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Can technology address challenges faced by higher education today?

COL believes that technology-mediated teaching and learning can transform lives, making access to education available to anyone, anytime, anywhere.


Can technology address challenges faced by higher education today?
  • The rising cost of textbooks is a major problem for students, not only in developed countries but also in developing countries. (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

The short answer is yes. Can technology address the challenges faced by higher education? Has it increased access and bridged divides? Has technology led to improved outcomes? These are some of the most frequently asked questions that the Commonwealth of Learning (COL) has been asked in the last 30 years.  Heads of Government created COL with the express mandate to use distance learning and technologies to increase access to quality education and training.

COL believes that technology-mediated teaching and learning can transform lives, making access to education available to anyone, anytime, anywhere. However, the choice of technology must depend on whether it is appropriate, available and affordable. Technology by itself cannot be a panacea for all that ails higher education today but must be placed in an appropriate social, cultural and political context. 

In 2012, there were 165 million tertiary education students globally, and it is estimated that the number will grow to 522 million by 2035. The gross enrolment ratio in higher education in 2015 is 30.6, while it is 8.5 in sub-Saharan Africa and 20.8 in South Asia. Projections based on data from International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (IIASA) shows that most populous countries like China and India will have 14.16% and 17.02% of population with a degree by 2050. As more countries achieve universal secondary education, the demand for higher education will continue to escalate.

Brick and mortar institutions will not be able to absorb the surging demand. Alternative options will be required and technology will play a significant role in enabling institutions to expand. In the United States, 29.7% of all students enrolled in 2015 were taking at least one distance course. A recent study on Open Universities in the Commonwealth revealed that there were over 4.4 million students in 27 open universities alone. In 2017, over 78 million learners were reached by over 9,400 massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by over 800 universities. In terms of outcomes, research shows that there is ‘no significant difference’ in the learning outcomes of campus, distance or online learners.

The COL experience shows that to use technology effectively in teaching and learning, it is important to focus on: (i) policy, (ii) capacity, and (iii) appropriate technology. Integrating these three dimensions help universities to leverage the power of technology to increase access, improve quality and sustainability. We have been supporting policy development for technology-enabled learning, capacity building for blended learning delivery as well as online delivery of programmes, including MOOCs. In the process of developing appropriate policy, we need to take into consideration the level of existing capacity and access to technology for both students and faculty. Findings from our surveys on higher education institutions show that students have access to technology, especially smartphones, but they spend huge sums of money in buying textbooks for learning. Higher education teachers are either not aware of relevant technologies and open educational resources (OER), or lack the capacity to use these to enhance the quality of learning. Based on these findings we promote the integration of OER in teaching and learning.

The rising cost of textbooks is a major problem for students, not only in developed countries but also in developing countries. In the USA, the price of textbooks has gone up by 87.5% since 2006 and an average student spends USD 1,250 per year on textbooks.  According to a recent study in Canada, due to the prohibitive cost of textbooks, 54 % of students in the Province of British Columbia (BC) study without, at least, one of their required textbooks, while 27 % take fewer courses and 17 % drop courses altogether. COL is making efforts to develop and support OER in advanced ICT skills such as media, web programming and mobile computing. In Antigua State College (ASC), the student use of open textbooks resulted in savings of approximately Eastern Caribbean dollar (ECD) 704 per student per year, and increased student learning outcomes by 5.5%. The use of open textbooks in all the courses at the ASC is estimated to result in student savings of ECD 904,640 per year. However, the OER movement should not just be seen as a means of saving costs and improving outcomes but also opening up educational policy and practice. It must be harnessed in the interests of equity and inclusion so that no one is left behind.

Many higher education institutions around the world are taking steps to integrate technology and OER to improve access to quality learning opportunities for their students. Integration of technology in teaching and learning can clarify many of the doubts that we have about the effectiveness of technology. In higher education, we should ask the effectiveness of what we do daily in our classrooms, and question why we do what we do? Is there no other alternative before us to change the status quo? Recent developments in technology (such as artificial intelligence, robotics, blockchain) have far-reaching implications for higher education institutions in terms of curriculum, pedagogy and certification. Technology is here to stay. How can we harness the potential of technology to prepare our learners for the uncertainties that lie ahead? Are we bystanders, reluctant adopters or are we ahead of the game? The future of higher education will depend on our response today.