April 13, 2024

We have the technology to democratise knowledge development



One of the significant issues being debated within the Centre for Global Higher Education is higher education’s role in knowledge development and exchange. The challenge is that the dominance of the Global North and Western hemisphere universities undermines inclusivity, which makes positive directions of change more difficult.

Our project, on “Realising the potential of digital technology for scaling up higher education”, brings us right up against that challenge, because digital technology and its use in education itself is universal and dominates in the same way.

We notice two forces for major changes in global higher education over the last five years: the pandemic, and the increasingly urgent focus on the climate crisis and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

COVID and digital learning

The pandemic required universities across the world to confront the extent to which they had embraced the digital age in their conduct of research, teaching and administration. Their responses varied a lot, though not in relation to national strategies, which were generally lacking.

Research fared well. University research academics and systems have been well ahead of the game in embracing digital methods for all aspects of the conduct of research. National governments generally provide the funding, because research brings the value of international status to the forefront of knowledge development.

Teaching fared less well. There was no national strategy, and university level education strategies were about values and mission, the business model for courses, recruitment, enrolment, infrastructure and partnerships – with little about the nature of student learning, or blended learning, or teacher professional development. So these aspects attracted far less digital investment than research or administration.

Some universities already had a foundational strength in digital methods that enabled them to adapt rapidly to online learning; most struggled – particularly at the beginning. But all had the chance to discover its potential and its risks. And as several studies have shown, if the academic staff responded reasonably well, students responded positively and were keen to have more access to a blend of online and in-person methods once the pandemic was over.

The pandemic should have generated widespread recognition of online study programmes, but changes in universities have been slow and not strategic.

One problem now is that where there is no post-pandemic national strategy for more online learning, one of the downsides is that students looking for flexible higher education are at the mercy of alternative providers, and in the digital age there are many. The problem, as United States research shows, is that they provide poor quality online courses, and their students accrue large debts for little advantage.

Post-pandemic studies have shown that many universities across Asia and the Global South, as much as in the North and the West, are now developing their own institutional strategies that will bring more blended and hybrid models into the way we teach and run courses. This means that their academic staff must learn how to do it.

However, a recent study of blended learning across universities in Asia suggests that teacher professional development is the most neglected of higher education’s institutional responsibilities.

Similarly, a recent OECD report advised that countries urgently need to “improve the identification of costs and benefits associated with developing and delivering digital education”, while research on this is scarce and rarely impacts on policy-makers.

The OECD analysis cites different national approaches where there is one, for example: competitive funding for universities in Australia and Ireland, while universities in smaller OECD countries such as Austria use institutional performance agreements to steer university digital investment and targeted project funding.

But, in general, a comparative analysis of national systems for higher education is difficult in digital learning because universities are seen as broadly autonomous with respect to the way they teach. This is one area where responses to a global issue do not align with national boundaries.

Concern over climate

Changes wrought by the pandemic are slow to develop in universities, but their concern over the UN SDGs, and the climate crisis in particular, has increased. This is captured in the relatively new Times Higher Education Impact Rankings of universities worldwide, although it is very uneven.

Only one university in the Global South made the top 20 in 2019, the University of Hong Kong. In 2023 there were still only four (Universiti Sains Malaysia, Yonsei University in South Korea, Chulalongkorn University in Thailand and the University of Indonesia). The rest are again from the Global North and the West.

Interestingly, there are no universities in the top 20 for overall rankings that are also in the top 20 of the impact rankings. We cannot be both academically excellent and impactful on the major challenges of our time, it seems.

The knowledge of how to manage, and reduce human impact in line with the SDGs is developing in the major universities’ research, although less than 2% of the total US$1.3 trillion funds is spent on the social science of climate mitigation. And that challenge comes back to us.

Universities have the responsibility of educating the workforce of tomorrow, and surely also the workforce of today – all those professionals whose job it is to change their practices radically, and to educate their teams, their workers, their supply chains. This is the massive task that SDG 4 puts on us, to enable lifelong learning for all.

Support for the end-user professional

We have a responsibility to extend our support to the end-user professionals who need to engage with university research findings on how to develop their practice and enterprise sustainably.

This brings us back to the point where we started: worldwide higher education’s role in knowledge development and exchange. It is self-defeating to take the conventional approach of the one-way transmission of knowledge when there are so many types of knowledge needed to energise innovation. We need co-design, collaboration, the exchange of ideas and solutions. And we need it to work better than the model of research that excludes so many.

The idea of democratising knowledge development and exchange is one solution now being explored. We have the technology – large-scale online learning platforms suitable for professionals. The internet gives us access to the latest research ideas and professional practices across the world.

Higher education can now operate a much more inclusive and collaborative process for developing them, to harness the knowledges in the Global South and Asia, not just in the Global North and the West.

The democratisation of knowledge can replace mere dissemination if we use digital communications technologies to allow the two-way process of debate and exchange. Then the university research lab is just one local source of knowledge among the many professional sources of end-users who can advise on how it can be used, and where it fails.

The UN SDGs challenge universities’ responsibilities in ways we’ve not yet addressed, to enable lifelong learning for all, using the digital methods of knowledge development and exchange we now have, and which also enable the inclusion of sources of knowledge beyond our hegemonic traditions.

Diana Laurillard is professor of learning with digital technologies at UCL Knowledge Lab, United Kingdom. Eileen Kennedy is a principal research fellow at UCL Knowledge Lab, where she leads the MA in education and technology. The article is based on a session on ‘Worldwide higher education? What are the similarities and differences between national systems?’ at the recent Centre for Global Higher Education annual conference.

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