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Digital disruption: are universities keeping up?

‘Digital disruption’ is a term thrown about a lot these days. From Amazon disrupting retail to online content disrupting journalism, the forces of change are all around us. Increasingly, it seems no industry is exempt.

Just a couple of decades ago, who would have thought the act of perusing video rental and record stores would be almost completely erased from our lives in favour of Netflix and Spotify?

Just a generation ago, the idea that we’d start hitching rides with strangers we met through an elaborate network on our phones called Uber, would have been thought insane.

As technology continues to seep further into our lives, our future career options are changing fast. Traditional industries are transforming and new industries are being born. The way we work – and study – is changing too.

These days, it’s commonplace to complete an entire university degree from a laptop computer without leaving your home.

‘Technological innovation is affecting all industries including education,’ says Lucy Schulz, Director of Deakin’s Cloud Campus. ‘The most important disruption that technology brings is the ability to be anywhere and anytime. For the current generation of learners, online – and the ability to shop, watch, engage 24/7 – is just what they’re used to and what they expect.’

Not only is the education industry being disrupted. It’s also disrupting itself.

How is the education industry being disrupted?

With the shift to online comes the removal of location as a barrier. This means universities like Deakin, which traditionally competed within Victoria, are now up against the international market. Not to mention a groundswell of small, private institutions promoting low-cost online-only courses.

In addition, free massive open online courses (MOOCs) are now available for almost every topic imaginable. As an example, after just six years, MOOC provider Future Learn has grown to have more than 7 million users and 145 partners including universities from around the world, as well as community organisations like museums and libraries.

Shifting the traditional higher education model into the digital era involves everything from building the technology to upskilling teaching and support staff to ensure interactivity, feedback and student support throughout the learning experience.

But Schulz believes these so-called threats can also be perceived as opportunities: ‘Students gain more options and choice; and universities like Deakin are challenging themselves to continue to evolve to be part of the global marketplace.’

She adds: ‘It has made us reconceive what “brilliant education” is – with engaging communication and collaboration.

'The most important disruption that technology brings is the ability to be anywhere and anytime. For the current generation of learners, online – and the ability to shop, watch, engage 24/7 – is just what they’re used to and what they expect'

Lucy Shulz,
Director, Cloud Campus, Deakin University

How are universities disrupting themselves?

Many universities are disrupting themselves – some, not so much.

‘At Deakin, we always test ourselves to see which new tools can help us give all our students a better experience of learning,’ Schulz says.

All Deakin students do at least some of their study online, whether they are on-campus or Cloud Campus students, she explains. ‘Technology is enabling us to improve the learning experience through, for example, using collaboration tools to help students connect with staff and each other, creating quality learning resources and making services such as the library an “at your computer” researching tool.’

As well as continually innovating, Deakin is pushing the boundaries: it was the first in the world to offer full degree courses through a global platform – Futurelearn – that previously offered free open courses.

Schulz explains that the university aims to approach such opportunities ‘openly but also critically’. ‘Learning is at the heart of our thinking about online education and this will always drive the changes we embrace.’

‘We are very aware that technology may have unintended consequences so we don’t blindly do things just because you can,’ she adds.

‘Deakin embraces disruption, you could say it is in our DNA,’ Schulz says. ‘We are well placed to respond to change because we are connected to our community, industry and especially our students.’

What does the future of higher education look like?

‘It’s very difficult to predict what will happen in higher education in the future, especially when thinking up to 50 years ahead,’ Schulz says. ‘I hope more and more people globally will have access to a quality education, and online education is increasing these opportunities.’

As artificial intelligence and other technologies continue to improve, employers will increasingly value soft skills such as communication, teamwork and critical thinking. Education and real-world experience are both key parts to developing these.

‘The jobs of the future as well as what we need as a sustainable and inclusive society are underpinned by education at all levels, but particularly higher education, and it does require cross-disciplinary thinking,’ Schulz says.

‘To attract students we’ll also need to think differently about how we recognise and value experience (for example Deakin credentials), create simpler pathways for people wanting to return to study, and offer courses which can be tailored to address particular skills and knowledge areas.’

So is there still a place for campus life in the future of education?

‘Campuses have been places to learn, experiment and grow for many years, a rite of passage for many, and I think this will continue for particular age groups such as school leavers and students who want an international experience.’

She concludes: ‘I don’t think that online learning will completely replace physical university campuses, but mature and experienced professionals who need to keep upskilling will probably opt for a digital offer if it is available. This enables all of us to learn at our pace and at our place.’

Think online study might be the next step you need to further your career and embrace digital disruption head-on? Check out Deakin’s range of courses available to study online.

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Lucy Schulz
Lucy Schulz

Director, Cloud Campus, Deakin University

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