Three ways education is being disrupted by digital technology

Key takeaways

  • Classrooms, lectures and textbooks are giving way to innovative new teaching methods.
  • One of the major advancements is digital distribution, which means students can experience more personalised content and enjoy greater access to university courses.
  • As a result of disruption, traditional universities face increasing competition from new, digitally driven education providers entering the market.

Disruption can, by definition, be viewed as negative, conjuring ideas of interruption, disturbance, annoyance – think of the naughty child in class ruining it for everyone.

In light of the digital revolution, disruption heralds a change that may seem particularly unwelcome to those forced to uproot their traditional ways of doing things. But it doesn’t emerge from nowhere. Disruption is driven by a convergence of forces: from the capabilities of new technologies, to the changing demands of customers, or rapidly evolving practices of competitors.

Research creates disruption

The higher education industry is no spectator to this digital sport, causing some digital disruption of its own. Speaking at the Melbourne Press Club in 2016, Monash University’s president and vice-chancellor, Professor Margaret Gardner made the point that in Australia, universities are required by law to undertake research.

She asks, “What happens to manufacturing when we can 3D print whole items such as jet engines (as Monash has done)? How does health change when we can target more personally and specifically responses to disease or replace more of our vital body parts and organs? […] Research – the discovery of new things and new solutions – is the ultimate potential disruptor of our world – but also the hope for a better future.”¹

When it comes to students, there are some significant innovations disrupting the way their higher education experience is being delivered.

Big data means personalised education

Measuring student learning using data analytics is less than a decade old but has the potential to transform education away from a one-size-fits-all model.

Adaptive learning is a system that leverages data capabilities to deliver a training course that’s personalised to the individual. With tutoring provided digitally, it continually gathers information on a student’s performance in order to tailor their educational content.

Not only does a digitised system have the advantage of providing students with real-time feedback, it also means that personalised learning can be rolled out at a far greater scale and geographical distance than with traditional methods.

In an adaptive learning program at HarvardX, which provides online courses from Harvard University, students in the adaptive group were found to move faster through course materials than the control group. They also demonstrated a 19% greater knowledge gain in assessment.

“Adaptive learning programs are very good at speeding up information acquisition and lengthening retention, as well as individualising learning to help learners see where they have difficulty,” explains Peter K Bol, Harvard’s vice provost for advances in learning².

The virtual teaching advantage

Digitally savvy students enrolled in higher education want to learn in a way that makes sense to them. Their digital world isn’t something new, it’s an extension of who they are. They want their education to be more flexible and more personalised and they want to be educated whenever and wherever they happen to be.

The opportunity to learn in this way extends to Work Integrated Learning partnerships – industry placements that allow students to work with organisations across the world either in person or online.

When used as a tool that improves students’ understanding and retention of information, the ‘flipped classroom’ is proving extremely successful. It reverses the traditional homework/teaching environments, meaning students view lectures when it suits them so that once on campus, class time is devoted to deeper subject analysis and collaboration. This helps students become better learners by developing their higher order cognitive skills such as problem solving and critical thinking.

Reaching out with online-only courses

For those struggling with the cost of higher education, it’s easy to see why massive open online courses (MOOCs), which provide free internet-based learning opportunities, are such a big drawcard. Early advocates suggested they would herald an education revolution, but they haven’t quite lived up to the hype.

If, as Deakin University’s Dr Phillip Dawson argues, their purpose was to broaden access to higher education, then “they’re a success”³. However, owing to their generally high attrition rates of up to 90%4, he’s also reasoned that “MOOCs are a bit like exercise bikes: you start with the best of intentions, but most of the time exercise bikes end up under the bed, and MOOCs end up incomplete.”

In an Australian context, the University of Tasmania’s MOOC on dementia care from the Wicking Dementia Research and Education Centre has bucked that trend. Globally, it’s had one of the highest completion rates for MOOCs, and successfully attracted participants from diverse educational backgrounds and age groups5. Part of this success is down to providing academically robust content that people can’t find anywhere else.

The impact of disruption on the delivery of education means that in many ways, pathways are opening up to cheaper, faster and more accessible learning for students. Once limited by geography, students in remote areas can now access education and learn in a way they never could before. It also means that a greater range of educational providers have come into play.

Universities and other higher education providers owe it to themselves and their students to keep up with this education disruption. If they embrace all the challenges and possibilities of this digital age, the promise of a better education for next generation students awaits – they’re worth it.


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