Alastair Creelman, an e-learning Specialist from Linnaeus University, Sweden discusses the benefits of universities embracing new changes in learning
The worldwide demand for higher education is exploding and projections show an increase from 100 million today to 250 million by 2025. The traditional university system simply cannot cope with this expansion and unless we start building new major universities every day for the foreseeable future, we will need to completely revise the provision of higher education. The demand for higher education among working professionals is growing rapidly and is overtaking the demand from the traditional 18-23-year-old target group, which could even shrink as more young people opt out of often over-priced higher education. Whether they like it or not universities are facing a completely new market in the next 10 years. The traditional campus model certainly won’t disappear but there are strong signs that the concept of a university education preparing you for a career is becoming less valid. In addition, there is a massive demand for lifelong learning opportunities from people who have no university background but have gained equivalent skills outside the formal system.
The new learners are not able to uproot themselves to move to the university or commute to campus classes since most of them will be studying while working full-time. They will be more skills-focused than younger students with no work experience and they may not see the point of many traditional academic concepts. The gold standard of the 3 quarter-year degrees may not be relevant for tomorrow’s professionals and traditional examination forms will be increasingly questioned in favour of various forms of skills assessment. Of course, many universities already offer an extensive range of online courses and even degrees with many national open universities in the forefront, but with a few exceptions, most institutions still see traditional campus education as core business and professional development and lifelong learning as a sideline at best. Higher education is also highly selective with millions of potential students being rejected every year. Where do you go if you can’t get into university and should higher education be a privilege or a right?
The European Commission’s High-Level Group on the modernisation of higher education published last year, a welcome report (New modes of learning and teaching in universities 1, European Commission 2014). They offer a number of recommendations for the improvement of teaching technologies and practices and stress the need for government authorities to stimulate and foster educational change rather than the present practice of delegating responsibility to grassroots initiatives alone. They call on all member states to draw up strategies to support universities in this major change in focus as well as stressing the need for coordinated teacher development and support. In addition, they stress the need for quality assurance in online learning and the open availability of educational resources.
One promising avenue that is gaining ground is that of competency-based degrees. Professionals can integrate their university education with work and gain credits from real projects in the workplace. Attendance on campus is the exception rather than the rule and there is close cooperation between university and employers. More importantly, students can gain credits for skills they already have by providing the university with a portfolio of previous experience and certificates from employers. In this way, experienced professionals can progress quickly through the degree programme and they can convert solid professional experience into credible credentials.
The present flora of non-formal and informal learning opportunities like MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), open educational resources and skills-based learning initiatives is leading us into a new educational ecosystem. Although there will still be a demand for the traditional university package deal, more and more people are acquiring skills through practical experience, non-traditional open education and in-house corporate training and need to get formal recognition for their skills. There are already universities (eg. OER university partnership 2 who are willing to award credits and even full degrees to students who can present verifiable evidence of prior learning, even for students who have never studied a single course at that institution. This creates new paths to learning where the university campus is no longer the only option and where online learning will be the driving force. However, it is vital that higher education recognises and embraces these changes. Recognition of prior learning is likely to become the key to this new ecosystem and this is the area I expect to see growing strongly in the coming years.
Alastair Creelman is an e-learning specialist at Linnaeus University, Kalmar, Sweden with a particular interest in open education (including OER, MOOCs), social media in education and quality in e-learning. He has extensive teaching experience in schools, adult education, corporate training and higher education in the UK, Sweden and Finland. He has lead and participated in numerous national and international e-learning projects as well as being programme chair of several international conferences. He was a board member and vice president of EFQUEL (European Foundation for Quality in E-learning) from 2012 till 2014.
Linnaeus University, Sweden