Higher Education, Re-Imagined
How the pandemic is going to transform higher education

University 4.0

The fascade of a university building
al-Qarawiyyin in Fes, Morocco. Taken during author’s visit in 2016

Much of the contemporary narrative of how #covid19 is changing, and will change, higher education is focused on how teaching and assessment will move from physical spaces to virtual spaces.

But it’s not as simple as that — for example, students in fee-levying universities have been asking why are we paying so much just to attend virtual classes? And while some universities responded by adjusting their fees, others have argued against it, saying:

  1. “Students will earn the same credit towards their degree, and hence should be charged full tuition”
  2. Providing remote learning (as well as other safeguards) is an additional expense

Digging below the surface, there are more questions arising from this shift, especially in the context of Industry 4.0 (or #4IR), such as:

  1. Why, with all our technological advances, is formal education still based on disparate institutions hosting teachers and students? When al-Qarawiyyin is recognized as the world’s oldest still-functioning university, we also acknowledge universities as the institutions that connect students and teachers for higher education.
  2. Why is the provision of higher education bundled with the credentialing of it? And are universities primarily in the business of providing learning or providing credentials?
  3. The ever-green question: how to handle the mis-match between the output of higher education and labour-market demands?

Here’s how we believe these questions will play out...

Content will go online, and be available in modular form.

Once universities start putting their content (e.g. video recordings of lectures) online, they might as well make it available to everybody; once you’ve invested in producing the content, the incremental cost of making it available to more people is negligible.

It won’t necessarily be free, since there is still a cost associated with providing access, and more importantly a value associated with having access. Most probably there will be different providers at different price points offering varying levels of quality (e.g. how well the material is explained), augmentation (e.g. 3D, virtual reality), localisation (e.g. different languages), specialization (e.g. focusing on a specific niche), and service levels (e.g. speed of service, ease of navigation).

And a necessary part of serving a larger audience would be to make the content available in modular form. We can already see this happening with Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC) providers, where learners can participate in courses lasting a few weeks to a few months without having to sign-up for a 3+ year program.

Content will be accessible to anybody, anywhere

Well, not quite anyone, because there will still be a price barrier. But there will no longer be a need to gate-keep online content on pre-requisites such as high-school diplomas and aptitude tests; those were only necessary when there were capacity constraints (such as lecture rooms, dormitories, etc). It could just be left up to the student to decide if they have the necessary foundations in place to make use of the content, and even if they drop out mid-way, it’s no big deal. Again, this is something we’re already seeing with MOOCs.

Furthermore, there will be no need to limit yourself to the content offered by one physical university — you will be able to mix and match courses from various providers to make up a designer degree.

A few players will take over the bulk of the content business.

If you can access video lecturers of the world’s top expert/s in a subject — the person who is the authority in a given field, why would you access the same content delivered by anyone less? Especially when economies of scale could make it cheaper to access the top expert?

And from the perspective of smaller universities, why even bother putting your own content online when you can make the world’s best content available to your students? Especially when you can license the content in bulk?

“Lecturers” will cease to exist.

By now, you might be having your hackles up: the role of faculty isn’t just to lecture the students! And that’s right — notwithstanding the fact that gating access to the lectures has been one of the ways universities have tried to restrict education to their customers (especially when they are paying customers).

So let’s free the faculty from the burden of lecturing. Let them use their time with students to facilitate dialogue, supervise research and projects, and to counsel and guide. And apart from that, they can also spend more time pursuing their own research.

Provision of learning and credentialing will be unbundled.

If students are being supported by faculty at one university while consuming content from another university / content provider, or even several other providers, who is going to credential the learning?

The answer for that would depend on what purpose the credential serves:

  1. If the student wants to pursue employment in research, the evaluation should be done by the university, or possibly a research institution / think tank, and should be based on students’ research work.
  2. If the student wants to pursue employment in other domains, as is the case for the majority of undergraduates, the best option is to allow the employer (either alone or in collaboration with others) to perform the assessment, which should be based on students’ applied work. Professional bodies are ideally placed to fulfill this role at scale, and in some vocations already do — where an academic qualification alone is insufficient to practice as a professional.
  3. If the student aspires to be an entrepreneur, credentialing is not essential. However, even these students will likely benefit from the same process as those pursuing employment, in understanding realities of the industry / marketplace.
  4. If the student is learning it for autotelic reasons, rather than the above instrumental reasons, there is no need to credential them at all. Students will find it easier to pursue this kind of learning, and they will be free to pursue the level of competence and ability that they desire, and engage in credentialing only if they wish to receive formal feedback.

In all cases, students need not depend on only formal credentials / assessments for feedback — they can and should solicit feedback from people who can provide it.

Of course, there was nothing stopping universities from adopting this approach even before the pandemic, except that they were in the business of monetizing credentialing.

Faculty will include more professionals

Once we have industry professionals (i.e. not only academics) involved in credentialing, universities will benefit from having them on board their faculty — not so much for the content provision role they currently provide as visiting faculty, but for the student engagement, because they should be the faculty members involved in providing mentoring for industry related assignments.

Credentialing will become portfolio based

When it comes to employment, grades are only really useful for the purpose of shortlisting — there are too many people with good grades for grades alone to be a selection criteria, and grades themselves are falsifiable (by “studying for the test”, by outsourcing work to assignment writers, etc.) and are unreliable without further validation.

One reason why internships are a popular way of vetting hires is because the employer can get a thorough (can see multiple facets) and valid (hard to fake) understanding of the potential employee. But having just one internship is risky for the student — if it doesn’t work out, they not only haven’t built credibility with other potential employers, they risk being tainted as having “failed” at their internship (if it was at a company known to hire all good interns).

In the future, we predict that there will be multiple internships (which could be full-time hours for a short period, or part-time hours for a long period) supplemented by gigs or projects, with some combination of

  1. employment-bias: serving the needs of a prospective employer,
  2. entrepreneurship-bias: serving market-needs perceived by student,
  3. research-bias: either applied research (possibly influenced by industry) or pure research.

If there is insufficient demand for this kind of work, it suggests that there are too many students for too few opportunities, and students should reconsider their career choices — and now, with modular access, it is easier for them to switch. And if many students are shying away from the program, the university should either redesign the program or cancel it.

Students will graduate with a portfolio that showcases their abilities, in doing real work for real needs. And while they may have a bias (towards employment, entrepreneurship or research), that bias can evolve over their period of study, based on their achievements and aspirations.

And if some students want to take it easy and do easy-work to fill up their portfolio, while others take on challenging stretch assignments — so be it, that is their work ethic, it will be reflected in their portfolio, and employers can decide who they want to employ and at what price-point.

We also have a hunch that, as employers pay more attention to the portfolios during recruitment, university examinations will shift to simply capture pass or fail than award grades.

Working while studying will become the norm

Internships are not only useful for building up a portfolio — they provide valuable grounding in “real life” work situations, and can inform student learning choices — because the intersection of the each student’s unique abilities with the market requirements will provide the student with an understanding of what s/he needs to succeed (which can be very different to what their peers need) and they can chart their course accordingly: this could be in terms of content (what courses to take, where to take them, what standard to aim for, etc.) but can also be about transversal skills — such as teamwork, leadership, creativity, critical thinking, communication, etc.

This will also reduce the chances of a student realizing that they don’t really like working in a particular discipline only after they’ve invested several years in qualifying for it. Rather than getting trapped in an uninspiring career, they can quickly pivot to other disciplines.

The value proposition of physical access will change

Despite most content going virtual, there will still be much value in physical access to a university. Primarily because we are social animals, and learning is a social process — and that social element works much better in physical spaces than virtual (and even the virtual collaboration is easy when there is regular face to face contact). This is not only interactions with the faculty, or interactions with peers in study groups or project teams — it also comprises the social life, the sports, the arts, the civic engagements, the experience of living away from home, and the various clubs and societies.

It will be harder to cheat the system

Could students still cheat in building portfolios? For the documentation part of the portfolio, possibly. For actually doing the work — it’s much harder to find a proxy, they will be a lot more expensive, and would be very risky (e.g. impersonating you at an internship would require a fake ID), and is more likely to be discovered at an interview or while on probation.

The burden on faculty to set exams capable of sorting and grading students (as opposed to just assessing if they have mastered the basics) as well as of preventing plagiarism in assignments will reduce. Instead, faculty could devote that effort to mentoring students on how to have richer achievements (harder challenges requiring deep knowledge and/or complex challenges that require competence in multiple dimensions) in their portfolio as well as guiding them towards the resources (courses, books, research, project mentors, etc) needed to succeed in them.

First degrees will be multidisciplinary

Most first degrees will become multidisciplinary because that is what many employers will be looking for, and what most entrepreneurs will need, especially now that content is no longer restricted to what is offered by the university or faculty they enroll in. We will be less likely to have STEM graduates with little or no comprehension of Liberal Arts, as well as less Arts graduates with no “employable” skills.

The exceptions will be those who decide early on on a research career, or on a highly specialized vocation like Medicine or Law (although even in this case, there are benefits of education outside the specialization, and it can be that they experiment in a few areas before settling on this path).

Lifelong Learning

Modular access will mean that anyone can “top up” at any stage of their career, based on what they need. This might be undergraduate level courses for a mid-career professional who is changing, or shifting, careers; or it might be Masters level courses for those seeking a greater degree of specialization. Of course, many people already do this — but it tends to be very intensive (e.g. a 2-year MBA has a high workload), and therefore excludes some people, e.g. people who have young children.

University education will become more accessible

Other accessibility barriers will also reduce — e.g. needing to start working immediately after school will be less of a barrier, and working while studying will actually be an asset rather than a liability.

And even for people who failed their high school examination (if it was previously used as a gateway exam), or didn’t take one because they were not in a conventional school (e.g. were homeschooled or in an alternative school that didn’t include standardized tests), university education will still be accessible — all of the digital content can definitely be made available.

Access to physical spaces and faculty will still be resource constrained and will require some element of gate-keeping, but it will be more likely that that will be based on aptitude shown at entry level courses, which will have more predictive validity than a generic, standardized gateway exam — especially once the university itself shifts to using portfolios rather than assessments and grades.

Nevertheless, universities will remain hot-beds of inequality. While some aspects of higher education will become more inclusive, universities will continue to be stratified by the socio-economic groups each provider serves, and the main virtues of enrollment in an elite university will remain its signalling of the ability to afford that enrollment, and the opportunities to build networks with people of similar status.

Implications for children following Self-Directed Education

Universities have always required more autonomy and self-direction than schools, mainly because their students are more mature and are expected to be capable of it. But as higher education shifts to more of “build your own degree” and moves away from examinations in favour of portfolios, students who come from a Self-Directed Education background (e.g. unschooling, Sudbury schools, Agile Learning Centres, etc.) will be much more at home than students from conventional schools – Rejoice!

Schools 4.0 Higher Ed