The exponential growth in internet usage and rising fees charged by premier institutions could lead to digital technology reshaping the global education landscape.
In its 2014 survey of 1,500 high school seniors, university students and recent graduates across the US, UK, Australia, Singapore and India, Accenture’s Higher Education will Never be the Same! The Digital Demand on Campus — and Beyond report showed that 80 per cent of those surveyed said that digital capabilities were important when deciding which university to attend. Meanwhile, 70 per cent want their institution to use more digital tools, both inside and outside the classroom.
This finding is not surprising. Over the past ten years there has been a plethora of articles, reports, posts and blogs all suggesting that the higher education sector is on the brink of a major disruption and transformation due to digital technology. There are lessons to be learnt from the likes of Facebook, Alibaba, Airbnb and Uber, all of which are relatively recent market entrants, do not own significant physical infrastructure, but have in a short space of time become global players transforming markets. While industries increasingly embrace new technologies as an opportunity to reinvent themselves, many suggest that this is not the case in the higher education sector, where the long-standing structures and processes of institutions have essentially remained unaltered. The consequence of the failure to adapt to this new digital age is that “It’s do or die for universities in the technological age”, said Stephanie Broad in an October 2016 article, Digital disruption: reinventing the classroom.
There is no question, however, that digital technology will continue to have an effect on higher education and there are a number of interconnected reasons underlying this. The first is that digital technology is ubiquitous. Upwards of 90 per cent of the population in developed countries has internet access, while in many large emerging economies, at least 60 per cent of the population uses the internet. Although availability rates are lower in poorer countries across sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia, even here internet use and ownership of mobile devices is growing exponentially. As a result, people everywhere —
particularly Generations Y and Z — are more connected and informed today than at any other time in history.
The second reason is the cost of higher education, especially at premier institutions. In his 2015 CNBC report, Why does a college degree cost so much?, John Schoen said Harvard’s annual tuition and fees (excluding room and board) for the following term was $45,278 (Dh166,314), more than 17 times the 1971-72 cost. “If annual increases had simply tracked the inflation rate since 1971, [2016’s] tuition would be just $15,189”. However, he contends that it is not only fees at the elite universities that are outpacing the government’s consumer price index, as “the average cost of tuition and fees at a private, non-profit, four-year university this year was $31,231, up sharply from $1,832 in 1971-1972 (in current dollars)”.
The situation is somewhat similar in the UK, in that in following the new fees regime introduced in 2012, which allowed institutions to treble their fees, around three-quarters of English universities reportedly plan to charge the maximum amount of £9,000 (about Dh42,434) for some degree courses, with some charging this for all degrees. The inevitable outcome — upon graduating, students face enormous debts not only for tuition but also living expenses and interest charges and accordingly, are carefully evaluating their higher education options.
It’s no question that to remain competitive and survive, universities must attract, engage, satisfy and sustain relationships with students who, having grown up in the new era of technology, are fluent with its immediacy and interactivity. Emerging technologies have the potential to enhance social collaboration and immersive learning while offering productive learning experiences. This is already evident at institutions that allow students to access course materials from multiple channels and a range of supporting technologies for different content, engage in online group work and discussion forums, upload coursework and receive post-course evaluations online. These universities have also digitised administrative processes, and are providing online career support, lifelong learning opportunities and digital engagement with alumni.
However, where technology is headed and what technology will work is largely unknown. There are those who suggest that while traditional teaching methods such as the lecture have worked in the past, they may not endure for much longer. In my opinion the answer is not to abandon face-to-face teaching, given the fact that 89 per cent of students in the Accenture report still regard face-toface learning with lecturers to be effective. Enhancing student experiences requires a balance of face-to-face learning with appropriate digital tools — to develop a system combining digital and traditional classroom methods. Universities need to evaluate their programmes and integrate the right level of digitisation into their education courses.