Bean warns universities over digital ‘irrelevance’

Open University chief uses parting message to urge continued innovation

November 8, 2014

Universities in the UK risk becoming irrelevant and would be acting irresponsibly if they fail to embrace new education technologies, the vice-chancellor of the Open University has said.

Martin Bean was making his final public lecture in the UK as head of the institution before leaving in the new year to become vice-chancellor and president of the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, better known as RMIT.

He used the Sir John Cass’s Foundation Lecture, held at City University London’s Cass Business School earlier this week, to urge UK universities to challenge conventional wisdom wherever they saw it holding back progress, using the Open University’s history of disruption as a case in point.

“In the world of education…conventional wisdom has students sitting at desks, facing a teacher who stands at the front doing his or her level best to impart knowledge. It’s a model that has endured for literally thousands of years,” he told attendees.

“But as the Open University has proved over the past four decades it’s not the only way to teach – which is just as well, because in the 21st century, students are demanding new, more engaging ways of teaching and learning.”

Universities could not simply expect students to tolerate the traditional “passive, obedient, one-dimensional” higher education teaching model simply because “that’s the way we’ve always done it”.

“Quite frankly, they deserve better,” he said. “If education doesn’t keep up with this changing environment…we risk the sector becoming irrelevant and even irresponsible.”

To illustrate the point, he compared universities to businesses he said had “failed to meet the challenges of the digital age” and subsequently ran into difficulty, including book store Borders and camera shop Jessops.

“Perhaps the most difficult thing for those of us in higher education to get to grips with is the sheer pace of change,” he said, confessing that even his background working at Microsoft had not prepared him for so many of the top universities in the world to start giving lectures away for free in the form of massive open online courses.

He warned that if UK universities failed to embrace new technologies, they risked being left behind by other countries’ institutions.

“The Americans [and] those pesky Australians aren’t ‘waiting and seeing’,” Mr Bean, who was born in Melbourne, said. “How can we continue to make sure that higher education in England is not only competitive but a genuine world leader without also embracing the opportunities for technology enhanced learning?”

Moocs, he said, were one example of where some UK universities were leading by example. The University of Strathclyde, he said, had taken its Introduction to Forensic Science Mooc, which is offered for free on the Open University-sponsored FutureLearn platform, and re-delivered it, with credit, for campus-based students.

The University of Bristol’s Cracking Mechanics Mooc, also on FutureLearn, was being used to bring first-year students up to speed before they even began their first term, he continued.

“There is some fantastic work being done, but we need to keep our foot on the accelerator of innovation – to think bigger, not just about reaching new audiences, but about revolutionising the traditional learning and teaching experiences.”

chris.parr@tesglobal.com

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Reader's comments (1)

This is an important issue, we are embracing the introduction of technology for our youngest students yet this movement forwards is then not embraced at advanced levels. Surely the importance of consistency of approach for the future of generations to come may be seen? International competitiveness is key.

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