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Higher Education is yet to be Disrupted, but It is Coming

By Prof. Graham Kendall, Provost and CEO, The University of Nottingham - Malaysia | Friday, 13 Jan 2017, 04:14 IST
Many industries have been disrupted by technological innovation. Tom Goodwin demonstrated the point perfectly when he made his now famous comment: “Uber, the world’s largest taxi company, owns no vehicles. Facebook, the world’s most popular media owner, creates no content. Alibaba, the most valuable retailer, has no inventory. And Airbnb, the world’s largest accommodation provider, owns no real estate. Something interesting is happening.”

The Higher Education (HE) sector has not been untouched by technology. Lecture rooms are brimming with the latest gadgets and gizmos, enabling better teaching and to reach people that may not be able to be physically present in the lecture hall.Innovations such as blended learning and the flipped classroom are further examples of innovation. Yet the sector still heavily relies on “sage on the stage” type lectures, fifty minute slots and assessment by examination and course work.

The HE sector has so far escaped disruption on a large scale, but it can only be a matter of time before the sector is fundamentally changed.


It is always dangerous to try to predict the future but here are a few thoughts as to where the sector might head in the coming years.

MOOCs: Massive Open Online Courses have been around for a few years, yet nobody has really discovered a way to monetize this delivery method. Some have tried, with some success, but it is yet to replace the familiar delivery method where students physically attend, receive lectures and are assessed in an invigilated examination hall. The technology is available to enable courses to be delivered, to a great many people, via an online platform. What is missing is the business model that underpins this methodology.

Assessment: The main reason for having invigilated examinations is so that you can be sure that the person taking the examination is the person that registered for the course. Even some online delivery providers require you to physically attend examinations. The use of image recognition and biometrics are certainly advanced enough to enable you to have confidence that the person sitting in front of the screen is the person who should be sitting the examination. But this does not address many of the problems that online assessment poses. What is to stop somebody else, “off camera” accessing Google and feeding the information to the candidate? How do you deal with different people doing the same examination at different times, thus risking the integrity of the examination?

There are no magic answers that I can see. You could have a viva with every student but that is time consuming and not without its set of own challenges. You could set each student a custom examination. Generating these, and even automatically marking them, is possible but fairness across the student cohort could be questioned.

A reliable way of assessing students in the online environment is still needed, which removes the possibility of cheating and which remains fair to all the registered cohort.

Custom Degrees: Currently, if you want a degree you choose your institution, choose your subject, sign up and you are good to go. But what if you want to take a module from one institution and another module from another institution. This might be due to the course content or because it is the world’s experts that are delivering those modules. You might just want to customize your degree. This is possible in a few circumstances but only if the two institutions have credit transfer option, and both institutions recognize each other and the modules are able to fit with the learning outcomes so that one of the institutions is able to award a degree certificate.

It would be nice if you could pick and choose your modules and build yourself a degree that is customized to your life goals? This is not currently possible and many problems would have to be addressed before it became so. For example, who would award the degree? If you only took a small number of credits from a prestigious institution, would they put their name on the certificate when the majority of credits were taken elsewhere? What happens with compulsory elements that are required for degrees that come with accreditation, for example in Engineering and Pharmacy?

Solutions to the challenges above are possible without too much additional innovation. What needs to happen is that somebody puts all these things together and delivers a product to the waiting world. If there is a university that does not employ staff, or own buildings, but is able to deliver a high quality degree that could be a game changer for the HE sector, like Uber for taxis and Airbnb for accommodation. 


July 2018
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