Notes on Digitization in Higher Education

Digitization of Information

The emergence of inexpensive and highly efficient information networks has increased the volume of available information. But it has also changed the way in which information is produced and distributed. While the impact of these changes on society is clearly far-reaching, its’ significance to higher education is particularly profound given the fundamental role of information in higher education. Changes of particular significance to higher education include:

  • Information used in education is often now available from sources other than higher education institutions, often at lower costs (or free), and in more convenient forms.
  • It is far easier for individuals to form communities focused on narrow interests and needs, including educational, without involvement of mediating educational institutions.
  • Increasingly sophisticated search technologies make finding relevant information easier, often reducing the value of intermediaries. Forecasts suggest that search capabilities will continue to accelerate in the coming decade.
  • What constitutes current and relevant information changes more quickly, placing great pressures on institutions that produce and distribute information to keep pace.
  • Traditional strategies used for protecting ownership of information (i.e. copyright) have lagged behind the capacity to share/copy information.

Challenges Arising from Digitization

The educational value of digitization to higher education is routinely examined by professionals working in higher education, particularly instructional designers and educational theorists. Less well known, but also important, are the views of many commentators – from both inside and outside of the academy – who interpret the digitization of information as an unprecedented challenge to the centrality of universities. At the core of this perspective is the notion that the rise of the Internet, and the rapid expansion of information sources, erodes the university’s monopoly over the distribution of knowledge. Access to information and the creation of learner communities – staples of higher education – are increasingly available from other sources, often in more convenient forms and, often, free.
Compared to other information-intensive industries, such as reference publishing, music, journalism, and libraries, higher education has thus far remained relatively unscathed by the “information revolution”. This is typically attributed to the role of credentials in the labour market, and the sector’s official status as credential providers.
Nevertheless, critics argue that accreditation will prove to be an insufficient protection against the fundamental changes in the way that information is now distributed and accessed. At the very least, universities will need to substantially change the way in which they operate.
The speed with which changes in the education field will unfold is difficult to predict. Nevertheless, there are already symptoms of changes on the periphery of higher education. Each of the examples below is made possible by the changing access to education-related information.

  • Online education from proprietary institutions. Enrollment in online courses at proprietary colleges (for-profit) in the U.S. (and a number of other nations) has grown dramatically. Indeed, growth among for-profit institutions has outpaced the already strong growth of online education at non-profit institutions during the past decade – a difference as great as 2.5:1. The significance of this development lies in the fact that proprietary institutions are able to offer university-level education without an investment in university research. Access to educational materials, and (under-employed) PhD’s is relatively easy to come by. And the capacity of for-profit institutions to compete will likely increase as they leverage the economies of scale that their business (i.e. growth-oriented) model is designed for. Like other industries that provide digital-based content and services, costs to the institution decrease as the volume of end-users (i.e. students) increases. The most well known of the proprietary schools, the University of Phoenix – reduced its costs by 1/3 over a six-year period (2000-2006) by moving more of its’ services online. And finally, these institutions are less constrained by the conventions of higher education, which enables them to adopt more streamlined, student-centered approaches to higher education.
  • The rapid rise of corporate universities. Rather than turning to colleges and universities or private-sector training providers, many large employers have created their own, surprisingly comprehensive learning operations. The number of corporate universities grew by roughly 1000% between 1995 and 2005.
  • New types of “semi-official” post-secondary institutions. New forms of post-secondary education are appearing that are designed – from the ground-up – to benefit from the possibilities of digital technology. Two examples that emerged in the last 18 months include: P2P University and University of the People, both of which offer only online courses, rely heavily on peer-to-peer learning, and are tuition free.
  • K-12 home and online schooling. Home schooling in the K12 sector has expanded dramatically during the past two decades, due in part to the availability of online resources and supportive communities of parents and students made possible by networks. In many regions of the United States, “virtual” (online) high schools are growing faster than online higher education. Several jurisdictions in Canada and the U.S. (including Toronto) have either introduced policy that requires that students take an online course or are currently examining this option. (2009 research forecasts that enrollment in U.S. online high schools will rise from 2m in 2009 to 10.5 in 2014.) Developments in this area suggest that the next cohort of university students will bring an entirely new set of expectations to higher education.
  • Informal learning communities.  Informal online learning communities have emerged that challenge traditional notions of higher education. The PMBA – or Personal Masters of Business Administration (www.personalmba.com) – is an interesting example. This online collective of learners uses widely available readings and peer-to-peer learning to mimic an educational experience that typically costs tens of thousands of dollars, and two years of lost wages.  The significance of the PMBA is, first, that it targets a well-known and often profitable university franchise. Second, the tone and language used in the PMBA community often reflects a willful rejection of traditional ideas about what constitutes legitimate learning.
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