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Embracing technology to make opportunity work for everyone – opinion

Despite significant differences, the challenges shaping higher education in the US, UK, and Australia are decidedly similar.

Triggered by global phenomena—including the war for talent, global skills shortages from changes in work practices, international migration, and new expectations and appetites for learning—higher education leaders have good reason to worry.

Education remains the surest path to opportunity, but failures to equitably expand access, increase attainment, and deliver a strong return on investment for learners call into question its promise as an equaliser and engine of social and economic mobility.

One thing is clear: institutional business models and education policies need to adapt.

To that end, technology holds immense potential to bridge the worlds of learning and employment while subsequently expanding access and enabling greater personalization.

The COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, demonstrated that hybrid and remote practices, once limited to a few, can be learned, and adopted by many.

While some of the transition was abrupt and rushed, it fundamentally changed work and learning practices, as well as institutional strategies and visions, more than any other black swan event in a generation.

Today, online learning is increasingly being recognised not only as a means for expanding access to individuals who live far from a physical campus or require greater flexibility from their education, but also as a powerful tool for improving the substance of learning.

Thanks to innovations in EdTech, teachers have many more tools at their disposal to enhance the quality of their courses and tailor to their students’ unique needs.

Drawing on best practices uncovered in learning and social sciences, they can also pull from diverse sources of media and content, leverage motivational techniques, and engage their students in ways that would be difficult to replicate in-person at scale via virtual labs, peer-to-peer interaction, and practice environments.

Readily available data on how students are engaging with learning resources also empowers teachers to adapt and personalise learning materials and experiences through timely, relevant interventions.

There’s no doubt that momentum around technologies like online learning is building as more individuals experience for themselves the respective benefits—in fact a 2021 survey showed that 73% of students in the US would like to take online courses in the future.

Yet there are still educators, employers, and policymakers willfully ignoring the ways in which technology can transform education and employment for the better.

The blanket rejection of generative AI is one misguided example; while caution is understandable and even advisable, calls to ban technology and return to traditional assessments with pen and paper are shortsighted.

Instead, we should be asking: How might this technology help provide pathways to opportunity for more learners, and particularly those learners who have been underserved or not served at all by traditional models?

Globally, leaders in higher education need to put students at the centre of their thinking and consider how new models and advances in technology can better meet the needs of our diversity of learners. But unfortunately, some institutions appear to be doing just the opposite by retreating to campus-based, face-to-face models.

After discovering a loophole that could enable enterprising students to earn their degrees without ever stepping foot on campus, for instance, the University of California—comprising ten institutions known for being at the forefront of learning and knowledge—decided to ban students from earning fully-online degrees.

In so doing, the UC has inadvertently missed an opportunity to learn more about the needs of the contemporary student and how more flexible pathways could expand access, improve quality, and result in better outcomes.

To meet the demand of perhaps one billion individuals who could benefit from post-secondary learning, technology platforms that can scale will be needed. Rather than expand or build new physical campuses, colleges and universities should focus on how technology can help solve problems for individual learners and then scale up to meet the needs of many.

This marks a significant tipping point in how higher education is designed and delivered and will require society to contend with outdated cultural narratives about the idealised, college experience.

The on-campus, coming-of-age college experience that caters to upper-middle-class emerging adults will likely continue to attract a privileged few. But as technologies advance and demographics shift, we may no longer need 4,000 universities in the US, 200 in the UK, or 40 in Australia that all pursue the strategy of face-to-face learning, based on exclusive access.

Instead, the larger opportunity points to serving a more diverse set of needs with affordable, flexible, and scalable learning pathways.

Institutions that adapt to the changing times will necessarily look different—they will not require sports teams, conservatoriums, or high-cost programs of labor-intensive study, but will instead differentiate themselves by using technology to provide universal access to transformative learning opportunities.

Because the individuals that institutions serve will vary, the pathways they provide will as well. We should celebrate their diversity, recognizing both brick-and-mortar and fully online institutions can leverage technology to meet the needs of learners and our modern economies.

For more, listen to our recent discussion on the HEDx podcast, which you can access here.

First published in Campus Review on 5th April 2023.
Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-Founder of HEDx
Scott Pulsipher, President of Western Governors University