Online Education Symposium - Disrupting Higher Education

PACCAR Theatre, Science Gallery, Trinity College

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Colleagues, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It’s my pleasure to welcome you to Science Gallery at Trinity College Dublin, and to this important symposium. I want to thank Tom Boland for being here - and signalling by his presence just how important are the issues under debate today. And I want to thank Professor Veronica Campbell, Dean of Graduate Studies, for organising this symposium to such a high level. Today we will hear from distinguished international speakers from academia and the innovation industries. They will take us through some of the wonderful opportunities – as well as the disruptive potential – of online education.

The title of my talk is ‘Changing Universities’. I guess I intended a double meaning, or play on words, here: ‘changing’ as an adjective – universities are currently in a transitional state and ways of delivering education are changing – whether we like it or not.

But also ‘changing’ as an active verb – because those of us who have a leadership role in higher education must not be passive participants. Online education is transforming the way universities deliver courses, and university staff and administrators have an active directional role to play; it is up to us to decide how to use this tremendous new resource.

Different universities serve different student needs – have different ‘constituencies’ if you like: one size never fits all, which is why in Ireland, as in other countries, we have diverse higher education institutions offering choice to students. As a resource, online learning will be used in manifold ways, depending on the requirements of particular institutions. This morning I want to talk to you about how I think online education might work in Trinity.

***The Trinity Education***

What is a Trinity Education? How do we in Trinity meet the needs of our students? How does this fit into the world of global universities? I believe three things in particular characterise the kind of education offered in universities such as Trinity, as shown here:


Trinity Education

  • First, it is research-led: our students undertake research alongside professors in a common enterprise of discovery. This research may take the form of examining archives, analysing data, or conducting laboratory experiments, but it aims to be original research having reference to the latest scholarship in the field - and it starts at undergraduate level.
  • Second, we recognise the transformative power of higher education in its broadest sense - not just want happens in the classroom, but what students learn from developing responsibility through event-organising, fund-raising, competing, debating, and taking on leadership roles in College clubs and societies. Trinity seeks to transcend the vocational and to educate not just for the first job but for a career - and for an active and participatory citizenship. The academic curriculum does not define the boundaries of a student’s learning. These activities paralleling the academic curricular activities – the so-called extracurricular activities- are intrinsic to the education we offer.
  • And third, a Trinity education serves both the private and the public good. Obviously a university education confers a benefit on private individuals in terms of enabling them to pursue interesting careers. But it also gives a valuable return to society at large, since the graduate within the community provides indispensable expertise in crucial areas like medicine, law, the arts, business, science and technology. Our recognition of the private and the public good is reflected in the way higher education is funded - we favour a balanced mix of exchequer and non-exchequer funds. And it’s reflected in the way we seek to throw our net wide, to offer access and to facilitate learning for students from all backgrounds.

These three characteristics of the Trinity Education, and no doubt they characterise other universities too – research-led, learning outside the classroom, and serving the public good – go back many hundreds of years.

And while for much of its history, Trinity was, like most European universities, peopled disproportionately by the wealthy male elite who could afford to pay; the college did try to redress this by offering ‘sizarships’- assistance with tuition fees and lodging - to those of limited means. The 18th Century playwright Oliver Goldsmith, whose statue gazes out on College Green from the front of Regent House, is probably our most famous sizar. And this year we celebrate 20 years of our Trinity Access Programme which is a pioneer programme in facilitating people from socio-economic groups under-represented in higher education to go to university. Increased access to a quality higher education has been one of the great successes of our times.

I cannot now envisage a situation in which we would deviate from our core principles – become, at one extreme, a purely privately-funded vocational college. We stick to our defining principles because they work for us and they work to the benefit of Irish society.

***Online and Trinity***

So how might online education fit into a Trinity education?

The title of this symposium is ‘disrupting higher education’. Could online disrupt a Trinity education? Watching Daphne Koller’s TED-talk on online education – which I’m sure many of you have seen – I was struck by one of the remarks in the comment box on the TED website. The commenter wrote of

canned online lectures - students sitting at home like hamsters pushing buttons for hours and hours each day”.

That certainly seems counter to my depiction of “students engaged alongside professors in a common enterprise of discovery”. Surely a Trinity education depends on personal, rather than virtual, interaction? Is online education just another depressing 21st Century retreat from real, active, breathing life to the impersonal screen?

If we are honest we have to say, potentially, yes. But if handled right – and this goes back to my use of ‘changing’ as an active verb – then online education will actually help us adhere closer to our core principles.

Let’s look at each principle in turn in terms of the development of online provision:


Trinity Education Online

First, research-led education. A Trinity education depends on student-professor, one-on-one time. By freeing up lecture hours, online education can help deliver this. In just a few years, it will, I think, come to seem laughable and archaic that professors were once tied to delivering lectures week-in, week-out, year-in, year-out, the same lecture in the same theatre to generations of undergraduates paying scant attention. We all recall sitting in those big sweaty rooms, with the professor shuttling through the lecture for the umpteenth time, trying heroically to inject some energy, … Well those days can go, I think, and without any regrets.

Far better for the professor to deliver the lecture once, with fire and passion.

It’s important that we ensure that students benefit from professors’ time, and that this time isn’t all used up just in delivering information. We should see online as an opportunity for more one-on-one staff-student time. Online will enable a research-led curriculum.

Second, extracurricular, learning outside the classroom. As I’ve said, third-level education is about developing potential, including potentials beyond the academic curriculum. Students are challenged to develop skills as, event-organisers, fund-raisers, entrepreneurs, volunteers, and communicators. Online education will create a more flexible tailored academic timetable allowing time for the extracurricular.

Online is also, in itself, transformative. It develops skills which are insufficiently addressed by traditional education as practised for the past five hundred years. What I find fascinating about online is that it returns us to a more oral, and aural, culture – one where ideas are articulated and debated rather than written down.

Third, the public good. This is the area where online education has the most exciting potential, as well, conversely, as the most possible pitfalls. As I’ve said, in Trinity we are committed to serving the public good by opening up access to students with diverse talents and from all socio-economic backgrounds.

Online – at its most avant-garde – through the MOOCS, offers free courses to hundreds of thousands of people, indeed to as many as have access to high-speed internet – theoretically a limitless number. Potentially, anyone in Ireland and beyond, could avail of Trinity courses, for free.

I should specify that they will not, then, necessarily be getting a Trinity education. The problem here isn’t one of grading and accreditation. There are some fascinating solutions for this;  particularly peer reviews – of students grading each other. As an educator, I can see exactly how this could work fairly and equitably.

The problem is that a Trinity education means face-time with professors and it means access to the whole range of extracurricular mind-expanding activities. A student at home accessing online course-work is not getting a Trinity education; at least not in the way I’ve described it so far. We can’t deliver the kind of education we now offer to students anywhere in the world. You have to come to Trinity to get it, and until we’ve worked out how to tele-port, that isn’t going to change!  

So leadership in this area involves not overstating our case. But once we are clear about what we can and can’t do, we can emphasize all the advantages for the public good.

As we get used to people around the world accessing our lectures and course works, we will start expanding our idea of the public good – certainly beyond national boundaries. This is happening anyway, but it will be accelerated by online education. We will start thinking naturally in terms of dialogue - with Trinity not so much instructing, as engaging people globally with the research that we do here.

***The online road map***

So, to recap, online education is here and is already changing the way we deliver education. The challenge for universities is to use this new delivery system in a way that enhances the education they offer. For Trinity I think this will mean finding ways for online to help us better deliver on our three core principles.

When seeking change, it’s advisable to first articulate what you want, and then develop a ‘road-map’ to take you there. This symposium is our means of exploring how we want online education to work for us. The next step is to provide the road-map.

Trinity’s current five year ‘Strategic Plan’ which takes us up to 2014, includes the aim to, “make open access a key element of our publication and information dissemination policy”. This was articulated in 2009 but the situation has changed even since then, and the next college strategic plan will include fuller, more targeted ways of developing online education.

To signal the vitality of this new sphere, I have asked Professor Veronica Campbell to prepare a discussion paper for the University Council, to spearhead our online activities. The new College Officership could be created, to link in with other college activities, for instance our global relations strategy, to ensure cohesion.

We want to hold a college-wide discussion on how best to enhance the Trinity education through online.   

I know there are numerous decisions to take and issues to confront. For instance:

  • Will we consider grading courses? Using what kind of system?
  • Will the loss of the communal lecture room make learning more disparate?
  • Will our professors hook up with academics in other countries to deliver cross-institutional courses?
  • Is there a danger that online will feed into the culture of ‘super-star academics’, with people seeking out the courses of celebrity academics, who may be the most telegenic but are not necessarily the most profound thinkers?
  • Is there a danger that this new oral/aural/visual culture will eventually kill off the written word, and that this will involve a loss in seriousness, concentration, and profundity? An incalculable loss of the reflective approach?

The full implications of these and other issues must be considered, and will be the subject of some of our deliberations here today. But this morning I’ve concentrated on how online might impact our existing education - because I think that you need to establish where you are, and what your strengths are, and where you want to go, before you can start evaluating implications.

Yes, online education is arguably the greatest potential education change in centuries and is revolutionary in its implications; yes, it can appear at once dangerously destructive of all we have, and dangerously glamorous in its boundless possibilities; but if we are secure in our foundations then we are not powerless in the face of disruption, nor dazzled by seductive fantasies.

To return to my title, ‘Changing Universities’: change in some form is always inevitable, and institutions (and individuals) must learn how to handle, and embrace, it. The great political theorist, Edmund Burke, whose statue stands alongside Oliver Goldsmith’s, was, as you probably know, a conservative (with a small ‘c’) but he noted that:

“A state without the means of some change is without the means of its preservation”.

He would, I think, be happy with the way his alma mater has designed for change: a Trinity education has in-built flexibility; it is evolutionary in design rather than intractable. We now look forward to seizing the great opportunity of online education, and to developing it in a way consistent with all we stand for.

Thank you.

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