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 Steven Warburton, Executive Principal Education Futures, at the University of New England
What will the university of the future look like?
Future-gazing is always difficult. The first thing I would say is that there is no single university. There is a real diversity in the types of universities that we have in the sector and deliver what we call ‘higher education’.
I anticipate we will see continued diversification in the types of universities that we recognise – this is what has been happening, and what will continue to unfold. Broadly though, I think the idea of what we commonly imagined as the university of the future has changed. It will be a hybrid model, one that is online-first – the hybrid university is here to stay.
Universities have changed in how they value online learning and what their offer is in this area. So, the university of the future will see technology-enhanced learning and educational technology as differently valued business operations and therefore, perhaps radically, reappraise what advantages they may gain from investments in this area.
In summary, it is a difficult question to answer because there are so many different typologies. That’s the really interesting part of what has happened. The new challenge facing nearly every institution in the world is understanding the value of online education and, within this, re-assess their identity.
What emerging technology do you think will have the most impact on higher education in the next three to five years?
Everyone should answer that question differently based on their institutional or educational context.
From my context, working at the University of New England which is largely a distance online university with distinct cohorts of adult learners, that technology would be in the domain of adaptive learning and tools and processes that use artificial intelligence to leverage insights from data and analytics.
With a diverse heterogenous student group, the advantage of adaptive learning is it allows us to deliver a more individuated educational experience. We can use data and analytics to have the learning come to the individual, rather than require the individual come to the learning. That’s really important because it leads to better engagement, increased motivation and compliments our pedagogical and andragogical approach of developing self-determined learners.
One of the beauties of learning analytics is that it allows the academic or teacher to sense when things are well-paced and at an appropriate level to a student’s needs at that particular learning moment. This is part of our institutional ‘future fit’ focus where we concentrate on supporting learner progression and make sure we set up students for success in their personal, educational, and professional workplace journeys. For me, those are the key technologies – there are others – but that’s the big one we’re spending time and effort in maturing.
How has COVID-19 impacted the University of New England’s long-term strategic vision?
Rather than impact our strategic vision, the pandemic really focused how we thought about the future. It accelerated some of the activities we already had in train around designing for online, becoming digital first, and reprioritising what we thought were the things that really mattered.
When the pandemic came, we didn’t have to pivot, we just had to accelerate a range of projects we were already pursuing.
One of those was in the area of examinations – this is one of the biggest challenges for any distance education provider with a global-footprint. Traditionally, this has been a paper-based exercise. Exam papers would be shipped out to locations around the world, somebody then has to monitor and collect all the papers, confirm quality, academic integrity, wrap them up, and send them back. One of the impacts of COVID was that everything shut – virtually every single examination centre around the world that institutions were using effectively closed. This became a massive challenge.
So, our acceleration was in the area of assessment. We uplifted the project we had running in online supervised exams so we could shift to 100% online testing – we took what was originally an 18-month project and completed it in just nine weeks. We moved from around 40% of examinations being opt-in online to 100% opt-out, solving technical, usability, and service approaches along the way.
What lessons were learned during this period?
Whilst the project was a major success, it was still challenging. There are always unforeseen issues that will appear in the evolving technological space of online education. These may be, for example, sensitivity around data privacy or the technical challenges of accessibility and doing everything in an online environment – not everybody lives in an urban environment with an excellent internet connection.
We learned the magic element to success was not really around the technical solution, but rather about building confidence in the technology. Confidence is something we should build across every element of a digital education platform. We need academics and teachers who are confident teaching in an online mode, in preparing their lectures, and confident in their pedagogical approach. Similarly, students must feel confident in being able to express themselves and be fully engaged in their online educational experience. Confidence is critical.
As such, there was a lot of scaling up of the support structures around what we were doing. That was a big part of our activities – the advising, the support, adjusting policies if needed – all those mechanisms to make sure people felt they were still connected to the institution and the institution was still taking care of them despite all the disruption happening around us.
We were lucky because we had quite a lot of those in place already, so we weren’t having to invent things from scratch. We were able to put resources and effort into areas that already had a stable operating rhythm, we just changed the cadence in key parts of the business operation.
Given the disruption, what are the new challenges the University of New England is facing with regards to attracting new students and how are you looking to overcome them?
The new challenge we’re facing is that nearly every institution in the world is realising the value of online education. The challenge is to maintain and build market share in an increasingly competitive market.
For me, that means being clear about the cohorts or types of students we attract and matching our educational offer to them. Many of the students who come to UNE are looking at career advancement, for example they already have a job, may already have a degree, but they’re upskilling. The challenge here for us is to create the flexibility in place, pace, and mode of study and to craft a learning experience that ensures the future fitness of our graduates. Widening our portfolio of short courses and using micro-credentialing is one way we are aiming to achieve this.
The other challenge is to make sure that the online experience we offer matches the expectations of students. These expectations are much higher now that we have all been living and working in a pandemic-enforced online modality. For UNE, that means ensuring that our baseline experience across all the technologies we use is high fidelity and, perhaps most importantly, we present an exceptional user experience. UNE does the business of education extremely well, but recently it’s the user experience of engaging with that educational offer that has become a critical focus.
Learners are used to using platforms and apps like Facebook, Google, or Uber that offer a smooth, seamless user service. That’s the experience they expect. Traditionally, in an education setting, the digital experience has been clunky, the systems didn’t talk to each other, and it was frustrating for the user. Whereas previously we would have concentrated on functionality, one of our top priorities now is the user experience.
Do you believe there is gap between what employees are seeking from graduates and the skills graduates have upon completing their studies?
There always has been a skills gap, there always will be, and there should always be a skills gap. A university is not simply a training centre for the workforce, it provides a transformational learning experience that develops graduates with the skills, knowledge, and attitude for them to be able to transfer easily, readily, and adaptively into and across the workforce. In a volatile employment market, most of us will go through several different job types, so which one are we training for? The fourth, the fifth?
What you need is a set of skills to bring you rapidly into the job space such that you can gear your learning to the way the business operates.
Two things are very helpful around this, the first is work-integrated learning. This is an excellent way to add those extra skill sets through engaging in the world of work within the broader enterprise of study. From experience, I know those students who have experienced a work integrated learning program or have been exposed to industry partnerships are highly sought after by employers. The second is to think about what the micro-credentials – or the bits of micro-learning – are that the institution can identify to supplement the academic offering. For example, this might be in design thinking or digital fluency, and this becomes a value-add in terms of graduate attributes.
Education is about developing many different things and one of those is readiness for the workforce. For me, the complimentary nature of an intellectually stimulating academic degree that motivates and inspires and micro-learning that develops specific skillsets is the perfect partnership.
I think there will always be a skills gap and I don’t see how there can’t be – but for me, that’s healthy. It creates discourse between the world of work and the world of education, and there should always be a conversation between them. This gap is where we build our bridges; our on and off ramps between education and employment and the reskilling and retooling of the workforce.
About Professor Warburton
Steven has worked as an academic, researcher, project director and now senior executive. He has over twenty-five years’ experience working in the field of higher education, technology enhanced learning, and large-scale digital transformation. His work has maintained a strong focus on projects that forefront the strategic deployment of digital technologies – to enhance learning; teaching and assessment; promote wider access to education; improve student success and academic progress; promote active citizenship; and embed lifelong employability skills.
About University of New England
For over 60 years, the University of New England has been a leader in providing distance education to students throughout Australia and the world. The university pioneered teaching to external students by correspondence, making UNE Australia’s most experienced provider of distance and now online education, offering more than 200 courses at undergraduate, postgraduate coursework, and higher degree research levels with options to study online or on campus.