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What will it take to create Higher Education 4.0?

Global universities share various levels of understanding of the way technology is transforming the future of learning and their business models for delivering it.  It was made obvious during pandemic disruptions by changes to working and learning practices. Maybe it can be observed from how services in other sectors are now delivered?


The leadership responses to these varied levels of understanding are themselves uneven.  Some institutions have established learning innovation units. Some of these are bringing significant new products and services to market and exploring the impact the emergence of ubiquitous generative AI will have on their staff and student practices and businesses.


The strengthened and deepened focus on technology is combined with needing to provide learning at greater scale to more diverse equity groups of learners. This sharpens the need to search for best practices in service delivery from out of sector and globally.


The financial services sector has transformed how it serves customers more effectively through technology.  The replacement of cash with electronic payments and of hole in the wall physical infrastructure with online and app-based access are examples of how the sector changed It influenced its range and balance of participants and providers.


FinTech was an area of specialist technology application seen as a branch of the sector. The term has become largely redundant as financial services are predominantly all digitally designed and delivered rather than a small part of mostly physical services having a digital variant.


The parallels for the journey of EdTech developments are interesting to speculate on. Edtech is still seen by some as specialist education services in a sector that largely has physical and in-place delivery of services to customers or, in our case, learners. But if we do learn from the finance sector, it might just be that future education becomes mainstreamed digital delivery of services and we stop calling it EdTech. The future for education might just become digitally delivered services to learners.


A challenge for leaders of long-standing, traditional and prestigious financial institutions when the financial sector underwent transformation, was a reluctance or inability to accept that a move to a predominantly digital mode of operating was underway.  The businesses that thrived were those that embraced the inevitability of change, made technology core to their strategy, leadership and business, and innovated. If we are to see anything like the same in education it will need our sector’s education leaders to change mindset and make technology core to how they see, plan for, and develop and innovate for the future.


It needs institutions to experiment, explore, partner and invest in a way and scale out of all proportion to current activities. It requires re-direction of current resources, investments, executive attention, and strategies from physical to digital assets and infrastructure.


Recent higher education demand data in the UK and US suggests an existential crisis point in global higher education for traditional 3 or 4 year degrees delivered to 18-24 year old school leaving students, learning face to face on physical campuses. The funding system in many advanced economies struggles to keep up with costs in current business models of educational delivery. We might argue that the current supply-side model is broken. Much of the inertia in leaving it behind comes from the challenge of breaking out of rankings of universities as though they all have the same mission and are all the same model and will remain so forever. If that model is about to transform, the benchmarks become even more irrelevant, and increasingly constraining of leaders developing a new vision.


An alternative vision of future education is as technology enabled services, focused on lifelong learning, targeting learners predominantly global and online.  This vision presents challenges to those operating with infrastructure, processes and staff and leadership profiles, and offering learning products, meant for the old model of higher education. It presents opportunities for those with changed mindsets to be bold and innovative.


Transitioning to the future model also requires private investment and input of corporates and their expertise, probably from other sectors.  To undertake that form of transformation would require embracing the current EdTech sector as partners not suppliers.


The vision may include radically different ways of accumulating and demonstrating the gaining and maintaining of skills and competences for a future world of work going through radical change. This may include new applications of specific technologies including blockchain. It may see the smart application of AI and augmented and virtual worlds and realities emerging as mainstream. Most importantly it would entail new models of learning emerging with these technologies with a shift to skills-based and lifelong learning. Business models based on new reimagined student journeys are a consequence of such a mindshift.


A future model of tertiary education where technologically-enabled models of learning are just the way we do things, appears inevitable if we are to draw our inspiration for the future from global out-of-sector best practice. It is a future easier to imagine than if we just look at other ways that Australian universities currently do things.  


It may be that other global higher education providers are already further through this transformation than us. Arizona State University (ASU) being recognised as a world leader of innovation for a 9th consecutive year, as a large research-intensive provider.  Other radical transformations moved to almost fully digital services and learning and different business model, with a greater scale, affordability and equity group engagement, from providers such as Western Governors University (WGU) or Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU).


It is possible that many of our 40+ Australian universities could replicate the strategy of ASU, and others might adopt the WGU or SNHU approach. It would need one of our leaders to take their council, and whole stakeholder community, on a journey of radical change. They would need the courage to opt out of rankings and the prevailing business model. It could be achieved by a specialist current provider and entity, with closer business connections and freedom in its governance, such as the MBS. Or it could come from an external corporate innovator as a new entrant to a future skills and learning economy.


Whoever it is will need significant private investment. Torrens University Australia has already shown us how rapid a new entrant can grow off the back of significant private investment and with a focus on technology. Australia has the potential to be a place where the next steps might start.


FinTech became finance when providers such as Mastercard, Visa, and Goldman Sachs, with specialist FinTech partners, transformed innovations into the new mainstream ways of working of the finance sector.  Who of the current universities and technology companies will lead in turning EdTech into a future model of education we might phrase as education 4.0? We discuss many of these issues in a future episode of the HEDx podcast you will shortly be able to access on the HEDx website or on Apple and Spotify platforms.


First published in Campus Review on 18th October 2023.

Professor Martin Betts, Founder of HEDx

Dr Nora Koslowski, Chief Learning Innovation Officer, Melbourne Business School

Alessandro di Lullo, Co-Founder, Supercharger Ventures