It was an honour this week to be asked to speak at the 12th World Islamic Economic Forum, held in Jakarta Indonesia. The theme of the forum was ‘Decentralising Growth, Empowering Future Business’, and certainly empowering future leaders has been the business of higher education for many years. I was asked in particular to focus on the topic of innovation in the higher education sector, and there could not be a more important topic for the Islamic world, or more broadly for the sector. Indeed, the last few decades have witnessed a phenomenal transformation in the HE worldwide, one that has involved genuine decentralisation and democratisation of knowledge. All the indications are that these trends will continue and accelerate in the future.
When I went to university in the 1980s, I was one of just 15% of UK 18-year olds who benefitted from higher education, and although some nations had much higher rates – notably the US– many had lower rates of participation. By contrast, today well over 50% of UK 18-year olds go into higher education, and there are new and expanded universities all around the world, especially in Asia, and across the Islamic world. Much of that transformation has happened in the last 10 years, and it is changing the face of global society.
Alongside this growth in student numbers, there has also been a revolution in learning. When I studied, I went to lectures, wrote essays, sat eight final examinations in a week to determine my degree result, and because I was at a very traditional university, I also had the privilege of small group tutorials. But by the time I became a senior lecturer in the mid-1990s, I was already teaching in ‘flipped classrooms’, where students took responsibility for delivery of a part of the lesson, and there was continuous assessment and problem-based learning, ensuring that students were taught how to think, not necessarily simply how to do.
The advent of digital technology over the past 10 years has transformed the classroom still further. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s, we had signs saying ‘turn off your mobile phone’ as they were viewed as a distraction to students in a lecture. Now, I expect my students to have their smart phone switched on in a lecture. If there is something they don’t understand, they can google it to see if they can find a different perspective. If they have a question, they can send a message to my ‘text wall’, a site where their questions are collected. I can refer to these at the end of the lecture, picking out and answering the most popular questions.
And if they still don’t get it, or want to go back over the experience, we have ‘lecture capture’ technology that records the lecture and plays it back on their e-learning site. They’ll also be able to sample other lectures by staff at MIT, Stanford, or other schools that have made lectures freely available online. They can look at TED-X talks online. They can discuss their findings with other students through a chat room facilty, moderated most likely by a PhD student or ‘Graduate Teaching Assistant’. And as I learned at the 12th WIEF, they can also have textbooks delivered on loan by drone – should they wish!
In turn, transnational education is spreading these approaches and methods around the world. In the Islamic world, Malaysia has invited universities such as Nottingham, Reading, Newcastle, Southampton or Herriot-Watt to bring these innovative approaches to a local context. Meanwhile, countries such as Qatar, Malaysia and elsewhere are creating ‘education cities’ in which a range of foreign and domestic universities develop new faculties in the same physical space, promoting cross-institutional as well as cross-national and cross-disciplinary learning.
And students are on the move, not only to the UK, Europe and US, but in the opposite direction too. It is early days yet, but a number of universities, including my own, are moving towards offering a period abroad to all students, not just in Europe (in fact in our case mainly not in Europe) but also in North America, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. Recent years have seen growing numbers of British students studying alongside counterparts in other parts of the world, whether in summer schools, language classes or regular classes.
In recent years, my students have witnessed first hand the aftermath of the Fukoshima nuclear accident in Japan, and the Arab spring, both somewhat to the concern of our health and safety officer. Next year, SOAS students will study across the Islamic world, including Palestine on the West Bank at An-Najah University, and at Mashaad University in Eastern Iran. We are also working with the Cambodian government to create a ‘field school’ in Banteay Chmmar for SOAS and Cambodian students of art history to train museum curators and art historians of the future.
These are all innovations that are happening already. Meanwhile, there is much talk in the HE sector about ‘disrputive’ innovation in higher education – especially models like the ‘Massive Online Open Courses’ or MOOCs that appear to offer a new model of free on-line learning that can be ‘cashed in’ for a qualification when the student is ready, but otherwise allow flexible and life-long learning alongside the demands of work, childcare, and the other elements of modern life. The scope for development of this as a growing number of people have access to broadband-enabled smart phones and tablets is huge.
I’m less sure that this is the decisive change, or at least that this represents ‘disruption’ as it is viewed in Silicon Valley. Much of the change of the last two decades has been driven by innovation within the established HE sector; in turn, much of it seems to me to build on the past, rather than represent a break from it. Take for example the growth of online education and MOOCs. Here although the leading companies driving innovation are new, such as Coursera and FutureLearn (we are the only UK university to work with both of these platforms), the content is coming from established universities. And one of the first ‘distance learning’ universities – the University of London – through which we at SOAS offer all of our online courses, currently to around 5,000 mainly postgraduate students – is still a market leader.
If I look at our own online courses, in Finance & Management, Development Studies and most recently Diplomacy, I see evolution and changing pedagogy but not rupture. So for example our finance courses involve the delivery of materials to a ‘learner’ for self study with a tutor available for questions and an exam to be sat at the end of the course; whilst our diplomacy courses involve regular interaction with lecturers and other students in small groups through weekly ‘webinars’. Both are sensible models, each arguably more appropriate for the particular student audience they are trying to reach. And of course, all of our students, whether on campus or at a distance, still ask the key question: ‘how do I pass my exam?’
In turn, ‘transnational education’ is not new at all. There has always been student mobility, and indeed, distance learning has a very long pedigree. What is new now is thre relative ease with which both mobilty and learning at a distance can be done – an ease that has made our campuses and teaching styles much more diverse and more innovative. Distance learning is no longer the ‘poor relation’ of on-campus teaching – rather, on-campus delivery has much to learn from the innovative techniques of distance learning.
So what of the next 10 years? I’d like to highlight three areas in which I believe there could be substantial changes, some seemingly more revolutionary than others.
First, the new and brave world of ‘bots’. Silicon Valley is working hard on this – you have probably already heard of Siri or Cortana, online help assistants that work with your Apple or Windows machines to allow you to use them more easily. There are an increasing number of personal assistant bots – for example to help with healthcare enquiries and support to people to self-medicate. They are also emerging in the HE sector, and it is certainly not inconveivable that in 10 years time, a significant proportion of our teaching assistants will be computers.
For example, one of the more interesting stories of the year was of a class at Georgia Tech in the US, admittedly in Artificial Intelligence, where half of the students were assigned their usual student advisor, and another half got ‘Jill’, who was a computer (but they didn’t know that). The feedback scores at the end of the year for teaching quality were slightly higher for Jill – indeed, one of the students said he was going to nominate her for a teaching award before he found out she was not human!
Is this a threat? Will teaching by people like me become a thing of the past? Probably not; rather I see automated student advice as potentially a huge step forward. Student advice in this context is helping students to understand the learning that they are doing in class – it’s online support that comes after the lecture. The creativity involved in learning and teaching, the 1-2-1 interactions are not going to go away, but they can be massively enhanced by automated support targeted at students who are struggling (something we can also know more clearly through analysis of data on performance in class assessments – another thing that will likely be generalised in 10 years time). Of course, we do have a huge challenge to make this automated advice seem and feel real – most of us don’t like interacting with a computer.
A second change, which is also happening, but I believe will accelerate, is distributed or decentralised learning. Lets be clear – MOOCs will not replace degree programmes, and degrees at most univresities will not simply move online. However, there is scope for online learning groups, extending beyond institutions and national boundaries. Why should a class at SOAS and a class in Jakarta not interact on a regular basis over the internet? Think of the economies of scale from bringing together students interested in learning an ancient language such as Pakrit or Hittite (two languages taught at SOAS) from different parts of the world. Here the online connection is the missing link in a system where increasing numbers of students get to travel – we can have blended models in which students spend part of their degree in one university, part in another (or others) and part online, inteacting as a cohort with students who have started in different places. Some of the more innovative business schools are already delivering this sort of model, and it will grow, not only for professional education.
And then there is integration –of teaching and research; and of learning and practice. This might seem a strange thing to predict, as the trajectory in the UK is currently in the opposite direction, with the separation of our funding and regulatory bodies into separate research and teaching arms, sitting in different ministries. But I still strongly see this as the future – why?
Because if, as now widely predicted, computers and artificial intelligence are taking over the complex but essentially routine tasks – the learning of facts, rules, theorems, the accumulation of knowledge, experience and precedent, then what is left for higher education to focus on teaching human students is precisely the creativity that comes from and in research and practice – the thinking differently, laterally, the combining of knowledge from different subjects and disciplines, the physical and mental dexterity, the innovation that is at the core of human research and practice that computers will find incredibly hard for years to come.
At SOAS, we are proud to have three gamelans; in ten year’s time, I am confident we will have a Professor of Music who continues to teach students how to play them, and how to compose for them. I believe we will also continue to teach and research Persian poetry, classical Arabic, and Sumerian, and we may also have added Pyu, the ancient language of Burma, which SOAS linguists are currently using computing power to decipher for the first time.
And we will still be teaching students to think, and dream, hopefully in many languages, to make the world a better place. It is that which sets us apart from machines, and is the source of true innovation in education.