Overhauling universities

Timely article from the BBC, “Universities need radical overhaul, says David Willetts” (2010-06-10) might provoke a positive response from people like us in CETIS, Bolton’s IEC, and the Centre for Recording Achievement (CRA). The BBC indicates that Willetts thinks universities faced “tough times” and needed to find cheaper and more flexible ways to teach. To which I’d add, more relevant and effective, perhaps?

What inefficiencies might be identified in higher education at present? For now, here are just a few first ideas, along with the kind of responses that CETIS, IEC or CRA could contribute to (though not in any order of impact, significance, importance, or difficulty, all of which need consideration).

1. Cost of producing learning materials and resources.
Response: greater use of open educational resources — see the CETIS OER topic.

2. Cost of staff.
Response: make greater use of peer support and assessment, perhaps starting with IEC’s IDIBL approach.

3. Irrelevance to employment and the economy.
Response: at the behest of learners themselves (see below) make more learning work-based, again like IDIBL, and let HEIs focus on Employer Engagement, as in the HE5P project undertaken by the CRA for HEFCE.

4. High student drop-out.
Response: ensure that students know what they want, are well motivated, know what they can do already, and have supportive PDP processes in place. Again, the CRA specialise in PDP and e-portfolio tools, and I have a particular interest in e-portfolio tools that are well-adapted to help good practice. This relates to ethical development that I have written about before. To counter the interminable arguments about the ideal aims of higher education, let properly-prepared learners choose. If they want employment-centric education, let them have it, not some poor ineffective attempt at such. If they want liberal arts with no requirement for consequent employment, again, let them have it. It’s not ultimately up to you or I or anyone to preach about what education should be for. And, surely, good preparation and real choice of objective should lead to more commitment?

5. Ineffective technology
OK, but several tools won’t perform as required to enable these efficiency gains. VLEs in silos, which you can’t extract information from, are a case in point. But the kind of cross-linking, enabling technology that CETIS people work on is surely well-placed. Look at Wookie, for example, allowing different applications to exist as widgets within web pages. Or look at the mobile technology work, brought together in a meeting about which many people twittered… For a full vision of an overhauled university, we would probably need to do more along the e-admin line, which isn’t perhaps appealing at first sight, but could make so much difference to the institutional overheads.

6. Lack of interoperability
Last but not least (in relevance to CETIS) we could list the inefficiencies due to lack of interoperability within the technology. For tasks that have to be done, this leads to inefficiencies such as rekeying; for tasks that are still very valuable but not absolutely necessary (such as many portfolio tasks) this probably leads to good things not being done at all, and consequent ineffectiveness. Not only to CETIS contribute very significantly to interoperability initiatives, as our name suggests, but we are maintaining a forward-looking discussion about the future of interoperability.

As I hinted at the beginning, the people I work with know about these things. It might be both very impressive, and very helpful to the likes of David Willetts, to bring these points together in a coherent vision of a university aimed at learner-centered effectiveness as well as efficiency.

4 thoughts on “Overhauling universities

  1. Hi Simon

    I think that lots of the work coming out of the current curriculum design and delivery projects is relevant here too. The design project in particular have already highlighted many issues around the course approval process within institutions ( Helen Beetham has produced a useful summary of their baseline reports available for download @ http://www.jisc.ac.uk/whatwedo/programmes/elearning/curriculumdesign.aspx).

    As belts tighten then I think one of the key things that Innovation Support Centre like CETIS can do is to help make sense of the bigger picture in terms of what is happening out there “in the real world” and marry that with the actual needs of the education sector. Sometimes it’s the small things that can have the most impact both financially and in terms of improving the teaching and learning experience. What we should be aiming for (imho) are a range of solutions to allow people/institutions to make better informed decisions around their own contexts and identities. The DVLE programme and briefing paper is a step in this direction.


  2. Your solution to number 4 is to ensure that students know what they want. I work with high school students and some know what they want to study in college while others change their mind on a daily basis. E-portfolios sound like a good idea especially if they can be started early on in a child’s education. I think it is also important for parents to get involved early on to help their children explore their talents and interest and present career options that concur; hopefully easing the confusion when they reach the college level.

  3. Hi Simon.

    Another look for this problem from Russia. It is really time for changes. I finish MIPT (www.mipt.ru) few years ago. It was great institute. Very strong in physics. Earlier is was one of the best in the world. And what is today? It is far down the top 100.

    There is really the problem with effectiveness. The way to learn yesterday is not good for nowadays. The students need smth that was nor required yesterday. That’s why this “High student drop-out”.

    Surely there are lot of items more. So the article is true for nowadays of Russian universities too.


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