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Distance Learning: Internet Opened "Pandora's Box" On Education

FutureLearn founder and head of the Open University says disruptive innovation is forcing education to reconsider its foundations.

Thu Nov 6 2014

The vice chancellor of the Open University and founder of FutureLearn, the massive open online course, or Mooc, platform, said that the internet has opened “Pandora’s box” on education, as the learning technology revolution begins to take hold of the business education world.

Speaking at the Sir John Cass’ Foundation Lecture, an annual event held at London’s Cass Business School, the distance learning pioneer said that the education sector cannot keep on doing things the same way and still be recognised as valuable.

“Disruptive innovation is forcing so many of us to reconsider the very foundations of our learning and teachings,” said Martin, speaking to a crowd of education heads from across the UK.

“There isn’t a higher education institution in the world that shouldn’t be thinking about the role of technology and innovation…. This is something that’s going to be a massive shift,” he said.

His comments come at a time of huge change in business education and the wider academic sphere. Universities are desperately trying to figure out how best to utilize distance learning platforms, which enable students to learn in their own time by watching video lectures and engaging with classmates through video-conferencing systems.

Martin warned that universities must be very wary of staying in “our comfort zones”. “It can sometimes mean isolated, out-mooted or worst still, obsolete,” the vice chancellor said.

He said that the traditional educational model is “passive, obedient” and “one-dimensional”.  “The onset of technology is one of the most significant forces we’ve ever experienced and we can’t expect students to engage in the traditional model,” said Martin.

He said that today’s students are considered “digital natives” and have grown up using Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and other forms of social media to access information and to communicate with each other.

“In the 21st century, students themselves are demanding new, more engaging ways of learning and teaching,” Martin said. He added: “If education doesn’t keep up with this changing environment it will not only miss opportunities, but worse: we risk the sector becoming irrelevant.”

Martin said that it is vital that today’s education equips people with the skills and confidence they need to operate in a world which is now online as well as offline. “Most of them will graduate into jobs that will have technology at the very core of what they do, and perhaps jobs that we can’t even conceive of today.”

But he warned that the pace of change is “rapid”, and that institutions are wary of the “digital revolution” in education.

Martin said: “Understandably people cherish and nurture the traditions which are the bedrock of our organizations. Many are worried that what makes their institution unique will be diminished or eroded by the pace of change… Sceptics… They often see technology as a threat and incorporating it into teaching as dumbing down or diminishing the value to students.”

But he also said that educators should not jump on the “technological bandwagon” and that the newest thing “isn’t always best”.

There have been concerns that learning technology groups pose a threat to the traditional education model and that Moocs could eventually replace traditional business education. But Martin said: “Technology can’t and never will replace teaching – but it can help transform it and enrich it.”

Asked about the financial implications of people downloading courses for free, he said: “Once the internet was became alive (sic), Pandora’s box was opened forever. We were never coming back from that. We created the greatest viral mechanism to transmit information and data that mankind ever imagined.

“So the key is not to try and resist it… It’s to reimagine the value of traditional content and media by expressing it in different ways…. Shame on us that we can think we can keep on doing things the way that we did and somehow that would be recognised as valuable.”