As part of our University of the Future series, we spoke with academic leaders from some of Australia’s leading universities to gain insight into how COVID-19 had impacted the industry, their vision for the future, and the role of technology in facilitating change.
In this selection of interviews, our contributors discuss what’s on the horizon for higher education.
These are extended interviews that were conducted as part of the research for our whitepaper – University of the Future: Navigating the New Normal. Please visit the landing page if you’d like to read more interviews exploring how universities can embrace the opportunity to reimagine the university of the future.
Professor Liz Johnson, Deputy Vice Chancellor, Education, at Deakin University
What do you think the university of the future will look like?
The answer really depends on what timeframe you’re looking at because the university three-to-five years from now is a very different proposition to the university of 10 years from now.
Three-to-five years from now universities will be far more digital than they are now. That said, they will retain campuses because students and staff value them, and because campuses can provide some experiences that we can’t – or would choose not to – reproduce online.
Universities will also be much more open organisations. They’ll have to be. They’ll have to interact much more with communities, industry, and government. We’ll need to have much more discussion and much more stakeholder support for universities. They are a significant investment by government and the community, and I think government and the community will want to see what it is they’re paying for. It sounds very cold, but it is apparent that societies really value expertise when they can see it – at the moment, think of how highly-valued health expertise and epidemiology is.
The point is, it is hard to value what you can’t see, so we must be more inclusive.
What will that look like in reality? I think there’ll be much more back-and-forth. Learners who have learned at university will return to get other sorts of value out of the university, and universities will have to work more closely with industry partners.
What part will technology play in the transition towards this vision of the university of the future?
Technology does a lot of things, and what it can do is evolving all the time, but the three things technology does that are really critical for universities at the moment are; access and flexibility, working digitally and building digital fluency, and managing, analysing and using information.
Let’s look at each of those one at a time:
- Access and flexibility: This is critical because it means a learner or industry partner doesn’t need to stop what they’re doing to engage with the university. That’s critically important when engaging with industry, particularly SMEs that can’t dedicate somebody to interacting with universities – it has to be in their time, their space, and in their way. We’re getting better at that and learning with our students who need that access and flexibility too. So, universities will need to use technology to be more open. They will have to develop learning models that are more flexible and more familiar to the rhythms of life outside the university. We’re starting down that path now, but we will need to go a lot further.
- Working digitally and building digital fluency: Digital has become the normal way of working. It’s now not just a matter of access, it’s also a matter of authenticity. If you’re going to create learning for workers of the future, you’d better be doing it digitally because they’ll be working digitally.
- Managing, analysing, and using information: We need to leverage the capability of managing information and data which takes us straight to analytics and artificial intelligence. These are not just about having a chatbot to answer questions. It is using the advanced data analytics to sift through the data, find the insights, and provide human collaboration in the most accessible format.
What one technology do you think will have the biggest impact on the university of the future?
This is an interesting question because different technologies are changing in different ways. The thing to remember is that people often use technology in way that is different to its original concept or design.
So, as we invite more people into the campus and into the university in this backwards and forwards manner, we need to make space for people to explore and develop the applications of technology.
This is kind of like sitting on the fence, you’ve asked me to pick one and I’ve said; ‘No, pick them all.’
What we’ve got to avoid doing is placing a bet and sticking to it – we need to be responsive. A next generation digital learning environment requires the integration of a network of tools – it is not just a single solution – and these tools need to be collaborative because learning is all about interaction.
Looking at COVID-19 and Deakin University’s response, how has the pandemic impacted Deakin’s long-term strategic vision?
What the pandemic did, is it accelerated trends – not just for Deakin or higher education, but more generally. We made a conscious decision to focus on our digital learning environment and digital operations a decade ago and COVID-19 accelerated our investment here.
Behaviourally, once restrictions wind down, people will have had a taste of working and studying from home and will demand it as part of the experience so we need to make it possible because there’s no point fighting against it. In fact, there’s a lot to be gained by doing so.
What are some of these trends that were accelerated? Do you think these changes were inevitable?
The pandemic opened doors, but it did so in a way that privileged things that were already in place.
Previously, we had 25% of our students studying online and 75% had a campus experience. We had to move that 75% into the space of the 25% and we had to do it in a week – luckily we had that 25% because we at least knew a fair bit about what it would look like, but in some places we didn’t and we had to build from scratch like everyone else.
What accelerated was better use and expansion of the tools we had. For example, like most universities we have had a learning management system for a long time – our LMS of choice is BrightspaceD2L. We added in Zoom as a virtual classroom – even though we already had a virtual classroom in Blackboard Collaborate. We added in another one because it gave us more flexibility and was better able to go into some international jurisdictions.
We had online assessment tools through our LMS and we started looking at what else could we use. We made a deliberate decision to use the things we had before we started introducing other technologies.
What it will continue to accelerate though is a ‘best in breed’ approach. There’s been an idea for some time around what’s called a ‘next generation digital learning environment’ which is a network of tools. It’s the natural evolution from one solution to a more nuanced solution. That has been accelerated a lot.
What are the new challenges Deakin is facing with regard to attracting new students?
This is a story of two separate cohorts. It is very important to speak to them separately because the international cohort is in a completely different situation to those inside Australia.
The biggest challenge with the international cohort, of course, is that we have a hard border around our country. We don’t know how long that will last. When it does open up, there will be a lot of process around bringing people back into Australia until we have open travel with the world again. That presents a lot of logistical problems with international students.
But travel is only one element. The other is whether or not they want to come – that’s yet to be tested. We don’t know what will happen to the economy, or what will happen to people’s desire or capacity to invest in an education internationally. So basically, we’re waiting.
Then, when we look domestically, this is really interesting. The classical thing that has happened – which I’m told happens regularly during recessions – is that interest in education has gone up. We’ve got more students seeking places in universities now than we had pre-COVID.
There’s a third group here which also looks like its accelerating – those that are retraining. That’s a complex group because they’re really diverse and could find the type of training they’re looking for in many different places. It is a newer cohort and we’re still understanding them. Many universities – Deakin included – are experimenting with what kinds of offers are most useful to them, ones that make the best use of our strengths. For example, there would be little point in us repeating a Cisco programming qualification online because you can do that with Cisco – it would be silly for us to try and compete there. But if you want a broader programming skillset incorporating industry training, maybe we’re the best bet.
We need to focus our offer on things we are good at, those which will help make a difference.
How is Deakin overcoming the challenge of attracting these diverse student cohorts and how important is a blended learning model in meeting the varied needs of each cohort?
Deakin has had this mission for a long time. We were established as a university – on site but with a distance education mission – in 1974. That mission has carried forward and we think of ourselves as a university of access – that is, we promote a diverse range of students joining us. We look to make ourselves useful to a diverse range of students.
This was the impetus to the digital leap 10 years ago. The current prompt is more complex, but access is still the most important factor.
You have to think hard about what it is that helps a student participate. To do that, you need to understand the learning journey.
We’ve put a lot of effort into talking to students, understanding the learning journey, and mapping out what makes it easy for them to participate. It comes down to access – this can mean good course design, facilitating interaction with peers, teachers, and the institution, all the way through to being able to download materials in multiple formats to suit their broadband capacity.
The bandwidth problem was really highlighted in the COVID experience. We always knew it was there, but we didn’t realise how widespread it was. The issue of access to technology – whether that’s having your own laptop, or having access to reasonable broadband – is that if you haven’t got that you’re shut out.
It has created a new category of disadvantage, ‘technological disadvantage’.
How important is the concept of a personalised learning journey in this new normal?
It is a really important concept, but it’s more complicated than we think.
We think of ‘personalised’ as being about the individual – and it is – but it can’t be that the individual is then the lone unit. Part of what you get out of being at a university is the interaction with peers, teachers, and the institution. Personalisation, to me, means allowing diverse learners to participate and to tailor their learning experience to what suits them best.
A couple decades ago, Michael Moore was thinking about how we could make online learning work really well. He proposed that we think about the learning in terms of interactions – don’t think about stuff, or platforms, or tools, or kit, think about the interactions.
The student has to interact with resources, whether that is the library, or videos, or other multimedia, they need to interact with their teachers because their teachers are the key guides and support, and they need to interact with their peers because with peers you talk to each other about ideas, where you got stuck, how you overcame challenges.
If you think about those three interactions, then you can think about what it is in an online environment that allows those things to happen, and they can all be done online perfectly well.
Is there a skills gap between the skills university graduates have upon completing their studies, and the skills employees are looking for? How important is collaboration between universities, communities, and the private sector to ensuring the skills match?
I think there is a bigger skills gap between what we’re preparing students for now, and what they will see in the workforce in five years’ time. That’s where the real gap is.
Universities need to be porous like a sieve. We need an inflow and outflow of ideas coming in and going out.
Universities are really good at thinking, dreaming, being creative, analysing, and drawing out insight. The world of work is really good at practical, pragmatic stuff. The intersection of those things is incredibly powerful.
So being porous and having that back and forth between universities and other stakeholders is really important. That also applies to the design of degrees and qualifications. If you design them in isolation, what happens is that graduates then have to learn how to apply their knowledge after they leave. But with a porous system, practical application is being built alongside all the creativity, imagination, and thinking skills as they’re being developed. That’s a very rich experience.
The other thing to say here is that when employers have a student on placement with them, they’re far more likely to employ that student and are far more likely to say they were an excellent student. We send a lot of students on placement, and that’s the predominant response we get.
That tells us that when the student has time to show how their skills work in a workplace, the employer is happier. This approach is also much more sensible for mass education. Not everybody is suited to sitting back and studying academically, but most students will thrive if they can see where the relevance lies.
About Professor Johnson
Liz Johnson leads Deakin’s ambitious Education and Employability strategy, including the drive to premium digital education. Professor Johnson’s portfolio includes Academic Governance and Standards, Cloud Campus, Global Studio, the Library, Deakin Learning Futures, the Dean of Students, and the Centre for Research in Assessment and Digital Learning (CRADLE). She has led whole-of-institution curriculum reform projects at Deakin University and La Trobe University, as well as nationally funded projects, most recently Successful WIL in Science, on work-integrated learning in science faculties, funded by the Office of the Chief Scientist of Australia and the Department of Education and Training.
About Deakin University
With over 45 years of experience as one of Australia’s leading tertiary education providers, Deakin has won numerous awards and teaches over 60,000 students each year. As one of Australia’s largest universities, Deakin has strong global connections, world-class research, and an educational portfolio that blends the best of campus and digital delivery into a highly supportive and personalised student experience.