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Leaders providing access at scale to quality learning experiences

In today’s changing world, the synergy between education and technology has become a guiding principle and a central goal for contemporary university leaders. This convergence reflects the evolving expectations of students and has taken a prominent role in university strategies and broader global policy ambitions. While it offers immense potential, it also presents a profound challenge for a new generation of leaders who must navigate this terrain in an increasingly ambiguous and turbulent environment.

This ambiguity is amplified by a period of growing turbulence, exemplified by singular events and shocks like the Optus network failure in Australia in November 2023. Such turbulence has been further fueled by the global disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. These events are set against a backdrop of ongoing turbulent trends characterized by technological advancements, higher customer expectations, and the increasing relevance of lifelong learning.

These turbulent times have witnessed a convergence of interests and experiences between traditional universities and modern technology and EdTech companies. This convergence has ushered in new leadership challenges as leaders work to bridge the cultural gaps between these two environments, harnessing opportunities and achieving remarkable progress through collaborative efforts.

The driving force behind this convergence is the desire to provide affordable, high-quality learning experiences on a large scale. Initiatives from organizations like Microsoft and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation highlight the entrepreneurial and innovative culture of corporate environments, where quick decision-making and a willingness to learn rapidly from failures are the norm.

Universities, on the other hand, often adhere to inflexible consensus-based decision-making processes. While these processes can lead to sound decisions, they may not be well-suited to the rapid changes of the present era. Universities also contend with multiple layers of governance and a diverse set of stakeholders, which can slow down decision-making and hinder innovation.

Institutions like the UK’s Open University (OU) have embraced a more flexible form of consensus-driven leadership model to realize their innovative aspirations, evolving their pioneering learning models with platforms like FutureLearn. RMIT, with its motto of “skilled hands and cultivated minds,” has expanded its offerings, serving as a significant undergraduate educator of the professions and establishing offshore campuses. These institutions exemplify the provision of access at scale to quality learning experiences.

Both OU and RMIT have demonstrated impressive technical and innovative capabilities, which proved invaluable during the COVID-19 crisis and its ongoing disruptions. While the pandemic is now behind us, we must collectively assess whether we are fully capitalizing on the long-term opportunities for advancement generated by such turbulence. This question lies at the core of a recent book co-authored by Martin Bean and Graham Winter, titled “Toolkit for Turbulence.”

The book’s underlying premise is that effective navigation of turbulence requires leaders to adapt and recalibrate, beginning with a mindset that allows them to “hold their shape in the squirm.”

In these increasingly turbulent times, universities must cultivate a culture that enables them to re-evaluate their investments in technology, striking a different balance between digital and physical solutions. University leaders must articulate a clear mission and destination for their institution’s technological endeavours, with a focus on providing quality access to education.

Despite the remarkable response during the COVID-19 crisis, it is crucial for leaders to avoid reverting to old patterns of change and innovation. The underlying business model of higher education is broken and requires radical shifts and innovative solutions.

Leaders should reconsider the overemphasis on the 18-24 age group in favour of a broader focus on individuals aged 16-75, recognizing the diverse lifelong learning needs of a wider demographic. To facilitate this transformation, new leadership playbooks and toolkits for change are imperative. Leaders who adopt a coaching approach, align personal and organizational values, and foster openness, collaboration, learning, and decision-making amid ambiguity are well-positioned to drive progress.

These principles must be applied to long-term change, and vulnerability should be celebrated as a strength rather than a weakness. The leaders of the future must embody new competencies, such as resilience and the ability to navigate complexity through turbulence. In turn, they require self-care and support to enable them to support others effectively.

The opportunity for these leaders lies in their capacity to leverage technology and innovation, a realm now accelerating through generative AI. By doing so, they can avoid the potential horrors that loom in the wake of inaction and uncertainty, instead working toward happy endings for institutions, students, and society as a whole.

The dynamic relationship between education and technology has become a defining feature of modern university leadership, setting the stage for innovation and change. The turbulence that accompanies this transformation demands leaders who can adapt, innovate, and embrace technological solutions that provide quality access to education. The future of higher education depends on these visionary leaders who can navigate change and steer their institutions toward a brighter future.

First published in Campus Review on 15th November 2023.

Professor Martin Bean, CEO of the Bean Centre

Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx

Sue Kokonis, Chief Academic Officer of OES