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Embrace digital age or face irrelevance – Martin Bean

Universities risk becoming irrelevant and irresponsible if they don’t equip staff to deal with the digital age, said Martin Bean, vice-chancellor of the Open University, in the 2014 Sir John Cass’s Foundation Lecture at the Cass Business School in London.

Bean said he wanted to focus his 5 November lecture on the tyranny of conventional wisdom, particularly in education, where “disruptive innovation” is forcing people to reconsider the very foundations of learning and teaching.

Bean has worked at the intersection of education and technology throughout his career, having studied in Sydney before moving to the United States for 15 years and then England.

At the end of this year he is heading back to Australia to become vice-chancellor and president of RMIT University in Melbourne, which is breaking new ground by re-shaping the built environment to support peer-to-peer interaction and encourage academic conversation.

Assumption, inertia, scepticism and fear of change can create a toxic mix that hampers creativity, stifles innovation and holds back progress, he said.

“When people aren’t afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, that’s when the magic happens. It’s the sort of creativity that took man to the moon.”

He said throughout much of the Apollo 11 design process the conventional wisdom that the two pilots had to have seats caused a weight problem that was only solved when two junior engineers pointed out that for a low-gravity short flight they could simply fly standing up.

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. But as the Open University has proved over four decades, it is not the only way to teach.

Digital natives

Bean said today’s young people are ‘digital natives’. “They have grown up swiping and clicking as well as reading and writing: their smartphones are glued to their hands. They can’t conceive of a world before Google, YouTube and Twitter.

“When they have a question, they google the answer. When they want to know what’s happening, they check Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a million other forms of social media. They have friends living thousands of miles away and may spend hours chatting to them each day even though they’ve never met.

“If education doesn’t keep up with this changing environment, we risk the sector becoming irrelevant and even irresponsible."

Perhaps the most difficult thing for those in higher education to get to grips with is the sheer pace of change, he said.

Blending learning

But the Americans and the Australians are adopting new technologies, transforming their learning and teaching and presenting a new face to students throughout the world.

One recent example of transformation can be seen in the proliferation of massive open online courses, better known as MOOCs.

FutureLearn, sponsored by the Open University and launched in October 2013, is the first United Kingdom MOOC platform and has welcomed more than 1.4 million course sign-ups with its 40 ‘world-class’ partners.

Bean said while many people feel comfortable with the idea that online teaching is being used to reach new audiences, more interesting and unexpected, perhaps, is the way that MOOCs are shifting what’s going on in the rest of university life.

Southampton University is blending the experiences of on-campus students with that of MOOC students; facilitating global dialogue and a much more interactive learning community.

The University of Strathclyde has taken its “Introduction to Forensic Science” MOOC and re-delivered it for credit in a virtual learning environment. And the University of Bristol is using its “Cracking Mechanics” MOOC to better prepare students for first year study.

Put more broadly, the MOOC space is a fantastic place in which to experiment – with things like self-assessment, practical experimentation and video-based resources.

Revolutionising traditional practice

The challenge was to think not just about reaching new audiences but about revolutionising the traditional learning and teaching experience.

Bean cited the example of Nobel prize winning physicist Carl Wieman, who ran tests on how well students retained information from his lectures. The answer was very poorly. So he changed how he taught.

First, he podcast all of his normal lectures and study materials to students over the summer. Then when they arrived in the autumn he handed them a voting button and presented his lectures around, asking questions of his students, gathering the answers and showing them in real time on the screen behind him.

“The whole dynamic moved from a scientist talking at his audience to a group of intelligent individuals talking with each other. And when that happened? The students’ heads went up, laptop lids went down, and retention rates went through the roof.”

It didn’t involve using expensive kit, just a video, a website and some simple polling. What made the difference was Wieman having the courage to use technology in an innovative way, he said.

Bean said the Open University was created to become a disruptive force in education and has challenged conventional wisdom in its admissions policies, in pioneering distance learning, and in partnerships with business.

“This has given us a different perspective, a willingness to take risks and to try new ways of doing things,” he said.

This is reflected in the 65 million downloads on iTunes U, the six million views each year of videos the Open University shares on its YouTube channel and the fact that all undergraduates receive their course material digitally on mobiles and PCs. It has also installed Baronness Martha Lane Fox, founder of http://lastminute.com as its new chancellor.

He said incorporating technology into lectures should not be seen as dumbing down. What could be more sophisticated than teaching students to navigate through vast swathes of information; to assess the veracity of their sources; to communicate their ideas effectively and clearly?

“In reality there is great online teaching and lousy online teaching. There is great face-to-face teaching and there is lousy face-to-face teaching. You know what the goal should always be? Great teaching,” he said.

“If we can show [people] the benefits of using technology to transform the way they teach, the results will be extremely powerful,” he said.
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