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Centre for Online and Distance Education

Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education


Written by
Clare Sansom

Delegates attending the Centre for Online and Distance Education’s fourteenth RIDE conference, held on Friday 13 March at its usual venue of Senate House, London, will have found its theme of ‘disruptive innovation in higher education’ quite extraordinarily apposite. The whole of UK higher education was in the process of taking itself online, limiting face-to-face interactions as much as possible to try to contain the spread of coronavirus. 

During the day, many delegates – all enthusiasts for, or experts in, distance-based and online learning – could be seen taking time out to advise colleagues who were being expected to get fully online practically overnight. Yet the room was full enough, the usual ‘buzz’ was only slightly nervous and subdued, and a number of speakers who were unable to attend due to illness or self-isolation delivered excellent presentations from their home offices.

The conference began in its usual way with a welcome from conference co-chair Stylianos Hatzipanagos and from Mary Stiasny, London University’s Pro Vice-Chancellor (International) who pointed out that the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ was invented in the very building we were sitting in. The first keynote session was a panel discussion with three presenters, taking the same theme as the conference as a whole: ‘Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education’.

Dil Sidhu (Chief Content Officer, Coursera) began a presentation on artificial intelligence as a disruptor by dispelling a stereotype: he would not be talking about robots as teachers. Instead, he described Coursera’s analysis of the mountain of data on their millions of learners, plus the educators that build content on their platform and associated employers. They are using this to find out what engages learners, what they find difficult and what ‘nudges’ they can offer to improve engagement and encourage completion rates.

Alison Littlejohn seated left and Dil Sidhu, right

Alison Littlejohn (Director, London Knowledge Lab) explained that it was a mistake to equate disruption with technology alone. Too often, technology is simply used to replicate conventional, classroom-based teaching methods at a distance. This can be useful, when teaching at a distance is what is required, but using technology to develop innovative ways of teaching and learning is richer. She quoted examples including the use of digital touch in teaching health-related subjects and the iRead project to develop personalised reading apps for primary school children.

Neil Morris (University of Leeds) described a process he termed ‘unbundling’: disaggregating ‘higher education’ into components that students can pick from. The commonest components to be unbundled in this way are academic services, so most students now obtain accommodation or careers advice, for example, from private companies or not-for-profit enterprises.  Less often, teaching content itself can be disaggregated with learners building up credit bit by bit, often from different providers. Neil recognised that this provides students with much greater flexibility in their ‘education journeys’ but academics are less likely to see it as positive: the number of insecure, poorly paid positions for ‘gig economy’ educators is growing fast. 

Neil Morris presenting to conference

The panellists’ presentations were followed by a lively discussion enabled by the PollEverywhere software, which allows audience members to rate their colleagues’ questions. The most highly rated questions concerned the vexed question of the potentially disruptive relationship between technology and pedagogy.