Higher education must brace for digital disruption

Disruptions to higher education systems and deliveries are fundamentally changing the perceptions of access to information and university attendance, while giving developing countries an advantage over the developed world, says Rob Brown of global education group Navitas.

Anyone demanding a premium for delivering education or expecting people to come to physical infrastructure to conduct business or acquire services will be disrupted and must reassess their models, delegates to the Global Conference on the Internationalisation of Higher Education held in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, learned.

Addressing the conference hosted by the International Education Association of South Africa, IEASA, from 22-24 August, Brown – an Australian who heads digital marketing for Navitas – challenged traditional thinking around higher education and outlined the way in which he sees the world shifting.

He reflected on how disruption to long-held business models has decimated global brands like Encyclopaedia Britannica and Kodak, where 20 years ago it would have been inconceivable to imagine their disappearance.

Higher education disruption

“Disruption will happen in higher education like nothing we have seen before and first world institutions are going to suffer the hardest and first. The real opportunities exist in the developing world,” he said.

Developed countries have dominated every aspect of human interaction, from education to university systems, ideologies, philosophy, trade, advances in medical science and lifestyle choices. They had access to information denied to the developing world in terms of accessibility and affordability.

However, the entry of Netscape Navigator in 1994 as the world’s first web browser changed the parameters as people plugged into the grid to access information regardless of geography.

Today’s ‘game changer’ is that currently 3.5 billion people access the Internet. Visiting a physical library to acquire information “is about as quaint as opening an Encyclopaedia Britannica”.

Brown said traditionally people attended university to access information not available elsewhere, and to access minds only available in the institution, build professional networks for a career and walk out of the experience with a piece of paper.

“Today only the last has currency,” he said.

Australian universities already have empty lecture theatres coupled with the knowledge that students are not bunking classes and downloading the lecture notes. They are acquiring their information from different sources – and achieving higher results than previous generations.

The age of the app

Brown said Abraham Maslow’s 1943 hierarchy of needs theory no longer holds relevance. Where his pyramid anchored on physiological needs like clothing and shelter, today’s first priority is wifi and battery life.

The challenge was that information wants to be free but it also wants to be expensive, and this dichotomy will particularly affect higher education. People will question why they must spend US$30,000 to US$40,000 annually when they can acquire that information online.

This means higher education must prepare for disruptions akin to what has happened to traditional media courtesy of Facebook, commerce courtesy of Alibaba, hotels courtesy of Airbnb and taxis courtesy of Uber. None of those structures own physical infrastructure, yet each are the largest globally in their markets.

Brown believes this disruption plays into the hands of developing nations unencumbered by past legacies.

While developed countries with ageing populations face empty lecture theatres, developing nations cannot accommodate the number of students wanting spaces – and that paves the way for the rise of superstar teachers using technology to educate.

Whereas university contacts and friendships formed the basis for professional life, smartphone apps now link people with available job opportunities.

Brown surmised that it will not be long before an app arrives linking higher education professionals with agents or recruiters in the same way we order an Uber taxi. There will be no need to physically appear at a brick-and-mortar location to acquire the agent, eliminating issues like time and energy invested in that process.

Trust between strangers

Peer-to-peer lending is another aspect undergoing significant change as people no longer trust institutions, but each other.

“The currency of the new economy is the trust between strangers,” he said, pointing out that three years ago the Bank of England governor predicted peer-to-peer lending would outstrip institutional lending within a decade.

University research departments are also under threat and while advances in science and technology will not halt, the way in which breakthroughs happen will not be via “the 15 people in white lab coats working in a single room”.

Platforms like crowd-sourcing research and development company InnoCentive will solve issues as there could now be many people working on a problem from vastly different angles.

“The cure for cancer will not come from a laboratory, but from the crowd,” Brown said.

The impact for higher education is that anyone demanding a premium for dispensing information is under threat. One theory is that within 50 years the world will only have 10 higher education institutions existing with physical infrastructure.

Quoting Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Brown concluded that most people overestimate the change that will happen in the next two years, but underestimate change in the next 10.