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Seeking Systemic Change: Higher Education in a Digital, Networked Age

A Q&A with George Siemens

A widely recognized thought leader, author, and researcher in higher education, George Siemens (photo, right) is the Associate Director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Athabasca University, leading the learning analytics research team. His analyses of the challenges facing higher education and the corresponding changes to higher education practice and to our institutions take a holistic view: They consider core values as well as the complex the interactions of digital environments and emerging trends in learning organizations.

Siemens says, "The changing way we create and share knowledge is at the core of what's driving education. It's not the fact that we have mobiles and the Web that requires education to change, but rather that we are using these technologies to begin circumventing existing knowledge processes. And what we do with knowledge determines the types of institutions we need." Here, Campus Technology asked Siemens for his perspectives on the groundswell of change apparent in higher education.

Mary Grush: We are hearing a lot recently about change in higher education. What is one of the leading indicators of change?

George Siemens: Today, we see half of the education equation, the learners, doing fascinating things with content and ideas, while much of the other half, the faculty, is still taking a dissemination approach to curriculum. There are obviously numerous other areas--economic, policy, technological--where significant change is occurring around higher education, but, the unit of currency in higher education is knowledge. When principal agents in the education system start doing different things with knowledge, it is time to pay attention.

Grush: If students are doing different things with knowledge now, is it just a matter of academics catching up, and also changing?

Siemens: Academics are not driving the change bus. Leadership in traditional universities has been grossly negligent in preparing the academy for the economic and technological reality it now faces. They have not developed the systemic capacity of the university to function in a digital, networked age.

Grush: So the different things we see students doing with knowledge may be good indicators, but they do not provide the whole picture of change… ?

Siemens: Of course.

Grush: Then what are the results of higher education leadership's neglecting, as you say, to develop the systemic capacity of institutions to function in the current--and presumably ongoing--digital, networked environment? What are they now facing?

Siemens: In order to try to ramp up capacity today, they have to acquire the skills and capabilities that they failed to develop over the past decade, by purchasing services. Digital content, testing, teaching resources, teaching/learning software, etc. are now being purchased to try to address this capacity shortage. And enormous amounts of organizational resources are flowing outside of education in order to fill gaps created over the past decade due to poor leadership.

Grush: So is there an answer coming from the technology sector, as to the response needed now, even if it comes at a price?

Siemens: No, there are many points of innovation that present to higher education. No clear answer exists at this stage as to the way higher education should respond. And remember, we are dealing with an entire education system, including every cultural element and player it touches. We are not talking about some discrete procedure, application, or technology.

The technology sector is providing one partial answer, but it is by no means complete. Universities are integrated systems that play a multitude of roles in society, ranging from preparing learners for employment, to developing the knowledge capacity of society, to preparing individuals to take part in a democratic society. Technology alone cannot provide the answer to these challenges.

Grush: Are there specific functional areas within higher education that should become the focus of concerted initiatives for change?

Siemens: It's important to recognize that the litany of challenges facing education is quite dramatic and diverse: including decreased state support, greater reliance on adjuncts, increased administrative expenses, new technologies, global competitiveness, and so on.

Education can be broken down into a few specific areas of functionality:

• Content and curriculum

• Teaching and learning

• Accreditation and assessment

• Research and dissemination

• Administration and leadership

I argue that each of these five functional areas is being impacted by any of a constellation of unprecedented change pressures (including, for example, the challenges I just mentioned). In short, as a result, the functionality of higher education is becoming more fragmented. But new configurations are emerging through alternative assessment methods, open online courses, open educational resources, and other broad strategies (not mere technologies). So these functional areas may be changing, too.

Grush: Then is the change that's needed more of a broad cultural change, or even a very fundamental process change across all of higher education?

Siemens: More than that. Higher education is searching for a new value point, a new narrative that communicates what it offers learners and society. Part of this new value point is communicating what the university offers in an age where the mediator role of content curation and teaching is now starting to be addressed through organizations or agents other than the university. The Internet is happening to education. As a consequence, many of the previously held value points (content and teaching, for example) are being in a sense, reduced.

Grush: Are we going to see radical changes in colleges and universities, in both education practice and in the very nature of our institutions?

Siemens: We could. In the past, the integrated structure of the university--content, teaching, accreditation, research, and administration--created a system that couldn't be challenged. Today, with these value points fragmenting as rapidly as the CD did in the 1990s, alternative models of education are being created that may circumvent the integrated structure of universities. It is still far too early to say whether the integrated systems of companies such as Pearson or McGraw-Hill will replace traditional universities. At minimum, however, the functional elements of higher education have been pulled apart and are waiting to be remixed. And whoever integrates these remixed components best, wins.

Grush: Are colleges and universities up to the challenge of innovating--with these "remixed components"--and implementing new programs that potentially represent very radical, ­fundamental, and systemic change?

Siemens: I find it quite odd that universities, so adept at exploring nebulous and complex phenomena in their labs, have failed to apply similar inquisitive approaches to understanding the changes they themselves face as a system. A researcher in a lab, when confronted with an unknown entity, begins to experiment, forms a hypothesis, conducts research, and engages in dialogue with colleagues at other universities.

Today, the university as a system is under the microscope. It is now the entity we no longer understand. We need to adopt a researcher's mindset in coming to understand what is happening to higher education and what type of system today's society needs.

Unfortunately, many universities don't seem to have the vision to respond to change. On some levels, it's a bit like the newspaper industry. For more than a decade, pundits have declared newspapers dead. There was ample time for newspapers to rethink themselves. But today the prophesied end of newspapers has arrived--the industry was incapable of overcoming its legacy role in society.

Grush: Are there going to be key innovations coming from leading universities that will create a path for others to follow?

Siemens: I get frustrated when I see declarations that this innovation or that idea will disrupt higher education. Education is a system. There are many stakeholders. Systemic change and reform won't happen through a single idea. Once we start seeing the integrative structure of education, both as a system in itself and in relation to its broader role in society, we will be getting closer to understanding why the system behaves as it does and what needs to happen for positive change.

I am encouraged to see some prominent universities--Stanford, Harvard, and MIT--beginning to experiment aggressively with new models of education. I am discouraged, though, to see that mid-tier universities have been so slow to respond. Harvard will likely be fine long term even if it doesn't continue to embrace online learning (as it has done through edX). The elite universities will continue to have a prominent role. It's the mid-tiers--the ones with the most to lose--that should pay attention now and be the most aggressive at experimenting with new models of teaching, research, and learning.

[Editor's note: George Siemens will present a general session keynote, "Meeting the Challenge of Change: Historical Models of Transformation and Lessons for Higher Education" at Campus Technology 2012 in Boston, July 16-19. His keynote is especially appropriate for Campus Technology's Wednesday general session and 2012 Innovator award recognitions in that it supports the notion of how higher education can meet the changes and challenges of the new digital realm with innovation. Siemens will offer an encouraging model, based on historical transformations such as the major technology advancements of the past, of how higher education can judge the nature and direction of trends (including today's technology trends) and find opportunities for real education innovation.]

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