On Monday, I described some of the big changes of the past 18 months; yesterday I discussed the first big future trend (“Funding Challenges Forever”), and today I want to talk about the second, which I call “New Pedagogies and New Credentials”.
The experience of learning online during COVID has divided both learners and instructors. A clear majority have a healthy dislike for it, and a few loath it. But a significant minority enjoyed the experiment. For students who never liked going to campus anyway, it was a revelation that attending class could be so easy. And for some instructors, the online format permitted new pedagogical experiments.
There is an opportunity here to make some of this remote learning permanent and really create broader access to post-secondary education – for students whose time-pressures make trips to campus difficult, for students with disabilities, for students in remote parts of the country, and possibly even as a new way to teach students in other countries. None of this is really in dispute. The question is whether any system is positioned to do what it takes to seriously make some kind of remote provision permanent. It’s not yet clear that anyone is.
By coincidence, the sudden burst of enthusiasm about remote learning coincided with the emergence of a new set of ideas about credentialing: namely, “micro-credentials”. I have written before about how micro-credentials were catnip for politicians because the term has yet to acquire a fixed meaning: you can tell them they can achieve any kind of goal, fix any problem, and they’ll believe you. So, a lot of the enthusiasm that’s been expressed is based on a phantom, or is misplaced enthusiasm for things that have been around awhile under different names (i.e. bespoke workplace training). Still, the idea of shorter credentials valued in the labour market is an attractive one, and – perhaps – one well suited to a new era of growing remote teaching.
But the history education futurism is littered with #hottakes about how something will definitely happen just because it conceivably could happen (we’re coming up on Year 10 of the MOOC revolution, if anyone is keeping track). Just because there is the possibility of a world with plentiful and higher quality remote teaching, some of which is geared towards widely-accepted micro-credentials, doesn’t mean we are definitely going to get there. The question is: what steps would we need to get there?
At the moment, with the pandemic not quite over and many classes still remote, most institutions in Canada are in a headspace where they are thinking about continuing to provide more courses on a hybrid basis so they can reach all the students they used do. But on a long-term basis this is an extremely expensive and inefficient solution. Hybrid is hard on teachers and the alternative – offering simultaneous in-presence and remote classes – just doubles workload without raising any revenue. For this kind of provision to make sense on a large scale, we’re going to need some specialization: some institutions need to go much bigger on remote than they have to date.
But, don’t we have online education already? What about, say, Athabasca? Good question. I think it’s clear that online-only institutions still have an image problem. People may want remote teaching, but they want a bigger brand name on their diploma. But the problem is that – as it was for MOOCs – the really big name schools don’t want to put their names to a remote-only diploma. The likeliest candidates to see make the jump to providing mass-scale remote learning options are those institutions which are kind of prestigious but also kind of broke (Memorial is an obvious candidate in Canada, though I note that higher-prestige University of Alberta seems to be laying the foundation for a large foray into remote teaching).
And as for international provision of remote/online education? There’s little evidence so far that this vision is taking flight, even in countries like Australia where former Minister for Education and Youth Alan Tudge dreams of Australian universities teaching ten million education international students a year, mostly via remote delivery. Australian universities seem to be resolutely ignoring this kind of talk, as are universities elsewhere. No one seems to think people will pay full-price for an online/remote education, and no one seems to be contemplating cutting prices (even though this would certainly be do-able with able program management). So, this development seems a ways off.
As for micro-credentials? Well, New Zealand has shown that they work in a responsible quality assurance framework which prioritizes transparency and portability that is integrated into an existing credentials framework. They may, in time, result in shorter Bachelor’s degrees topped up with micro-credentials, or perhaps result in the unbundling of the Master’s degree, as well as provide short-training modules at the sub-bachelor’s or even sub-diploma or -certificate level. They may come to be mass-delivered through online teaching, which is certainly the way the European Union seems to be thinking about them. But getting them to the point where the labour market understands and rewards them seriously is not going to happen overnight. It is going to take years of hard policy work. Governments that understand this might be well-placed to see through a major evolution in higher education: those that don’t, won’t.
In other words: there is clearly movement on the horizon when it comes to new pedagogies and new credentials: but real movement in these areas requires institutions to take risks and governments to take their regulatory functions seriously. If these things happen then we may well be inching into a new era in higher education; if not, then we probably won’t. Either way, this will be one of the most consequential policy fields within higher education for the next few years.