There comes a point when every industry has to pause, take stock, and ask itself the fundamental question: what value do we provide? For the education industry, that point is now. With the COVID-19 pandemic accelerating the shift towards online learning—enrolment in Udemy, for example, jumped a whopping 400% between February and March 2020—Silicon Valley has got traditional tertiary education in its sights.
Many of the problems facing the higher education sector (rising tuition costs, the length of degrees, the challenges of face-to-face learning) are all areas where big tech companies thrive. Amazon Web Services already teaches cloud computing in over 200 countries. Google is launching its own suite of professional courses called Google Career Certificates. Even TikTok, if you can believe it, is planning to launch an entire educational content suite, built around micro-learning.
“You have to go big-game hunting,” says Scott Galloway, a professor of marketing at New York University’s Stren School of Business. “If you’re Apple, and you’re charged with adding $200m to top-line revenue in five years, there’s really only a handful of sectors or industries you can go into. Four hundred kids will enrol in my class in the fall and pay $7,000 each for what I believe will probably end up being 12 Zoom classes. [Tech’s] greed glands are just gonna get going around that.”
Faced with the combined might of Silicon Valley, not to mention existing online course providers like Coursera, Skillshare, Udacity and Udemy, universities have been forced to adapt. The first step is obviously to beat the tech giants at their own game and invest heavily in online learning technologies. This has largely already happened. Most Australian universities are already integrating remote learning with their traditional curriculum, or running dedicated online short courses. RMIT Online, for example, has partnered with companies like IBM (to launch qualifications in 5G and IoT) and Telstra (to create bespoke micro-credentials and help upskill existing staff).
This might be one area where universities have a slight edge over their tech-driven competitors. Tertiary institutions aren’t constrained by a particular platform or operating system, and they can partner with leading industry heavyweights to build cutting-edge, job ready curriculums.
“As CEO of RMIT Online, one of my responsibilities is to seek out industry partners who can help us prepare our students for the future,” says Helen Souness. “I also look at how we can create flexible, targeted and industry-focused learning options today. It’s about balancing pace with a sharp eye for what’s next.”
The other advantage is, of course, hard-earned experience. There’s an inherent assumption in Silicon Valley that technology can, and possibly should, provide the answer for every problem facing humanity. As technology reporter Olivia Rudgard puts it: “A cynic might say that the impulse to reform education comes in part from the natural proclivity of the technology entrepreneur to believe they have the answer even in sectors where they have little or no experience.”
Universities certainly have that experience. They’ve cultivated a staff of trained professionals, they’re driven by student satisfaction and experience, more so than profits, and they understand that education is much more complicated than simply putting a subject matter expert in front of a camera and beaming their words out into the cosmos. Learning is always a two-way street.
“University education, whether online or face to face, is not a pre-made product,” says Kyungmee Lee from Lancaster University. “Universities are, without doubt, responsible for excellent student experiences, but students also actively shape and transform their own experience. It’s important to develop a relationship of trust between universities, tutors, and students, and for all to work together to make online learning a success.”
This is perhaps where universities can add the most value, and distinguish themselves from the Apples, Googles and Amazons of this world. Online shortcourses require the same interaction, support, expertise and resources as face-to-face learning. It’s short-sighted to see digital learning as a simple convenience, or (even worse) a cost-saving measure. As long as universities are institutions of quality, dedicated to the highest levels of student learning and experience, as long as they draw inspiration from industry leaders and collaborate with innovators, there’s no reason they can’t offer the same future-focussed curriculum as Silicon Valley biggest tech behemoths.
“At RMIT Online we firmly believe that universities must take the lead on upskilling and reskilling Australians for the modern digital workplace and constantly reassess how we can deliver greater value to students and society,” says Souness.