Now Reading: Embracing Change: Transitioning from the university of the now to the university of the future

Embracing Change: Transitioning from the university of the now to the university of the future

We live in an era of transformation. The impact is a significant change in how we live, how we trade, how we manufacture, how we govern and how we learn.”

These words from Torrens University Vice Chancellor, Professor Alwyn Louw, set the scene for the Torrens University, Think Education and Media Design School Learning & Teaching (L & T) Symposium this week.

Indeed, society seems to be at a juncture between the third and fourth industrial revolutions. The third – the digital revolution, focused on electronic systems and automation.  It is the subsequent technological revolution we are in the midst of right now, that will ‘blur the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres’ – one which Torrens University is focussed on.

“The fourth industrial revolution, at the moment, is the key driver of radical change across the world,” says Professor Louw.

“We must think of enabling learning in a different way.”

It is against this backdrop that staff from Torrens University, Think Education and Media Design School gathered to consider: what might the university of the future look like? How will the next technological revolution change the way we teach? How will it change the way universities operate?

“The question is, how will higher education reinvent itself to remain relevant?” asks Professor Louw.

Given the subject matter, it was appropriate that our L & T Symposium took place virtually, with over 500 staff gathering to connect, challenge and debate. It was an opportunity to be futurist, to be bold, and to consider how and what we want to contribute to the ‘University of the Future’?

What ensued was a vibrant discussion between some of our brightest, most forward-thinking staff, with added spark provided by the keynote speech from self-proclaimed futurist Professor Gilly Salmon about Higher Education and the ‘new normal’.

What does the “New Normal” look like?

“In the University of the Future, we have the opportunity to make learning fairer, more accessible, more interesting and more engaging.”  Professor Gilly Salmon

Professor Salmon is internationally renowned for her contributions to ‘education futures’. She has been a learning innovator for more than 30 years, and is one of the world’s leading thinkers in digital and blended learning.

While nobody knows for sure what the ‘new normal’ will be, Professor Salmon says there is one certainty: digital is here to stay.

“The new normal, well, it’s going to be based very much more on exploiting digital to the absolute ends of the earth,” Professor Salmon says.

And herein lies an important, exciting opportunity: using digital technology to ensure greater openness and access to higher learning for typically underrepresented communities.

“This will mean that it will be more equitable, embracing more people and being very much less place based,” Professor Salmon continues.

The technological revolution of higher education may have been creeping up for a number of years, but there’s no doubt COVID-19 has fast-tracked it immeasurably. Professor Salmon says she was ‘super, super amazed’ at how swiftly and effectively many academics adapted when the crisis struck.

“Many institutions and the individuals and groups within them stepped up very, very quickly during the pandemic,” Professor Salmon says.

“But there was a huge amount of criticism across the world that universities were not ready.

“None of us were ready,” she admits.

“Consider what you’d like to learn from this extraordinary experience that we’ve all been through, and how that will pave way for the future,” Professor Salmon advises.

Professor Salmon says, through this experience, we should develop a better sense of foresight.

“Those of us that are going to be around for the next crisis – and there will be more crises – are the ones that are prepared to peek over the top of the mountain and see what might be on the other side.”

In practice, what can institutions do to adapt in this period of transformation? Professor Salmon offers some words of advice, drawing upon her theory of ‘four innovative directions’.

“There’s a whole range of digital opportunities where we can improve on what we’re doing already,” she explains.

This, she adds, doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. It’s about ensuring the technology we already have is being optimised, and ensuring equitable access for ‘non-traditional’ students.

In addition, Professor Salmon says universities can prototype using other technologies, which were not necessarily created for learning purposes, to become learning tools.

“Riskier, newer technologies. New ways of looking at learning, new institutional models – and new ways of relating to each other in a global world.”

Creating a different sense of place

These new ways of learning, and new ways of relating to each other are already front of mind. But a certain mind shift is still necessary according to Professor Salmon.

“Universities have been place based for more than 1000 years,” she says.

“We all talk about ‘going’ to uni, whereas now we need to think of the new normal being a digital campus, which provides all the same attributes and opportunities – particularly meeting with each other.”

Eoghan Hogan, Torrens University’s Director of Product Innovation, also sees the possibility of a fully virtual campus in the future.

“I think we can all agree that the learning environment will change substantially over the next few years and into the future,” he says.

“The university of the future will be online. It will be something like the video games we’re playing at the moment, in that every student will interact with each other, interact with their lecturers through an avatar.”

Hogan thinks that this evolution will allow students to enjoy a fully personalised learning experience. Case studies, resources and even assessments could be adapted specific to an individual based on their background and prior studies.

“Imagine the learning experience that will be achieved by making these resources specific to the learner,” Hogan enthuses.

But Torrens University Senior Success Coach, Jock Boyd, points out that this doesn’t mean physical campuses should be made redundant.

Boyd, who works closely with students throughout their studies, stresses that while learning spaces may change, we mustn’t lose sight of the other important elements of the university experience: connection and community.

“If we can think about dividing that meaningful learning experience into three things: there’s the cognitive, the pedagogical and, of course, the social. It’s the social space that interests me the most,” says Boyd.

Speaking from an empty Ultimo Campus in Sydney, Boyd expresses his hope that the space would soon be filled with students again. But, maybe it would serve a different purpose in future.

“Maybe it will be a space where students come to connect, rather than a place where they just come to learn.”

And for university staff who are no longer sharing a physical space, it’s vital to sustain strong ties with those who we are here to serve: our students.

“We need to actively listen with our students. We need to have regular touch points. We need to encourage clear and formal routines around study, work and fun.”

Vice Chancellor Professor Louw agrees.

“We need to create a learning environment to accommodate the needs of students who do not come to campus anymore for information, but come to campus for an experience.”

Preparing students for the workplace of the future

In this era of transformation, the technological evolution of education is not happening in a silo. Globally, the phenomena of an increasingly automated workforce is on the rise.  And this changing work force should also inform our curriculum and approach to teaching.

Kath Curry, General Manager of Health and Education, is convinced that technology is not a complete substitute for people – it just has the potential to make workforces more productive. There are other soft and smart skills that are uniquely human.

“There are the hidden skills that are necessary in almost every role,” Curry explains.

“The interpersonal and creative skills – which are the hardest to automate – are, in fact, teaching assets.

“And that’s why the university of the future will have a deeper focus on developing skills of the ‘hand, head and heart’.

“The university of the future needs to understand how to deliver a curriculum that builds graduates for often unknown, complex futures within the world of work,” Curry says.

“It’s in the Work Integrated Learning, offering targeted approach to hand, head and heart development. It is deeply embedded in courses that are co-created, industry driven and connected.”

Changing mindsets to break the mould

At the Learning and Teaching Symposium, there was broad agreement that, ultimately, preparedness for the future is a mindset. To truly be ready for what’s around the corner, it’s about fostering innovation and courage in an institution. And then turn the big, bold ideas into concrete action.

“Break the mindsets and think a bit differently,” says Professor Salmon.

“Work together collaboratively, but then bring it down to something we can actually do, and try, and run, and experience. You can bring students with you in that way.”

According to Professor Salmon, it’s essential that this agile mindset is not just occurring in one person, or one team – it needs to be embedded in the culture of the institution.

“Break the mould, spread out and diverge in your thinking – and you have to do that together.”

And Professor Salmon’s strongest advice for future-proofing a university? Using that institutional foresight and innovation, engage with the future before it happens – and attempt to create the future you want to see.

“There’s a chance for us to create the future together in the way that we think is a constructive approach.”

For Torrens University, Think Education and Media Design School – this is an exciting prospect.

As a greenfield university conceived and designed post-Google, post-Amazon and in a very different way to any of Australia’s existing universities, technology has always been a key part of who we are.

It is embedded in our curriculum, our research, and our approach to teaching and learning. And we believe in harnessing its power to make a positive impact on society.

This is why we are ready for the future of Higher Education. We are a University of the Future.

Watch the highlights from the Learning & Teaching Symposium here.

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