Rebooting higher education: It's no longer one size fits all
The blackboard is an app. The classroom is in your pocket. The teacher is in another country. Welcome to the new school.
The classroom today has a million students. No, really. There's a French-speaking girl from Bulgaria who's using Google Translate to read the lecture slides. There's a woman in Pakistan listening in while commuting to work. There's even a social worker in the US who's leading the class discussion through iTV (interactive television). The 'student' today is tuned in to on-demand education, learning skills - transferrable skills - that can sustain a career spanning four to eight job changes across various industries and countries.
Higher education, as we've known it, has outgrown the conveyor belt set up. No longer is university about a set number of years filled with static data that everyone must learn. Today, blended learning is the norm. And, why not? With information that is updated before you finish reading this article, this is but the next inevitable chapter of education - and it's the youth that is leading the way.
Born into a world where information is no longer contained within the hallowed aisles of a library, youngsters today demand the most recent and relevant educational experience. From simply following a prescribed curriculum at school to deciding the content and skills they want to be taught, the youth is actively shaping the future of education. Look no further than the recent WorldSkills Conference 2017 held in Abu Dhabi, where the first day saw the presentation of a Youth Declaration - a manifesto drafted by 300 young people from around the world - to policymakers, influencers, and national ministers. It highlighted the technical and vocational skills that the youth wants to focus on in the future.
It's not just the content
Even the delivery of an educational programme has changed - and it's not just because of technology. While MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) from Harvard, MIT, Microsoft, and other leading universities and global businesses are available for free (pay when multiple courses are combined into a certified module), the youth today is designing educational programmes that draw input from more than one alma mater. Regional and international consortiums of universities such as GLODEP and Universitas 21 are allowing students to take a semester in one country or a course in another, all adding up to a customised degree - a credential that builds on a student's strengths and is applicable multinationally.
From brain 'drain' to brain 'exchange'
Growing up in an increasingly interconnected world, youngsters easily navigate blended learning formats - they could be going to high school in their own city, pursuing a college-level course on Coursera or Udemy, and brushing up on a technical skill online at Khan Academy. The linear learning model is quickly giving way to learning platforms such as 17zuoye (a place for students, parents, and educators to interact online and learn) and environments such as Ecole 42 ( students complete challenges with peers instead of passively listening to the teacher).
Social media is the new counsellor
The decision to pursue a degree is no longer about competency tests and a meeting with the guidance counsellor. The youth is savvy about how universities market themselves - they read online school reviews (not just from their peers and alumni, but also know of any social faux pas that made the news), browse websites such as Rate My Professors before selecting a programme, and immerse themselves on blogs and social media posts about the educational experience and job placement statistics before accepting the letter of admission. "Most institutions nowadays offer virtual tours of the campus that allow students to evaluate the facilities," says Yazan Zamel, a 17-year-old student at Abu Dhabi International Private School.
The schools are paying attention
In light of the changing ways in which students seek information about where to study (and where their money is spent), the schools are also changing their approach. Today, there's an abundance of school blogs where students can interact with faculty and other students, social media events for student recruitment that draw in youth globally, and even branch campuses in other countries to build a school's brand equity.
"A generation ago students did not have all the information readily available to them. They tended to choose universities close to where they lived while the more ambitious ones looked for opportunities where they could secure scholarships or financial aid. They depended on their parents and teachers to guide them appropriately. What has changed is that there is a greater deal of information available everywhere, starting from the palm of their hands. Students are more hi-tech and social media savvy, which is a big influencer, and they depend more on their peer groups to make a decision. They actively follow videos and testimonials from students studying at different universities to get a better idea of academic quality," shares Mariam Shaikh, vice-president of student recruitment, Amity University Dubai.
A new learning landscape
So when just a brochure, direct mass mail, and print advertisements simply don't cut it, higher education has also become attuned to web traffic and enquiries. If the students are using certain search terms, those words shape into the names of new degree programmes. "I want to study innovation. I've already been part of school clubs where we have developed projects such as converting the friction of car tyres into electricity as they pass over the lines at traffic signals. So I want my university education to build on that instead of simply theory," says Salim Mohammed Ali Alblooshi, a Year 11 student at Arab Unity School, Dubai. It's no wonder today that a Bachelor of Innovation that focuses on technology, management and even entrepreneurship is easy to look up.