Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

Since 2017, the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) has assessed the quality of undergraduate teaching in England’s higher education providers. The TEF rates universities as Gold, Silver or Bronze, and was introduced by the government which felt that universities were too focused on research.

It’s still too soon to say what the impact of the TEF will be on universities or student choice. One commentator believes it will “…lead to distorted results, misleading rankings and a system which lacks validity and is unnecessarily vulnerable to being gamed.” Others see TEF as the opportunity to drive a culture shift in teaching, resulting in “…innovative ways of teaching, more workshops and closer relationships with industry and the communities in which they were based.”

In any case, TEF may prompt universities to rethink their approach to teaching, adopting new ideas on everything from flipped learning to the learning space itself.

Powerhouses for the knowledge economy

“Higher education, is faced with the challenge of preparing itself to fulfill its mission adequately in a world in transformation and to meet the needs and requirements of 21st century society, which will be a society of knowledge, information technology and education”.

When those words first appeared, twenty-one years ago, in a UNESCO conference report, we were only beginning to get an inkling of the dramatic changes that were about to transform the face of higher education.

Since then, the knowledge economy has mushroomed, powered by a new wave of digital technologies. Automation, robotics, digital technology, the internet of things and artificial intelligence are now driving what’s known as the ‘fourth industrial revolution’. Some have suggested that the impact of these changes on universities may be as profound as the effect of printing on medieval monasteries.

In many ways, higher education has risen to the challenges of the knowledge economy, and has often been at the cutting edge of technological innovations. But for many universities, the traditional model of campus-based teaching has not altered since the 19th century, and there are now calls for higher education to adapt its teaching and learning models for the new age.

New routes to higher education

Even before the dawn of the high tech era, higher education was making efforts to change the way we learn. The Open University (OU), this year celebrating its 50th anniversary, was one of the first to offer alternatives to the traditional classroom-based teaching format. The OU brought higher education into people’s living rooms via late-night programmes on television. Its summer schools and local seminars gave students opportunities to exchange ideas and enjoy the full experience of a university education. And the OU quickly embraced the possibilities offered by the internet for interactive learning. Since its establishment, the OU has enabled more than two million people worldwide to achieve their study goals – many of whom didn’t have the opportunity, flexibility or the funds to reach their potential in the traditional world of higher education.

The MOOC moves in

But time has not stood still, and the OU is now one of many providers of online education courses. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) – many of them free, or cheaper than university tuition fees – provide an affordable and flexible way for people around the world to learn new skills. The range of MOOCs has grown rapidly, taking in almost every subject, from environmental engineering to English as a second language, computer science to business and management.

And MOOCs have been moving in to compete for students who might otherwise have studied at a traditional university. For example the University of California, San Diego offers a micromasters course in data science that promises to equip students with the skills that form the basis of data science. The course is fee-paying, but the university underlines the long-term value of the course, highlighting the thousands of job vacancies in data science. The course website also includes endorsements from companies pledging that applications from individuals who have completed the course will have definite advantages over rival candidates. Students can take the course at their own pace, completing it whenever they choose, and located almost anywhere in the world. In addition, the course offers a pathway to Rochester Institute of Technology’s Master of Science degree in Data Science.

The advent of MOOCs has proved extremely popular, and today distinguished universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, along with more than 800 institutes of higher education around the world, now offer their own MOOCs.

Partnership approaches to skills development

As knowledge becomes the main driver of economic growth, employers are demanding higher level skills. A 2018 report published by Universities UK argued that universities are extremely well placed to help business and the wider economy to meet these challenges. But the report also acknowledged the need to change and adapt:

“The linear model of education–employment–career will no longer be sufficient. The pace of change is accelerating, necessitating more flexible partnerships, quicker responses, different modes of delivery and new combinations of skills and experience. Educators and employers need to collaborate more closely, and develop new and innovative partnerships and flexible learning approaches.”

In many cases, this is already happening. The University of East Anglia, for example is promoting entrepreneurialism through its in-house enterprise centre. The centre is home to several SMEs, and provides a space for students to collaborate with commercial firms, and to discover, develop and apply their entrepreneurial skills.

Another good example of university-employer partnerships is Coventry University’s Institute for Advanced Manufacturing and Engineering. This hi-tech production facility is a collaboration between the university and Unipart Manufacturing Group, which manufactures exhausts and other car components. It also provides training for students, with their time spent working on campus, as well as in workshops and at the manufacturing facility. In addition, this ‘faculty on the factory floor’ provides jobs – many students go straight from their degree courses to being full-time employees.

The changing face of teaching

Universities are central to knowledge creation and exchange, and we’ll be relying on them to be the engines of the knowledge economy. New approaches to teaching can ensure they rise to the challenge.


Read more from our blog on higher education:

One thought on “Out of the classroom and into the world: the changing face of teaching in higher education

  1. Pingback: Closing the race attainment gap: a new report aims to help universities move forward | The Knowledge Exchange Blog

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