The future of higher education is marked by anywhere, anytime learning. Major Australian universities are investing in highly-interactive teaching tools to stay competitive and win mindshare.
Mobile apps, virtual learning and augmented reality will influence the development of curriculum, according to academics and IT managers that attended a round of strategic discussions organised by Amcom.
These roundtables, held in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Perth, reinforced the demand for mobile and virtual learning, together with expanded access to hosted cloud services and unified communications.These roundtables were facilitated by IDG Education.
Among the trends, reduced funding and pressures to do more with less is forcing universities to identity new revenue models. Front-line institutions are embracing the concept of digital education.
Apart from tailoring curriculum for a generation of tech-savvy students, pressures have intensified to make better use of hosted or digital platforms.
Universities are often rich in terms of physical assets, but are still in the process of developing adequate digital assets, according to Professor Michael Rosemann, Head of Information System School at the Queensland University of Technology.
The boundaries are blurring between the digital and physical world, he said. Drawing on parallels from business, competition can emerge from unexpected sources.
Light on assets
Digital disruptors have a strong footprint in the business world. They rely on social networks to build the brand or followers. These disruptors are light on assets and better integrated with digitally-empowered consumers.
The lesson for higher education is that similar contenders can just as readily target established revenue streams or mind-share. These competitors are not saddled by expensive real estate or infrastructure.
Their success lies in being nimble, tech-savvy and not focused on proportionately large expense books. “Their assets are scaled differently and supported by closer proximity to customers,” Rosemann said.
Kate Carruthers, Manager, Data Governance and Business Intelligence at the University of NSW noted that relationship-building can tap into the more ambient data found in social media.
This data offers a snapshot of online or mobile interactions, she said. “This is where we can build a more complete picture of student profiles or life journey using publicly available information.”
The ambient data is built around unstructured dialogue that is communicated using social media channels. The value of this data lies in the ability to synthesise the chatter and derive meaning from it. This information helps build profiles using predictive analytics or other data mining tools.
Dr Alexander Dreiling, Associate Professor at the Queensland University of Technology, observed that personal interaction now taps into a globally-shared economy. This concept of sharing impacts education and the way knowledge is accessed.
On campus, in one unit, an instructor may teach 25 different theories. The more motivated students often assemble these theories, define the content and share knowledge on Wiki or Facebook.
This sharing is built around peer-to-peer collaboration. It does not show up on a blackboard or lecture, Dr Dreiling said. “The question is: how much value do we provide that can be sourced just as easily elsewhere?”
For video streaming, a one-and-half hour lecture often challenges the attention span of a digital native. “We need to understand how to break down the content or offer modules that adapt to a different mind-set,” added Dr Dreiling.
Under moves to familiarise staff with interactive tools, universities offer designated labs to refine teaching skills, according to Luke Sheehy, Director of Collaboration and Partnerships at the Swinburne University of Technology.
These private spaces enable staff to become familiar with new teaching tools and integrate these with existing material. The Swinburne University of Technology offers this familiarisation through a Digital Aquarium project. This video-conferencing initiative was launched in September this year and takes show-and-tell to another level.
User pay models
Peter Sack, a former Programme Director for Shared Services at the University of Melbourne observed that hosted cloud services deliver savings through user pay consumption models. “We work in a highly-dispersed environment. The focus is to reduce the per user cost, especially where hundreds of users share services across faculties.”
The University of Melbourne is investing in unified communications to connect 14,000 users across metropolitan and rural campuses. This initiative offers better connectivity and collaboration involving students, teachers, researchers or mentors.
Cost-savings are derived from pay-as-you-use arrangements in a hosted cloud environment. Subscribers are able to access high-definition video, IP telephony, video-conferencing or video-streaming, chat and instant messaging. They can also integrate online channels with mobile devices.
Elizabeth Wilson, Chief Information Officer at Edith Cowan University, noted that unified communications’ roll-outs are best done in stages. “This is about doing it in a way where end-users get used to the changes, be this for cloud or digital services.”
The potential of cloud services lies in incremental progress rather than putting in a whole service or ways to collaborate, Wilson said. “Success is through understanding how to apply the technology to new ways of teaching for academics to digitally-connected students.”
The 4-city Amcom round-tables elicited insights from 21 leading universities, one peak scientific research body, a leading education industry coalition and Australia’s flagship educational research network provider.
Follow Shahida Sweeney on Twitter: @ShahidaSweeney