish I had more time to write a bit more clearly. I look forward to your future posts. This is something I do have to engage with.

      Your point about “universities busy contemplating other things” is an important point. I think most of the university is busy doing that. However, my impression is that the IT folk aren’t. They are generally trying to develop maps to guide what they are going to have to do into the future.

      The problem is, that with no-one else at Unis doing it, the future can tend, occasionally, to be a more technology led/constrained than it should.

      That said, I don’t think there’s an answer.

  2. martinbojam

    I’ve joined this debate rather late on, so forgive me if I go over well trodden ground.

    I’m a marketing consultant operating exclusively in the education field, and I do share many of the concerns expressed here about the future of tertiary education. I certainly agree about the difficulty of predicting accurately the future (“nailing jelly to the wall” is a phrase which comes to mind) but I had a go at this myself (together with Ian Rowley, Director of Strategy at the University of Warwick – in his private capacity) at a CASE conference last December.

    Briefly, our thesis was that, over the next 15 years, the combined effect of demographic trends (especially in the world’s North) combined with massive financial pressures (not specifically to do with the current economic situation) on all of a university’s income streams (but especially income from the state) and growing competition from other regional and national institutions, from other countries and from for-profits would place a great strain on all but a handful of HEs. Initially, technology would seem to be the answer (open source, on line learning, sourcing lecturers and professors from around the world and video-conferencing them into lecture halls, etc etc) but ultimately would leed to a very small number of (financially) elite campus based institutions and for everyone else, they would sit at home and stare at their computers.

    You’ll gather that I find this possible outcome a case of the cure being worse than the disease, and more akin to teaching or training than education.

    The ray of sunshine we found lay (not surprisingly, you might cynically say) in institutions defining themselves much more precisely, developing niche competencies into world beating expertise, and branding and marketing themselves much more aggressively. It may not alter the outcome, but it should emsure more survivors.

    It was a point of view which didn’t find too many takers, and who can tell if there is any merit in it (who will remember in 2024 anyway?), but it provoked discussion and debate, which I think is important. We all have a tendency to address issues in isolation (competition, globalisation, finance, demographics, technology) rather than considering them as a potential whole.

    Hope that makes some minor contribution to the debate

    Martin Bojam

    • G’day Martin,

      Thanks for the contribution.

      The trends you mentioned are particularly important, and to my mind, further complicate predictions.

      I see the argument about financial pressures – reduction in state funding – being a significant problem. It’s one Australian universities have been dealing with for a while (and I believe British unis are taking a renewed hit at the moment). However, it’s balanced/contradicted by another political pressure – regions like to have universities, regions elect politicians.

      Taken in combination, I’m not sure that this will lead to a significant reduction in universities – though it may reduce numbers somewhat. There have been rumbles within Australian higher ed about merging small institutions – a move that has sort of stalled, but I can see a government pushing this in the future.

      The future you describe is one where there’s a small number of elite campuses and everyone else sits at home looking at the computer. My question is, which institution is providing the “learning” for those folk sitting at home?

      The elite campuses? Or something more like the Open Uni in the UK? Or some conglomeration like the open universities australia?


  3. martinbojam

    Hi David

    Sorry – my contributions seem very sporadic at best, don’t they?

    In terms of the provision of “learning”, I guess the answer could be “any of the above”, though of course it could also be the Burger King University, or similar! I do see a future for universties markeing literally tens of thousands of courses (not by any means all their own) around the world, using the strength of their brand name, reputation and distribution networks – it does sound remarkably like packaged goods, doesn’t it?

    I’m sure that there will be a trend towards amalgamations in the UK, and even the permitting of HEIs to fail. There’s an interesting paper from an organisation called Policy Exchange on this matter. I’m sure that we’ll see the entry of the private sector into HEIs on a much larger scale in the next few years.

    As for regions liking their own universities – I can see that’s a barrier to concentration in Australia where you have, in round terms, 1 per 100k square miles, but of course in the UK we have literally 135 universities in that same space – 100k sq m.

    I think money is becoming scarily important at the moment – my understanding is that Australia has come through the crisis rather better than the UK and USA, but there’s a great deal of nervousness around the sector here.

    I look forward to renewing this correspondence, hopefully more frequently!


    • G’day Martin,

      Thanks for picking up the discussion again. As it happens I may have the space/requirement to think more about this. Looks like I might be involved in some attempt to develop a bid for a research centre around the future of learning/universities. So restarting the conversation is timely.

      Australia may have come through the GFC a bit better than others, but I’m not sure it’s finished yet. The theory is that a large part of our performance is based on China. I always get a bit worried when someone/country is relying too much on the one source. Especially given some recent suggestions that China is showing the signs of a bubble.

      When/if that bubble bursts, the outcome is not likely to be good for public universities in Australia.

      When it comes to learning from commercial organisations and/or large prestige universities I start from a perspective of skepticism. This doesn’t mean I think it’s impossible, I just think that it could possibly be a lot more difficult than many think and in some contexts not likely to happen. It will be interesting to see how it plays out and to theorise/predict/observe what happens.

      Part of my skepticism comes from seeing what happens, at fairly close range, when a purely commercial organisation takes on the role of learning in higher education. There are two limitations I’ve seen

      • Focus on profit reduces quality.
        Commercial organisations are focused on making money, even more so than many modern universities. From my observations (anecdotal but somewhat extensive) many of the attempts I’ve seen so far in the Australian context have taken this too far and the quality of L&T has suffered. In the absence of other constraining factors, I think most of the students at these institutions would have walked long ago.
      • The disconnect between research and learning.
        A part of saving money is not paying staff to do research, or in some cases be aware of recent research. This in part also contributes to the quality of the learning.

      That said, I’m not suggesting that commercial organisations are alone in suffering these problems. I’ve observed a number of universities or parts thereof who have suffered the same problem. Making decisions solely on money, rather than the quality of learning (trying to seek some balance seems best). And for many university staff, research is a compliance thing at best and something the ignore at worst.

      However, in a purely commercial organisation I think the pressure is much greater, at least so far in Australia.

      It would be interesting to see how some of the organisations in the states are going on these types of measures, how they handle it and how the students perceive it.

      I think another big question is the purpose of universities and learning. Part of the support for the commercialisation of learning arises from the perspective that the purpose of learning is instrumental or utilitarian. If the purpose of learning is knowledge for its own sake, the “pure” conception (Martin and Etzkowitz, 2000) then a very different perspective arises.

      I do wonder if there is ever going to be any more room for the “pure” conception when consideration is given to learning and universities.

      Well, that’s gone a long way further than I thought. Martin, thank you for the spark, hope this is of some interest.


      Martin, B. and H. Etzkowitz (2000). “The origin and evolution of the university species.” Journal for Science and Technology Studies 13(3-4): 9-34.

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