Face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion will not be sup­planted by tech­nol­ogy, ac­cord­ing to our Univer­sity Lead­ers Sur­vey

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS -

The dig­i­tal tide will not wash away cam­pus-based learn­ing be­cause the vi­tal need for per­sonal in­ter­ac­tion will en­sure ro­bust de­mand, ac­cord­ing to most re­spon­dents to THE’s Univer­sity Lead­ers Sur­vey. David Matthews re­ports on how they fore­see tech­nol­ogy af­fect­ing study op­tions, schol­arly con­fer­ences, sci­en­tific progress and more by 2030

“Ed­u­ca­tion is not the fill­ing of a pail, but the light­ing of a fire.”

So reads a quote of­ten at­trib­uted – quite pos­si­bly falsely – to W. B. Yeats. For Alain Fuchs, pres­i­dent of PSL Re­search Univer­sity in Paris, the phrase is an apt re­minder that although tech­nol­ogy will cer­tainly change uni­ver­si­ties, “light­ing the fire” of learn­ing is a “mat­ter of hu­man con­tacts” – mean­ing that the phys­i­cal univer­sity, with its face-to-face teach­ing, still has a healthy fu­ture de­spite the wave of dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion.

Fuchs’ view is typ­i­cal of the close to 200 in­sti­tu­tion lead­ers – all of them from the world’s top 1,000 uni­ver­si­ties – who took part in a Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion sur­vey on the univer­sity in 2030. The ques­tions con­cern a wide range of top­ics, the ma­jor­ity of which were cov­ered in last week’s THE.

In this fea­ture, we fo­cus on the role of tech­nol­ogy in shap­ing uni­ver­si­ties’ fu­ture in the short to medium term.

On the whole, our re­spon­dents – who hail from 45 coun­tries across six con­ti­nents – are scep­ti­cal that dig­i­tal learn­ing will sup­plant face-to-face learn­ing any time soon. Although 63 per cent be­lieve that es­tab­lished and pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties will be of­fer­ing full de­grees on­line by 2030, com­pared with just 19 per cent who do not, only 24 per cent be­lieve that on­line de­gree cour­ses will be more pop­u­lar than cam­pus-based ones by 2030, against 53 per cent who dis­agree. And only 19 per cent think that dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy will have erad­i­cated phys­i­cal lec­tures by 2030, com­pared with 65 per cent who dis­agree.

This does not mean that lead­ers wish to pre­serve the ex­ist­ing univer­sity in as­pic; sev­eral con­sider the tra­di­tional lec­ture to be out­dated. But they do not think that learn­ing can sim­ply move on­line whole­sale. The heart of their ar­gu­ment is that hu­man con­tact still mat­ters: for fruit­ful teach­ing and re­search

col­lab­o­ra­tions, but also for in­still­ing in stu­dents val­ues and be­hav­iours that set them up for adult life.

Ac­cord­ing to Fuchs, who has also served as pres­i­dent of France’s Na­tional Cen­tre for Sci­en­tific Re­search, “deep un­der­stand­ing”, as op­posed to “only be­ing able to re­ply to an ex­am­i­na­tion ques­tion”, re­lies on stu­dents be­ing in the phys­i­cal pres­ence of ex­perts for a long time. To grasp a dif­fi­cult con­cept, “you not only need to read things about it, but you need to phys­i­cally see some­one who ex­plains it”, he says.

Lino Guzzella, pres­i­dent of ETH Zurich, agrees. “Meet­ing peo­ple, in­ter­act­ing with peers, stu­dents and su­per­vi­sors – in short, a real univer­sity en­vi­ron­ment – is the key to deep un­der­stand­ing,” he says.

Other univer­sity lead­ers put it more bluntly. One Aus­tralian vice-chan­cel­lor says that “face-to-face in­ter­ac­tion will never be matched in qual­ity by other modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion” – even if cur­rent “fads tem­po­rar­ily ap­pear to be tilt­ing the bal­ance to­wards non-hu­man in­ter­ac­tion”.

For Jane Gate­wood, vice-provost for global en­gage­ment at the Univer­sity of Rochester in New York state, the value of the hu­man el­e­ment is demon­strated by the fact that when alumni – a cru­cial source of fund­ing to US uni­ver­si­ties – re­turn to cam­pus, they do not sim­ply re­count tales of the knowl­edge they ac­cu­mu­lated when they were stu­dents. Rather, “when they talk about what they learned, they talk about their pro­fes­sors. And when they talk about their ex­pe­ri­ence, they talk about their friends and the struc­ture of pro­grammes. So those things are crit­i­cal – the form is im­por­tant,” she ar­gues. The dif­fer­ence be­tween res­i­den­tial and on­line learn­ing is like the dif­fer­ence be­tween vis­it­ing a new place or lo­ca­tion and merely “watch­ing a video” of it, she adds.

In­deed, re­spon­dents put such store in the value of phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion that sev­eral feel that in a dig­i­tally atom­ised fu­ture, stu­dents will value per­sonal en­gage­ment in uni­ver­si­ties even more than they do now. “Hu­man en­gage­ment will be more val­ued as it be­comes scarcer,” says one Ir­ish univer­sity leader. “The Ox­ford/ Cam­bridge model of tu­to­rial-based ed­u­ca­tion will be as­pired to by those with aca­demic or fi­nan­cial choices of where to study.”

While univer­sity lead­ers may well be right that stu­dents will con­tinue to flock to phys­i­cal cam­puses over the next decade, ev­i­dence that stu­dents learn best when in the same room as their lec­tur­ers is ac­tu­ally very scant.

Ed­u­ca­tional re­searchers Robert Bernard, Eu­gene Borokhovski and Richard Sch­mid work at the Cen­tre for the Study of Learn­ing and Per­for­mance at Con­cor­dia Univer­sity, Canada. “We know of no em­pir­i­cal ev­i­dence that says that class­room in­struc­tion ben­e­fits stu­dents (com­pared to al­ter­na­tives) from a learn­ing achieve­ment per­spec­tive,” they tell THE.

One of their meta-analy­ses of the ef­fi­cacy of class­room-based learn­ing ver­sus cour­ses de­liv­ered wholly on­line found “no dif­fer­ence with re­gard to stu­dent achieve­ment. This strong, ev­i­dence-based out­come ran counter to even ed­u­ca­tors’ wide­spread as­sump­tion that dis­tance ed­u­ca­tion must be in­fe­rior.”

In fact, they ar­gue, “the medium mat­ters far less than the qual­ity of the ped­a­gogy”. Uni­ver­si­ties need to “cap­ture and chal­lenge the imag­i­na­tion, based on the learn­ers’ pre-ex­ist­ing knowl­edge. That is what works, whether it is in the class­room or on­line.”

Asked why some univer­sity lead­ers might still think face-to-face in­struc­tion is in­her­ently su­pe­rior, they say there is a “nat­u­ral ten­dency” among lec­tur­ers “to favour in­struc­tional con­di­tions that they are ac­cus­tomed to [over] al­ter­na­tives that they have not yet in­vested in or ex­pe­ri­enced”.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween res­i­den­tial and on­line learn­ing is like the dif­fer­ence be­tween vis­it­ing a new place and watch­ing a video of it

Although the find­ings of meta-analy­ses are never com­pletely clear cut, the re­searchers have also found that blended learn­ing – a mix­ture of on­line and real-life teach­ing – trumps a fully class­room-based ex­pe­ri­ence be­cause, if used well, it of­fers the “best of both worlds”.

In fair­ness, many re­spon­dents to the THE sur­vey fore­see a move in this di­rec­tion. For all her scep­ti­cism about the abil­ity of on­line learn­ing to re­place the “ex­pe­ri­en­tial el­e­ment” of on-cam­pus de­grees, Rochester’s Gate­wood, for in­stance, con­cedes that this “doesn’t mean that uni­ver­si­ties can’t…op­er­a­tionalise ways to in­te­grate the vir­tual…to per­haps shorten their de­grees or to make that ex­pe­ri­ence richer”.

But most re­spon­dents also be­lieve that it is im­pos­si­ble to repli­cate on­line the role of a tra­di­tional univer­sity ed­u­ca­tion in strength­en­ing in­ter­per­sonal skills and val­ues. Univer­siti Tunku Ab­dul Rahman (UTAR), a pri­vate, not­for-profit univer­sity host­ing close to 20,000 stu­dents on a cam­pus north of Kuala Lumpur, is barely older than the iPhone – it took its first stu­dents in 2002. But its pres­i­dent, Chuah Hean Teik, de­scribes him­self as “quite a tra­di­tional think­ing guy” and feels that the cam­pus ex­pe­ri­ence is “im­por­tant in mould­ing your per­sonal char­ac­ter” – not least in learn­ing how to in­ter­act with peo­ple.

“From peo­ple’s ex­pres­sions, from the way peo­ple raise their voice, from the way they raise their hand, we get some sig­nals,” he says. And he laments that when he goes for a fam­ily din­ner, most of the younger par­tic­i­pants spend it star­ing at their smart­phones.

Hence, although much learn­ing will be blended by 2030, stu­dents “will still come to the cam­pus to in­ter­act with the teacher”, Chuah pre­dicts.

Yang Hai Wen, vice-pres­i­dent of South­ern Med­i­cal Univer­sity in Guangzhou, China, is a strong scep­tic re­gard­ing the like­li­hood that de­grees will go dig­i­tal by 2030. On­line ed­u­ca­tion, he says, would “cre­ate more un­healthy grad­u­ates and [cre­ate] more frus­tra­tions in in­ter­per­sonal com­mu­ni­ca­tion”.

Two univer­sity lead­ers in the US also stress uni­ver­si­ties’ place in help­ing young peo­ple tran­si­tion to adult­hood. “They pro­vide a com­mu­nity of learn­ers and teach­ers, a place to ex­plore new ideas with oth­ers,” one ar­gues. “While this can be ac­com­plished to a lesser de­gree on­line, the qual­ity of face-to-face hu­man in­ter­ac­tion is ir­re­place­able; the de­gree of car­ing that our fac­ulty, ad­vis­ers, and other staff ex­hibit to­wards our stu­dents can­not be en­tirely repli­cated on­line.”

How­ever, “this ap­plies only to the shrink­ing mar­ket of re­cent high school grad­u­ates”, the other US leader says; 55 per cent of re­spon­dents to the THE sur­vey pre­dict they will be teach­ing a greater pro­por­tion of ma­ture stu­dents by 2030, ris­ing to 63 per cent in North Amer­ica.

Univer­sity lead­ers also be­lieve that cam­pus­based de­grees will con­tinue to be more es­teemed than on­line de­grees. In Ro­ma­nia, for in­stance, dis­tance-learn­ing num­bers have been shrink­ing, in part be­cause of an at­ti­tude among par­ents that their chil­dren “have to go to a ‘real’ univer­sity [and a feel­ing] that on­line is not that ‘real’”, says Mag­dalena Platis, vice-

rec­tor of the Univer­sity of Bucharest.

Rochester’s Gate­wood agrees. “But I do think the price points [for the full cam­pus ex­pe­ri­ence] will have to shift down,” she adds, in ref­er­ence to spi­ralling tu­ition fees and fall­ing gov­ern­ment in­vest­ment in univer­sity teach­ing in the US. (Only 3 per cent of North Amer­i­can re­spon­dents to the sur­vey, 27 out of 30 of whom are from the US, ex­pect gov­ern­ment ex­pen­di­ture on teach­ing to rise be­tween now and 2030, com­pared with 72 per cent who be­lieve it will drop.)

The broad pic­ture the sur­vey paints is of a univer­sity lead­er­ship rea­son­ably sure that the phys­i­cal cam­pus will re­sist the dig­i­tal tidal wave that has thrown the mu­sic, news­pa­per and re­tail in­dus­tries, to name but three, into tur­moil.

This con­fi­dence is per­haps un­der­stand­able given the re­cent rise and fall of hype around mas­sive open on­line cour­ses. Five years ago, ad­vo­cates were ex­cit­edly claim­ing that these would sweep away the bricks-and-mor­tar univer­sity. But the com­ple­tion rate of Moocs re­mains “so low that this does not make a sus­tain­able univer­sity”, says Fabio Mas­sacci, rec­tor’s del­e­gate for na­tional and in­ter­na­tional rank­ings at the Univer­sity of Trento in Italy. And even Mooc providers them­selves have scaled back their am­bi­tions, with some now fo­cus­ing on pro­fes­sional de­vel­op­ment cour­ses.

Univer­sity lead­ers take a sim­i­larly scep­ti­cal view about whether vir­tual con­fer­ences will sup­plant phys­i­cal ones over the next dozen years.

Aca­demic con­fer­ences have be­come huge busi­ness in re­cent decades, pack­ing out ho­tels and venues around the world. Over­all fig­ures on this growth are hard to come by, but on­ces­mall con­fer­ence or­gan­is­ers such as Gor­don Re­search Con­fer­ences now host hun­dreds

of events glob­ally, with tens of thou­sands of par­tic­i­pants. And it is not un­com­mon for se­nior aca­demics to at­tend a dozen or more con­fer­ences a year, en­dur­ing semi-per­ma­nent jet lag, en­vi­ron­men­tal guilt and the ero­sion of their pre­cious re­search fund­ing.

All this raises the ques­tion of why academia does not do away with the need for air­lines and ho­tels by hold­ing con­fer­ences on­line in­stead. Af­ter all, dis­quiet about the sums that uni­ver­si­ties spend on jour­nal sub­scrip­tions was one of the early im­pe­tuses for shift­ing to an on­line, open-ac­cess model of pub­lish­ing. And that move­ment has gath­ered such mo­men­tum that 69 per cent of our sur­vey re­spon­dents ex­pect all new re­search pa­pers pro­duced by their in­sti­tu­tions to be pub­lished in an ope­nac­cess for­mat by 2030 – even if thoughts of thereby slash­ing pub­lish­ers’ profit mar­gins have long since with­ered as ar­ti­cle pro­cess­ing charges have be­come ubiq­ui­tous.

Yet rel­a­tively few univer­sity lead­ers see aca­demic con­fer­ences go­ing on­line any time soon. Fifty-four per cent of re­spon­dents dis­agree or strongly dis­agree with the state­ment that “vir­tual aca­demic con­fer­ences will have re­placed phys­i­cal con­fer­ences by 2030”, while only 25 per cent agree.

“The rea­son peo­ple go to con­fer­ences is to meet peo­ple and build re­la­tion­ships; the [for­mal pre­sen­ta­tions] are just the ex­cuse,” ex­plains Trento’s Mas­sacci. A we­bi­nar, he says, lacks sim­i­lar net­work­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties.

A US univer­sity pres­i­dent echoes this sen­ti­ment, liken­ing the pop­u­lar­ity of phys­i­cal con­fer­ences to the pop­u­lar­ity of bricks-and­mor­tar uni­ver­si­ties: “Hu­man na­ture will con­tinue to seek so­cial in­ter­ac­tion on a per­sonal – as op­posed to dig­i­tal – ba­sis.”

It is true that re­mote, cross-bor­der re­search col­lab­o­ra­tion is in­creas­ing: by 2014, one in four sci­en­tific ar­ti­cles was the re­sult of in­ter­na­tional col­lab­o­ra­tion, up from one in five a decade pre­vi­ously, ac­cord­ing to Un­esco. For PSL’s Fuchs, this means that face-to-face con­fer­ences – fre­quently “bor­ing” in them­selves – are vi­tal op­por­tu­ni­ties for aca­demics and re­searchers to catch up and con­fer with over­seas col­lab­o­ra­tors. At one re­cent con­fer­ence, for in­stance, Fuchs and his col­leagues skipped the pre­sen­ta­tions and worked on a joint prob­lem in a side room.

There is also great value, Fuchs says, in “hav­ing a beer at night” with fel­low con­fer­ence del­e­gates, dis­cussing fund­ing, stu­dents and other pro­fes­sional pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. “Sci­ence is a hu­man process,” he notes.

In line with that sen­ti­ment, most re­spon­dents also agree that sci­ence will con­tinue to re­quire a hu­man brain. Asked whether they think ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will even­tu­ally ri­val hu­man re­searchers at gen­er­at­ing new the­o­ries and knowl­edge, 50 per cent of re­spon­dents dis­agree or strongly dis­agree, com­pared with 26 per cent who agree.

“For the fore­see­able fu­ture (my life­time) I can’t see AI reach­ing a level of de­vel­op­ment that in­cludes the spirit of in­no­va­tion that makes the dif­fer­ence be­tween mun­dane anal­y­sis and break­through re­search,” notes one US univer­sity pres­i­dent.

Mas­sacci is more dis­mis­sive still. For him, AI is “just the hype of the day. A sim­i­lar hype has oc­curred in the past, and out of that we ob­tained [only] car [num­ber] plate char­ac­ter recog­ni­tion for au­to­matic speed tick­et­ing.”

In­ter­est­ingly, the over­all re­sults hide a sig­nif­i­cant geo­graph­i­cal split in at­ti­tudes to­wards tech­nol­ogy. In Asia, univer­sity lead­ers are gen­er­ally less con­ser­va­tive in their pre­dic­tions for the fu­ture than those in other con­ti­nents.

North Amer­i­can lead­ers are most likely to think that es­tab­lished and pres­ti­gious uni­ver­si­ties will be of­fer­ing full de­grees on­line by 2030, fol­lowed by re­spon­dents from Oceania (all of whom are at Aus­tralian in­sti­tu­tions). And Aus­tralian lead­ers are much more likely than ev­ery­one else to be­lieve that on­line de­grees will be more pop­u­lar than phys­i­cal de­grees by 2030: 57 per cent do so, com­pared with 26 per cent of Asian lead­ers, the next most likely group to take that view.

But Asian lead­ers are the most likely to be­lieve that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will even­tu­ally ri­val hu­man re­searchers, and to pre­dict that vir­tual aca­demic con­fer­ences will have re­placed phys­i­cal ones by 2030. In ad­di­tion, a full 35 per cent of Asian lead­ers think that the phys­i­cal lec­ture will have be­come ex­tinct by 2030; in North Amer­ica, the fig­ure is just 3 per cent and in Europe 14 per cent.

PSL’s Fuchs thinks that these dis­crep­an­cies could re­flect a long-stand­ing – and hotly de­bated – dif­fer­ence be­tween Western and Eastern mod­els of ed­u­ca­tion. The Asian ap­proach, he thinks, is “for the time be­ing” per­haps more like Yeats’ bucket fill­ing, rather than the light­ing of fires through de­bate and dis­cus­sion.

This “may change,” he adds. But for now, Asian uni­ver­si­ties ap­pear to be brac­ing them­selves for dig­i­tal dis­rup­tion more than Western ones are.

There is great value in hav­ing a beer at night with fel­low con­fer­ence del­e­gates, dis­cussing fund­ing, stu­dents and other pro­fes­sional pre­oc­cu­pa­tions. ‘Sci­ence is a hu­man process’

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