Universities in the UK are no more immune to technological change than businesses, and the publication of a report last week outlining some of the threats facing the sector made this clearer than ever.
The ominously titled 'An Avalanche Is Coming: Higher Education and the Revolution Ahead' from the IPPR sketches the broad trends in global higher education before describing what the report's authors deem to be the biggest threat - or opportunity - for our universities: the MOOC. To give it its full title, the Massive Online Open Course has accelerated what the report calls the 'unbundling' of competition in the sector.
Now, with simply a computer and internet connection, interested learners from Ankara to Bangkok to Caracas can log on and access recorded lectures from the best universities in the world, in countries they may never even visit. Harvard, MIT, Berkley and dozens of other providers outside the US Ivy League are currently offering online lectures in subjects from introductory Economics to advanced Mathematics and Artificial Intelligence.
Most importantly, the courses are offered for free by the majority of providers. This approach has attracted tens of thousands of online enrolments to some courses, with students 'attending' class from over a hundred countries. The three big players, Coursera, UDacitiy and EdX are already beginning to find ways to accredit these courses so that users can build towards qualifications and credit valid at real universities.
So what does this mean for UK institutions? The report highlights the Open University-led FutureLearn, which brings together twelve universities but has yet to begin offering courses. Opting for the first-mover advantage, the University of Edinburgh successfully enrolled over 300,000 students in the first six weeks after partnering with the US-based Coursera in July 2012. Whichever provider our universities partner with, there is no doubt that for the higher education sector being part of this growing trend will be a key element of their strategy in the future.
Of course, hard sciences, engineering and medicine cannot realistically be taught online. But as the traditional undergraduate degree looks like less of a good bet (25% of those who left university in 2011 were unemployed within six months, compared to 20% of school-leavers), the possibility for low cost teaching in less resource-intensive subjects grows. The social mobility benefits of such wide access to free learning won't only be felt in countries lacking top universities. Here in the UK, the technology could also help those in low-paid work increase their skills base. Vocational courses in disciplines like computer programming, for example, could offer income enhancing skills at a fraction of the cost of full-time university study.
The practice of studying in the evening for qualifications in law, accountancy and surveying was the norm for my parent's generation. In recent years, the three or four-year, full-time degree has become the standard, and there has even been a decline in part-time student numbers. But as the report notes, for many people, their views on learning and work are becoming more entwined, and combining the two is often seen as a way to reduce debt and increase employability. In the current climate of economic gloom, the ability to up-skill quickly and cheaply makes a great deal of sense.
Online provision could very easily become a major component of all university teaching. If they can adapt quickly to this change, the report suggests that UK universities have nothing to worry about. But the key word is 'adapt'; universities are not always the quickest institutions to react to change, and this latest shift won't be forgiving of those dragging their heels. As with most new technology, it's hard to see where this trend will go, but if online learning can sit alongside bricks-and-mortar institutions in helping widen access to learning and vocational training, then I'm all for that change.