Education’s Resistance to Internet Disruption

There are three reasons identified by Archibald and Feldman (2011) for why higher education models seem resistant to technological change. Primarily, they point out, education functions as if it were a professional service limited to the productivity of a qualified specialist. The authors observe that the education industry follows similar cost dynamics to those of physicians, dentists and lawyers. The actual practice and efficiency of these specialists are not seriously influenced by the application of technology because they are knowledge-based professions, requiring the time of specialised people with limited availability. The second cause of resistance: there is no crisis of demand. Increases in technolog)' across society have increased the demand for skilled labour, which in turn increases the demand for higher education. There is no crisis to spur efficiency in universities and, because on-campus education does not easily benefit from economies of scale, the cost of catering for additional students actually increases the overall price of tuition. Finally, there is the way in which technolog)' is frequently applied to higher education, complementing rather than transforming the existing service offering. This third characteristic has the effect of increasing cost rather than introducing efficiencies. As an example, lectures are still the primary means of tuition; the additional costs of technology enable them to also be streamed and revised.

That universities are not transformed by technology should not surprise us. At the heart of the problem is not that universities lack the will to innovate, are pedagogically short-sighted or even academically resistant. The reason is that the incumbent operating model of campus-based universities is incompatible with technological efficiency. Technology is leveraged to complement rather than transform practice. This is because all universities have deep-set systems and processes that reinforce incumbent practice. For an on-campus university, the model of education as a professional service limited to the productivity of a qualified specialist is completely ingrained across the entire institution. The setting of budgets, the conditions of accreditation, enrolment services, student support functions, timetabling and the campus itself all reflect and further serve to reinforce the lecture as the basis of teaching. In such a context, technology can, at best, only hope to ever make incremental adjustments to practice.

Incumbent practice can also limit the digital transformation of traditional distance universities. As with campus-based universities, it is processes that are ultimately at fault; in distance education those processes that serve a print-based approach designed for module authorship (as in ‘writing a module’) tend to limit the role digital technologies might play. The path towards digital transformation is not merely to transfer print output to digital output, because the real issue is how the incumbent medium of print has shaped the entire way things are done. In print-based distance universities, course materials are typically produced according to a schedule timed to hard semester dates. Print-based editing requirements drive the writing process, and requirements that materials be printable limit learning activities and make digital elements optional. In both campus-based and print-based distance universities, digital approaches are typically applied peripherally rather than centrally.

Ultimately, technology fails to transform education and adds cost rather than efficiency because the effective, innovative application of technology' requires changes to how a university functions, across all its most important departments. So, rather than determining the way in which the university operates, technology' is bolted on to how things are already done. This is why Peter Dtucker, an otherwise profound and insightful management theorist across the mid- to late twentieth century, was entirely wrong in his 1997 prediction cited at the opening of this chapter: he both misunderstood education to be the dissemination of knowledge, and underestimated the rigidity of how universities operate in support of their predominant way of teaching (be it the lecture or the printed manual). Somewhat ironically, it is also not easy for new players to enter and shake up the higher education sector. Weighty compliance activities, reputation and established student volumes are key to success, and so incumbents typically have exceptional competitive advantages over new university brands.

So, given that education is a specialised service limited by the activities of qualified gatekeepers (academics), there is no crisis in demand, the economic and social contribution by the incumbent university system is widely accepted, there is systematic resistance to technological change, universities are apparently already successful in their educational endeavour and it’s very' hard for new entrants to shake things up, why would I bother writing this book? Simply because I believe that transformed universities offering digital distance education can provide much more educational value in so many ways. Alongside all the affirmation the current system ought to be provided with, it can be - indeed, ought to be - much more accessible, scalable and personalised through the sound application of technolog)'. There is a moral, social, economic and educational imperative to the wise distribution of public funds towards the personal and social outcomes universities are concerned with. I am also of the view that the model presented in this book is inevitable, even if most universities operate as if it were not.

Supply- and Demand-Orientated Education

Most universities tend to operate in a supply-oriented rather than demand-oriented way, which is to say that university operations are typically designed to be internally convenient. There are three main reasons for this somewhat parochial selfcentredness. First, as we have seen, there are inadequate incentives to become more demand-orientated; there is no crisis. Second, perhaps more insidiously, universities’ operating models work against a true demand orientation. Universities tend to work within rigid structures and annualised processes that are difficult to change, particularly with no crisis at hand. Third, compliance in the form of academic and administrative standards does not require a demand orientation.

Quality in universities tends to be formally measured in terms of compliance (supply-orientated) rather than the student experience (demand-orientated). Compliance is vitally important to the integrity of higher education. However, accreditation standards provide a very narrow and supply-sided definition of quality that misses the critical, demand-oriented dimension of personalisation (as stated earlier, by personalised I mean offering more support where more is needed, drawing on each individual’s experiences and perspectives, and emphasising feedback). The quality thinking of many universities does not go far enough, in that it does not seek to transcend compliance requirements towards a more personalised student experience.

Part of education’s apparent resistance to internet disruption is that universities see little wrong with the quality of what they do, and that their compliance requirements tend to encourage a supplier-oriented view to quality in which the actual student experience is represented by proxy. One of my main motivations for writing this book is that universities tend to only take tentative steps towards providing overall service quality from a demand perspective, and I believe that the demand perspective will become a vital means of competing in the future.

Personalisation is one of the three main objectives I consider central to what society should expect from its universities. Universities are simply not encouraged under current formal compliance (quality) regimes to meet the service expectations of a digitally empowered consumer. If the purpose of the university is to educate, then those accessing university are legitimately termed students. However, with fees increasing and student expectations towards service legitimately changing, the perspective of students as consumers also becomes more important. As a paying purchaser of a product and service, the student is a consumer entitled to the respect and demand orientation all institutions ought to provide. However, the consumer is also a student: required to work hard towards the ultimate objective of graduation, often through conditions and activities they may not value at the time. Universities must intentionally navigate this potentially constructive tension, not relying on compliance to be their sole determinant of quality.

Personalisation provides a means of differentiation of service and a way of genuinely engaging with students as consumers.

Personalisation and Demand Orientation

I believe that it is only a matter of time before various universities do transform and disrupt the dynamics of the higher education sector. The mechanism for this transformation is effective digital distance education, DDE, which reflects a demand orientation that goes beyond the supply orientation required by formal compliance.

Let’s consider what a demand orientation might resemble. If we place ourselves in the shoes of 21st-century clients of other institutions and transfer our expectations on to universities, we can imagine what demand-driven, personalised service might resemble (acknowledging that some of these features are already in play). For my part, here is what I would expect.

  • • As a personalised learner, I am paying more than ever for the privilege of our education. It’s not just the higher fees; I also see those around me currently earning the sort of money I might be earning were it not for my decision to study. There’s an opportunity cost to me studying, and so my sensitivities are high! I’m also working to support myself. I view the university as a service organisation that must centre its activities on my busy and often unpredictable lifestyle. I’m not afraid of the commitment study requires, it’s just that it’s not always easy for me to regularly make that commitment.
  • • As a personalised learner, I expect to be able to begin my study when it is convenient for me to do so and for deadlines to flex around the reality of my broader life demands. I don’t mind a schedule, but I do mind having to wait months (or even weeks) before being able to start! I would also expect to be able to access all notes and study materials digitally, even if I still required textbooks as part of my learning - and if I did require an additional textbook, I would question why course notes would not be enough for my learning.
  • • As a personalised learner, paying a considerable amount for my study, I don’t choose to enrol on a whim. I may not know what I’m getting myself into, but that doesn’t mean I’m casual about it. I may not be entirely ready, but that doesn’t mean I’ll benefit from a ‘sink or swim’ experience. As I start, I expect to be gently immersed in what study demands. I’ll still work hard and rise to the occasion but, at first, I’m not sure just what the occasion is.
  • • As a personalised learner, I expect the service I receive to be seamless and consistent. I would be surprised to find departmental boundaries interfering with or changing my points of contact, and I would be alarmed if anyone I interacted with did not have access to my record of previous queries and outcomes. I also expect my educators to know me by name, and to prioritise my learning over their other responsibilities.
  • • As a personalised learner, I expect a seamless digital experience that works across my multiple devices, synchronises for offline access and doesn’t require proprietary plugins. I expect to be personally notified about and reminded of due dates and anything else expected of me. As part of this experience I don’t want to have to find my way to where I last left off. Why would I need to, when Kindle books, Spotify tracks and Netflix series are remembered from one device to the next?
  • • As a personalised learner, I expect to be able to relate my life experience and perspectives to what is being studied. My experience may well be tangential, and my perspectives uninformed, but for me they are a helpful starting point. I have opinions I’d like to test and half-formed ideas I’d like to get feedback on. I begin study out of an awareness that I don’t know it all so I’m not afraid for my ignorance to be exposed, provided I get useful and encouraging feedback. I want to grow and receive advice about what I need to do to further develop as a thinker and practitioner in my chosen area of study.
  • • As a personalised learner, I anticipate learning alongside a group of people involved in the same course as me. They don’t need to be exactly like me. There need to be enough of them that dialogue is possible, yet not so many that my voice is drowned out; I anticipate the intimacy of a coffee shop, not the squeeze of a crowded market. I don’t want to learn /гож these people; I want to leam with them. There’s a critical difference there, in that I expect to have an active subject expert as part of the community. I also expect to have that expert’s ear from time to time when I need it, and for them to provide me with the feedback I need to achieve my goal of being educated.
  • • I know that education is demanding. I would not expect learning to be anything less than hard work. But as a personalised learner, I would expect the hard work to be cognitive rather than administrative. I would expect the university to do all in its power to assist me to succeed, and to consider my failure its own failure.

So, where is the evidence for this fictitious personalised learner’s set of expectations? It’s in the echoes of every student survey I have seen across various higher education institutions. More importantly, it’s in the DNA of many organisations outside of the university' sector, which are making themselves beloved by their personalised consumers. The personalised learner clearly expects a demand-orientated approach to education, one that is not apparent across most universities as I write.

I’m not advocating a decline in standards or a shift away from the engagement, enlightenment and empowerment that education must provide. I’m not advocating abdication to student whims. I’m promoting better, reasonable and personalised levels of service. I’m not trying to change the ends; I’m challenging the means. Technically, pedagogically and systematically the service levels described above are entirely possible, and it is only a matter of time before universities find that such a personalised experience is an expected means of remaining competitive.

 
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