Andy Grove, ex-CEO of Intel, said: “Bad companies are destroyed by crisis, good companies survive them, great companies are improved by them”. I also believe that a crisis is a pivoting moment, and it is important to know when to pivot and in which direction. This Covid crisis is a unique opportunity for universities to expand their circle and not just defend their perimeter.
There are many examples of companies that have fought too hard to defend their perimeter and did not see coming a breakthrough that has enabled others to expand their circle. For example, Nokia and Blackberry were leaders in their own niche of the world mobile phones but, because they were busy protecting their market, they did not innovate enough and did not see coming the iPhone. Kodak defended hard their world domination in photographic films against Fujifilm and did not see coming the digital revolution.
I fear that the University sector is at risk of being in the same situation, in particular the UK, US and Australian universities that have had a dominant position to attract foreign students.
The Covid crisis is a unique opportunity to expand our circle and focus on our ‘why’ (as formulated by Simon Sinek in his famous TED talk). The ‘why’ of most universities could probably be formulated in the following way: ‘to provide an inspiring lifelong learning to all’.
MOOC courses have been an answer to the desire to provide education to all. However, MOOC courses have always been considered as an attack on the university system. Some universities have integrated MOOC courses as part of their educational content, but only with the objective of defending their perimeter and trying to kill the competition, not for reaching out to more students.
I don’t think that it is an effective strategy. Instead, we need to bring education to as many people as possible by delivering different experiences depending on the student aspirations and budget.
Universities need to distinct themselves (in their offer and from the rest of the education and learning sector) on the digital and physical learning experiences. I would like to propose setting up three levels of experience, as if we had a three-tier delivery system for learning:
- Tier 1 – Immersed: fully immersive education with face-to-face teaching for all labs and tutorial activities but keeping online lectures. For many universities this is the situation pre-Covid when flip learning had already been introduced, and the students were able to access online content before the traditional lecture. The time spent with the lecturer was mostly devoted to explain particularly difficult topics of the content, or to answer questions from the students, or to generate discussion. This is where the on-campus infrastructure should shine and where the direct human interactions will be at its best use.
- Tier 2 – Advanced: online content delivery only with online tutorials and lab support delivered directly online by university staff. This is the format that has been mostly used during lockdown Covid and does not require students to be present on campus. The labs experience is reduced greatly and the level of interactions with other students and staff is diminished too but distance learning from any part of the world is possible through this tier delivery.
- Tier 3 – Basic: online content delivery only and with no staff interaction. This is typically what the MOOC courses have provided but effectively all the online content created for the Tier 1 and Tier 2 could be directly reused for this Tier. The tutorial feedback and the assessment would be modified to enable no staff interaction. However, the type of training provided by each university would remain unique and based on the staff experience, and online discussion forums among students could be created to favour discussion. Tier 3 is fully scalable, so it fulfils the objective of delivering for all.
In each of those three levels, the unique University experience, based on the excellent knowledge and experience of our staff in teaching and research, is offered.
I believe this is an opportunity for growth for the University sector which is now feasible given the changes we introduced with the response to Covid. University leaders must have the courage to convince their staff that this new structure is fulfilling even more the mission of their university and are worth the required changes.
Does this resonate to you? Where do you see your university moving forward in the next 10 years?