C-Level View | Feature
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
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
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
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
[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.]