Sunday, March 15, 2015

Educational change - a delicate balance

A couple of days after writing my last post on how higher education is slowly but surely adopting technology I discovered an article, Debunking the Myth about a Creative Destruction of Higher Education with Technology as the Driver, on the government of Ontario's Contact North site. It outlines the reasons why technology is not going to cause radical changes in higher education for some time and lists the main barriers to change. The barriers to change are mostly about traditional structures and these are extremely hard to influence unless a major external threat looms large. The main barriers are government funding of higher education, existing quality assurance, international rankings and faculty workload and conditions. All of these build on maintaining traditional structures and thus dampen all attempts at innovation and experimentation

No doubt others would point to a number of additional points, which act as inhibitors to the creative destruction and reinvention of our post-secondary system – the way in which faculty is rewarded and promoted, the way in which research funding is administered, preoccupation with time and so on. The key point is that such systems have built-in inhibitors to change which ensure that change is gradual not fast, deliberate not impulsive, mediated not mandated.

It would take a very brave and radical change in government policy and funding to change things and even if one country took such steps they would risk their universities falling in international rankings. So everyone watches and waits and few if any are making any radical moves at top level. The article points out that despite plenty media attention and commitment from those involved, there are few signs that open education, MOOCs, unbundling, competency-based assessment and so on are having serious effects on the fundamental core structures of higher education. If change is going to happen it will probably come from outside the system and present such a threat that the traditional system will be forced to adapt.

But do we really want this type of revolution and what type of educational system will emerge? The danger is that commercial interests will take over and many of the traditional values of academic freedom and scientific inquiry may suffer as a consequence. The system certainly needs to be tweaked towards greater flexibility and innovation but the danger with radical change is that you throw out the baby with the bathwater. Remember also that educational technology is just one of many challenges and that we're changing a whole ecosystem. Slowly but surely.

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