Are we ready for Uber-versities?

September 2015

- Professor Linda Kristjanson - Digital Disruption and Academia: Universities will experience profound changes during the next ten years and some may not survive in the way they exist today.

Technology is changing the way we go about our daily lives. Entire industries are undergoing transformations as connectivity creates new ways of doing things.

As universities plan for the future, it is important to take note of the major economic and social transformations that changes in technology are bringing about around us.

Although advances in technology have always wrought change, the pace of change has intensified in the last few years. We are now seeing entire markets being re-imagined to be more responsive to consumers’ expectations.

The taxi industry is a case in point. Taxis enjoyed a virtual monopoly for decades in a market built on the idea that only tight government regulation was capable of protecting consumers. With relatively simple technology, Uber now provides a ride sharing service that has fundamentally challenged the status quo.

Using mapping technology available on every smart phone, Uber ensures that drivers need never get lost. By allowing consumers and drivers to rate each other’s performance, it has created greater accountability between market participants. It eliminates the need for customers to carry cash. Uber even has an answer for the vexed issue of supply and demand. Pricing floats according to demand with higher prices at peak times bringing out more drivers. Regulators have struggled to keep up because the ride-sharing model is so radical that no-one saw it coming.

In higher education, we are yet to see radical and disruptive change of this kind. Many universities today look no different to the way they did at the turn of the century. The ‘business model’ for universities today remains not all that different to the one that got us by twenty years ago.

However, we are on the cusp of what will be a period of profound change.

Increasingly, students are demanding to learn in a way that makes sense to them, which can be very different from the way that students have been taught for decades. Traditional teaching methods such as the lecture may have stood the test of time until now, but they may not endure for much longer.

Academic roles are also changing. Students used to look to their lecturer as the keeper of knowledge. As content has become ubiquitous and knowledge more accessible, the skill of the modern academic has shifted away from being an imparter of knowledge to being an integrator of knowledge, creating more personalised conditions that help students learn.

Learning has always been a social activity and technology is creating new ways for students to engage with content and with each other. Not that long ago, group activities typically required students to arrange times to physically meet. Now, much of that work can be done remotely using the same cloud-based conferencing technologies that multinational firms use to solve problems across national borders.

Learning is moving increasingly online. Through analysis of the data that students generate in the learning process, we now know more about what makes them tick and how we can adjust the learning environment for optimum results. Modern learning design also uses game-like elements to speed up learning and ensure that students remain motivated and engaged.

These developments are challenging for many universities, which for many years have collectively enjoyed a strong market position, if not a complete monopoly.

Even the act of bestowing a degree, an act of public recognition that a person has achieved a set of defined learning outcomes, is now under challenge. Many free online courses now offer people ‘badges’ to recognise achievement and these can be displayed in the recipient’s online profile. Although many people see these as novelties, the time may soon come when students can demonstrate to a future employer that they have acquired a custom set of competencies as an alternative to a traditional degree.

Australia has created one of the best systems of higher education in the world.  However, we cannot afford to be complacent in the face of these significant changes. If universities are to remain relevant and world-leading, we cannot trail behind while learning technology changes around us.

We do not yet know what the ‘Uber’ will be for our universities. But rather than wait and see what disruptions emerge, I would rather embrace and use the technologies that could otherwise displace us, to allow us to benefit our students and remain relevant.

By anticipating the potential of disruptive technology in education and using new developments in connectivity to our advantage, we can ensure that the next generation of university-educated students are even better equipped to succeed.