The Digitalisation of Universities: UFN Meeting Part 2

This is the second post about the meeting of the Universities of the Future Network (UFN) held at FernUniversität in Hagen, Germany, 11-13 July 2017. The theme for the meeting was “The Digitalization of the Universities of the Future”. The meeting consisted of 6 key themes that were discussed and debated (see part 1 here). This post looks at the last three themes. The facilitators of each theme were asked to discuss the key trends and issues as well as provide suggestions for policy and strategy development.

Theme 4: Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Educational Resources (OER) have the potential to decrease the development costs of tuition, both for universities and for students in the form of, for example, open textbooks. However, OERs are not widely used and progress towards large-scale adoption is slow. OERs were preceded by the concept of Learning Objects which were a focus for researchers from the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s. This represented a great demand for the then emerging online learning that required online (and reusable) learning resources. However, reusability represents a paradox, as the pedagogical value of a learning object (highly contextualised in the original setting) diminishes as the potential for reusability (ability to be used in numerous settings) increases, and vice-versa. This potential for reuse also varies according to the academic level (primary, secondary/technical and tertiary). Universities have been the main developers of OER, with little production at other levels. From the mid-2000s, the term Open Educational Resources (OER) gained more traction. Openness became valued as resources could be made freely available on the internet with as few restrictions as possible on the use of resources. The adoption of licenses such as Creative Commons that protect intellectual copyright and allow for easy reuse has enabled dissemination. The aim of OER is to share knowledge and equalise access to knowledge worldwide. One of the challenges within the area of OER is the main focus on producing or developing content (content being seen as knowledge) and less of a focus on how content is used for learning. Key issues for promoters of OER in developed and developing countries include raising awareness and promotion, building communities and networking, sustainability and capacity development.

OERs exist within a wider open movement that includes open access, open source software, open badges and MOOCs. OERs seem to have been left behind in the preoccupation with the development of MOOCs in the early 2010s, however the early hype of the MOOC phenomenon has since waned. One of the challenges for OER production is that the production of learning materials (open or not) is generally not recognised nor rewarded in universities, with research more valued for promotion and career advancement. Another challenge is that there is often a disconnect between universities publically supporting OER initiatives, while discourses and practices within institutions do not change.

Channels and strategies for change

  • Recognition for teaching activities in addition to research activities
  • Recognition of the development of OERs for career promotion
  • Awards for innovative OER production to promote quality and sharing
  • Adoption of Creative Commons licenses
  • Promotion of peer-review for OERs, similar to peer-review mechanisms for research

Theme 5: University Business Models and Value Propositions

One of the functions of universities is to develop students to be able to access employment opportunities and build social capital (thus improving quality of life). There is thus economic value to a university degree as graduates earn more and have access to certain employment opportunities. Universities equip students with advanced skills (teaching) and further human knowledge and understanding of the world (research). However, universities face pressure to stay competitive and relevant when education costs exceed inflation and revenues are decreasing. Social mobility and emerging technologies are other challenges for education. Therefore universities need to consider the value proposition they offer to students.

There are different forms of colleges and universities who target different groups, have different research and teaching orientations and cost/revenue models. This ranges from elite universities that are highly selective and research intensive, to community colleges that are open to local communities and learning focused. Universities may also be privately or publically funded. Different types of universities will require different value propositions. However, business models need to focus more than on financial operations. One approach is the Value Proposition Canvas that focuses universities to focus on students (the customers) and thereafter on strategies and revenue models. This canvas enables universities to analyse student needs, taking into account pains (obstacles, risks, negative outcomes) and gains (positive outcomes). Using a value proposition framework, universities need to consider:

  • The services which the value proposition of a degree is built around (the bundle of services that addresses the needs of targeted student profiles)
  • The ‘pain relievers’ outlining how universities alleviate student burdens in a changing society (pains to reduce or eliminate before, during and after degree completion)
  • The ‘gains creators’ outlining how universities generate positive outcomes and benefits from the services they provide to students

The value proposition needs to link to the overall business model: key activities, resources and partners; customer relationships and channels for different segments; and a sound cost structure and revenue model. Rather than focus on a traditional model of expecting students to enrol because a degree is necessary in the labour market, universities should focus on what students need to thrive in a fast paced and changing labour market. The focus of each institution’s value proposition will depend on the type of university and where it wants to be in the future, but universities need to evolve to meet a clearly defined value proposition within the constraints of business models, resources and capabilities.

Theme 6: Virtual Networks: Research and Partnerships

Operating in a growing global marked has a crucial impact on shaping the missions, strategic planning and operational practices of universities. The global market and digital technologies have led to both increased competition as well as collaborative ventures. Virtual networks between universities are increasing. There are several themes affecting research and partnership in a digital age:

  • University rankings: different league tables influence research planning and undertakings.
  • World class universities: the globalisation of higher education has led to universities that incorporate high levels of international students and professors
  • International funders: UNESCO, the World Bank, OECD, the European Union and other networks fund international and local research, where researchers are encouraged to work with institutions in different countries
  • Government funding: National or regional governments provide funds that encourage collaborations at a national or regional level
  • Research Centres: Outside of universities, researchers can operate with international or national research centres
  • Research Dissemination: The open access movement encourages the widespread dissemination of scholarly research

Research is not the only form of partnership between institutions, although it is more common than teaching activities. However many universities collaborate to provide joint-degrees or participate in international MOOC platforms. Other institutions work together to facilitate global campuses in different countries.

Policy Channels and Strategies for Change

  • Policies are needed at international, national and institutional levels that facilitate virtual networks and collaboration in research and teaching activities
  • While most higher education systems operate at a national level, universities need to enhance cooperation internationally
  • Universities need to encourage research undertaken across disciplines and across institutions (enabled by virtual networks)
  • University leaders need to carefully evaluate which international and virtual networks to participate in
  • Universities need to prepare for growing numbers of international students and global campuses, as well as facilitating the movement of students between universities

 

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