Peter Horrocks, the vice-chancellor of The Open University, has warned that higher education is years behind in maximising the use of digital technology.
In a speech to the European Association of Distance Teaching Universities conference in Milton Keynes, he said universities had a crucial role to play in developing the “digitally enabled citizens” of the future.
Mr Horrocks said digital skills would be vital in a rapidly changing economy faced with rising automation that would sweep aside millions of existing jobs. Digital pioneers in sectors like publishing, news, media and books could point the way for universities.
“We can and should help tackle this economic inequality from this employment disruption, and the resulting social inequality, by creating a positive digital learning experience and building essential digital skills – truly modernising our missions for this century,” he said.
“I realise that it can be sacrilegious in some academic circles to draw comparisons with media, content and indeed the news. News, of course, is ephemeral and inevitably less perfect or polished than carefully crafted academic content. But there are at least some lessons.
“In parts of academia, although thankfully less so in distance and online universities, there is still a patrician culture, de haut en bas, in terms of professional practice. That we are the intellectual priesthood, dispensing tablets of knowledge.
“Of course we need to treasure our expertise and our standards. But when we are teaching people who are often mature, who have their own experience of life and work, we have to be more modest. And the internet and interactivity keeps us honest and modest.
We need to be aware that we are competing with news media, and other content, for the attention of students, either in the initial choice of whether they sign up for our courses or for their attention when attractive content is drawing them away from their studies once they are taking a course.
“So why don’t we care even more about how readable, how visual, how stimulating and grabby, how entertaining or provocative our courses are? And do our materials always have to be absolutely perfect, especially if perfection is costly and slow, unresponsive and non-topical? Good enough content, I’m afraid to say, has a huge following. Just look at YouTube. And when it is online if it needs improving, it can be done easily.”
Mr Horrocks, who previously led the development of digital technology in the BBC newsroom, said attractive content – whether in academic courses or news bulletins – was increasingly essential in engaging people’s attention.
The Open University was developing systems which would help tutors track students who were in danger of dropping out and allow them to offer help if it was needed. The aim was to create new online “learning communities” where students could support and advise each other as well as consult employers and tutors. In future, the University would be able to measure even more effectively which courses were working best and which needed developing further.
“Too many of us are still working in a mindset where we see digital as a cost effective alternative to the traditional pedagogy of distance learning books and materials,” he said.
“At the centre of the UK Open University’s changes in the months and years ahead will be to exploit fully the affordances of digital to the learning needs of future society and future students. Of course, we will take into account concerns about delivering for our existing students and make sure that the transition to that more fully digitally designed world is carried out carefully, carrying them with us.”
A key ingredient of the planned changes at the OU would be give students increased flexibility in studying – allowing them to speed up or slow down their studies to suit their circumstances.
“This challenges the traditional assumptions of the academic year that are still built into the mindset of many academics. And it challenges us to offer a varied and flexible experience that might make us have to be more flexible than we have been used to,” he said.
The OU announced in March that it was undertaking a transformation in the way it delivered its teaching and research to ensure that the needs of students always came first and to place itself on a long-term sustainable financial footing.