The university is dead, long live the university

Society is in the midst of an upheaval – the so-called fourth industrial revolution that is beating a path towards mainstream adoption of emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. These are already changing the landscape of teaching, learning and working.

Will universities become casualties of this disruption, or are they in fact perfectly placed to rise to the challenge? Whatever the arguments for and against, technology used as a force for good can be transformative, with far-reaching implications for the way institutions are run and for the graduates they produce.

The key to ‘success’ is flexibility. Universities that are able to respond quickly to this fourth industrial revolution will be the most competitive and the most popular among students keen to acquire the kind of digital skills that governments and businesses demand now and in the years to come.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

Education disrupted?

Universities have been a particular focus of tech start-ups seeking to disrupt what they see as inefficient or antiquated industries. Numerous venture capital-funded education technology (edtech) companies have pitched in with new or radically different approaches to how the university degree is taught or assessed and products that claim to dramatically improve the efficiency of running a higher education institution.

In the most extreme cases, the goal is to replace the traditional institution in its entirety, typically with a new structure and operation model that is primarily or even exclusively online, for example, the University of Oxford spinout Woolf University. Woolf aims to exploit the potential of blockchain, the technology underpinning Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, with a new model that offers “Uber for students, Airbnb for academics”.

However, we also see intriguing hybrids, for example, edX offers an online course that can be converted into academic credit at Arizona State University. As the New York Times notes, the culture of credit transfer is strong in American universities, with 38% of all students in higher education transferring courses. Credit the learner earns with edX is awarded by Arizona State University and can be used towards a degree there or transferred to another institution.

Stanford University spin-out Udacity is arguably the poster child for this new breed of higher education operators, offering paid-for online courses, known as nanodegrees, in emerging technologies like flying car and autonomous flight engineering.

These are attractive both for mid-career retraining and upskilling and potentially for early-career learners who wish to leapfrog years of conventional education. More than 10 million learners have already signed up for their courses. These courses are often built in collaboration with industry partners and have little or no involvement with conventional higher education institutions.

The end of the world as we know it?

So, is this the end for the traditional university? I think not. We need our higher education institutions more than ever. Our universities are on the front line of preparing our societies for the challenges and opportunities that the fourth industrial revolution presents – from AI to robotics, bio-engineering and humanity’s emergence as a space-faring civilisation.

At Jisc, the United Kingdom’s education technology not-for-profit, we think that the opportunities for a fourth education revolution, or Education 4.0, vastly outweigh the challenges.

To pick just two examples: AI could revolutionise assessment and give every student their own virtual coach and mentor, and augmented reality could transform teaching from sage-on-the-stage to an immersive experience, including virtual field trips.

We also have to recognise that education will benefit from technical developments in other domains, such as Sandbox VR with its “holodeck in every neighbourhood” concept.

We are already starting to see some signs of what this near future might look like through initiatives like Learning Analytics Cymru, where we are using AI to help Welsh universities better understand when a learner is at risk of disengaging and needs support from their personal tutor.

With all of the societal and technological changes we are going through, student mental health and well-being is of the utmost importance, as Universities UK note in their Minding Our Future report.

And let’s not forget that even Udacity founder and former Google X lead Sebastian Thrun told Fortune he would still send his son to a traditional university.

Martin Hamilton is a futurist at Jisc, a United Kingdom not-for-profit which provides digital solutions for UK education and research. He leads Jisc's future and emerging technologies team, generating and channelling new ideas and building partnerships to bring them to fruition.