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Higher education 4.0 – an opportunity to reimagine the future

3rd June 2021

Author: Dr Ravi Sharma, Professor of Information Systems & Technology & Management at Zayed University

Ravi SharmaOver the past decade, Dr Kevin Jones taught me a lot about blended learning. I had the privilege of supervising his doctoral work on the impertinent plausibility of learning without lectures (Jones & Sharma, 2021). And we weren’t trying to be prescient.

In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, we resumed this conversation, much of it in a narrative-style Q&A via email or web-conferencing. As our conversations are still ongoing, we agreed that, given the current, unfortunate reality of the forced transformation to online learning, Institutions of Higher Education (IHEs) must seek out principles that will co-design with stakeholders a blended future when the current pandemic is brought under control – the so-called 'next normal'.

The easy part of this transformation to what is known as the 4th Industrial Revolution in Higher Education (HiEd 4.0) is the provisioning of hardware, software and services.  We are gratified that the pandemic has allowed K12 through tertiary education to proceed undisrupted, albeit with some expected hiccups and inequities.

The 'wicked problem' is the culture shifts that need to be addressed. In our view, it is salient that those who have experienced online learning in the past year know it has significant challenges not only for instructors but also for the non-digital-native students. Teachers who are very good at capturing the attention and engagement of students in the physical classroom will not suddenly transform into similarly great online instructors.  Likewise, students who excel with classroom UX may not online.

Another shift that needs to be addressed is the question of how online learning could concurrently be the revenue-earner and cost-reducer that numerous IHEs dream about. Kevin’s doctoral research set out the objective of designing such a blended learning platform. This was a decade ago.  The last we spoke, we’re still working on it.

So, what are we advocating as an agenda? Kevin and I agreed that it would be necessary for IHEs to take this as a teachable moment and see the opportunity for transformation.

Even prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, at an ICIS 2019 TREO talk, we presented our advocacy research conducted on behalf of the Tertiary Education Union of New Zealand. We had called for Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) that would quality assure the credibility (in terms of student feedback, engagement, assessment scores, retention etc.) of online delivery by benchmarking it to traditional classroom delivery across parameters such as subject discipline, learning styles, instructional design, etc.

Given the opportunity that has presented itself, albeit in forced lockdown circumstances, now is the time for large, repeatable, multi-national experimentation and validation to assure stakeholders that while online may not be the real thing, effective learning does take place, sometimes in unintended ways.

wei chiThe Chinese-language expression for crises ('wei chi') consists of two characters: danger and opportunity. During these unprecedented times, we caution IHEs NOT to yearn to 'get back to normal' asap, but instead revisit some fundamental notions of learning and assessments of learning outcome.

The validity of blended learning needs to be established for all stakeholders to accept. If this is achieved, we are convinced that it will invigorate higher education for millennials and their comfort with digital lifestyles.

Technology and infrastructure providers are appreciably ready for a future that does not return to the comfortable 'sage on stage' models of the past but co-create with stakeholders such as students, faculty and regulators a HiEd 4.0 roadmap that ushers a reimagined era that addresses access, cost and effective outcomes.