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Do vice chancellors dream of electric sheep? Why education leaders must embrace digital technology

Last week, I was at a London Technology Week symposium on international partnerships in higher education.

I started to wonder about the transformative effect of technology on partnerships in academia, and how technology might facilitate more collaboration. I wondered, too, about the ability to invest in technology when competition is growing and students globally have more choice than ever on where they go. For smaller institutions lacking scale, reputation and global reach, the challenges are particularly daunting.

I remembered an incident from my time as HRD for a global publishing business when I was squired up 5th Avenue to the headquarters of an illustrious headhunting firm. I had been tasked with hiring an individual to help the company transform the delivery of its content. I needed advice on attracting people who might need to be persuaded that, although educational publishing was not the most lucrative of options, it may be the most rewarding as education is a ‘noble cause’. I imagined someone who had made their money in a tech business and who wanted to ‘give back’.

Via a videoconference link, I spoke to the firm’s most successful technology headhunter in Silicon Valley, who had apparently hired the entire executive team of the most renowned and successful technology companies in the world.

I was soon divested of my rosy illusions. The headhunter told me that the best technologists worldwide were able to work wherever they wanted – and expected to name their price. They couldn’t care less about the greater good or about ‘giving back’. Money was all they cared about and they had a million options.

Her advice was to partner up with an organisation that could provide the necessary technological expertise, so we could concentrate on creating and curating our content. She told me that most content businesses like ours were too far behind to go it alone and still expect to catch up with players who were ‘born digital’.

I didn’t care for the message, but I knew she was right. The business models of media companies have been dramatically disrupted in the last 20 years. The scene in publishing is not uniform – those harnessing digital technology early have had the greatest success. Others have made the same mistakes as the music business, spending too much time and money to fight change, and not embracing technologies to extend their reach and influence. By the time they realised how far behind they had fallen, the change needed was revolution, not evolution – a much more dangerous and high-risk game.

That’s why, to meet the challenges that globalisation presents, it’s so important smaller higher education institutions partner up to achieve the technological transformation needed to compete with larger institutions.

If we look to the US for where we might be heading, the following becomes apparent:

  1. The market for online education and universities has doubled in the last couple of years.
  2. Blended learning is now the norm and becoming increasingly sophisticated – this takes investment along with clever marketing and research.
  3. Massive open online courses (MOOCs) offer accessibility to the best institutions in the world, so physical limits are no longer a barrier to access – which raises issues of how they might be cannibalised.
  4. Online degrees introduce self-paced learning, flexibility and real-world experience, allowing students to create their own schedules and completion dates.
  5. Homeworking solutions like that from Sapling in Austin, Texas, allow students to identify knowledge gaps and receive helpful feedback.

The world over, the cost of education is rising. Technology poses challenges, but could it ultimately be a force for good in that it may not only enhance the quality of higher education, but also bring the unit cost of educating a student down?

Organisational culture has a critical role to play in driving technology in higher education. Having leaders who are visionary, ambitious and have the courage to try new approaches will be critical. Strong leadership teams – open-minded, able to listen and respond to the changes – will succeed unlike those who are overwhelmed by the precarious nature of the situation.

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