Innovations in the Technology of Higher Education: Where is the Social Research?

My colleagues and I organized a preconference for the 2014 International Communication Association on innovations in the technologies of higher education, focusing particularly on developments around massive online open courses and related innovations. It took place in Seattle, Washington, on the 21st of May 2014. I worked with Dr Kendall Guthrie of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; Brian Loader, the Editor of iCS, and Director, School of Social and Political Sciences, The University of York; and Sarah Porter and Rebecca Eynon of the OII. We were able to attract major figures in this area, such as Kevin Guthrie, President of Ithaka, but we were not able to unearth a significant set of high-quality research papers. Why?

Higher education is described as being in a time of crisis. In the US, tuition costs have been escalating beyond the cost of inflation for some years, students are building up significant debt, whilst completion rates are in decline. The higher education system is said to be creaking under the strain of additional scrutiny from government, funders, parents and students, yet is struggling to re-invent itself to reduce costs whilst improving quality and increasing flexibility for learners. In a Europe still feeling the consequences of the financial downturn, universities are struggling to retain their public service ethos when budgets are under huge pressure. Elsewhere in the world, many countries plan dramatic expansion to their higher education systems to fuel their growing economies, but they are being held up by lack of infrastructure and the increased intellectual capital that is needed.

At the same time, higher education is becoming a global business, and yet universities are not equipped to fully embrace the potential or address the risks that this might bring. One question is whether the development of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), free online courses are being offered by a wide range of universities and opened to students with any academic background, will be an institutional response to this challenge. They are attracting millions of students from across the globe. To what extent though is the MOOC really revolutionary and disruptive, or is it being used cynically by the most elite institutions to further increase their brand power and assert their superiority, whilst the middle tier of institutions lose student numbers and academic credibility? Do MOOCs hold the potential to support the developing world in its academic ambitions, or are they just another example of neo-colonialism?

Whether MOOCs succeed or fail, or quickly evolve to become something else, they offer an opportunity for the higher education system to consider its future models and to test out new approaches to the way that it does its business – how it creates courses and course materials, how it teaches, how it supports students, how it accredits degrees, how it markets itself, how it covers its costs or makes a profit.

There is another element to the mass online provision of higher education courses. Hidden behind the welcoming and inclusive publicity materials, sophisticated data collection and analysis tools are being created that will gather and analyse information about each student as they move through the system, as they learn, interact with each other and with the materials. This is extremely valuable data and, for the first time, universities will have access to live data about the study habits of many millions of students, together with their personal profile. The potential to use this data for the good, to develop increasingly adaptable and personalised learning systems, is huge; but therein also lies the potential for mis-use and, in the words of the for profit providers of education, for ‘brand differentiation’. What are the implications of this innovation, for good and for bad – and are we giving enough due care and attention to the way that allow this data to be used?

My colleagues thought these developments raise a rich array of research questions. For example:

  1. Is higher education really in crisis or is it really a success story of a system that has adapted over time, and will survive the current challenges without major change?
  2. What are the major innovation challenges for the higher education system and how can they best be addressed?
  3. What do MOOCs mean for the future of higher education? Are they just a marketing device for elite institutions, or can they really be a force for the ‘democratisation of education’?
  4. Which other affordances will enable the higher education system to innovate more effectively?
  5. What is the potential for the use of learner analytics and big data approaches to large-scale online education, and are there threats hidden in this advances?

These are only indicative of a far wider range of topics that could be explored around these innovations. And yet, where is the systematic, empirical research needed to address these questions? While our preconference drew much interest and some excellent papers, we expected far more work in this area. It is not new. Brian Loader and I pulled together an edited book during the last round of interest in this area, entitled Digital Academe. By all of our indicators, less work is being done in academia on the social and institutional implications of the Internet in higher education than at the turn of the century? Are we too close to academia to systematically and critically look at our own institutions?

Bill Dutton with Sarah Porter

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