IRELAND'S HIGHER EDUCATION PLAYERS have started a cautious dance where the game involves hanging new names over familiar doors. But without making fundamental changes inside the doors.
That's not to say that the current wave of consolidations isn't without merit. I think Ireland can benefit by squeezing out some duplication from the ranks of third level education and maybe that's all the system can do. However, I think the Irish taxpayer deserves more of a fundamental change in the way higher education is offered to citizens.
I believe Open Education is overdue in Ireland. I watch how the Open University does its business and wonder why there's no vibrant OpenCourseware Movement in Ireland. MIT has more than a decade of course recordings on offer and most of them are free for online viewers. The last time I counted, I saw 2075 MIT courses that had been downloaded more than 125 million times. I've a small scattering of course notes, files and slideshows served up on Libsyn, Flickr, YouTube and podcasting.ie but a wide cross-section of my course material is blocked by filtering software licensed by HEANET and bolted onto our LIT campus networks.
When we first offered our BSc in Creative Multimedia in 2007, the Khan Academy had hundreds of talks and videos about art history that we have woven into our current animation degree. Kahn has a strong maths catalogue among its 2,400 courses and it has "delivered 120,554,884 lessons" to date. There's nothing as big as Khan in Ireland. Only a small amount of Irish content sits in the National Digital Learning Resources with just a trickle of national funding to keep it ticking over during the recession.
One-third of the students on our Tipperary campuses can easily carry around content from Apple’s iTunes U. This platform offers over 500,000 courses from 1,000 universities that have been downloaded over 700 million times. But nothing from the Irish government incentivises third level institutions to build content for that space. This puzzles me because when you create freely available content for higher education, you increase the competitiveness of school leavers. The digital assets extend well beyond the campus where they were created and could develop the profile of Irish higher education.
As the OpenCourseware Movement demonstrates, courses have become commodities. Articulate lecturers only need to teach once, record it, and then move on to another topic. You obviously need good quality recording levels but that requirement folds neatly into the remit of an e-learning support team. I have to travel 65 miles to meet the nearest third level e-learning specialists in my neighbourhood. The specialism does not appear to be specifically sanctioned by the Irish Minister for Education.
However, amalgamation and aggregation is sanctioned. Consolidation will take time and speaking from experience, it will be diminished by a host of false dawns. Reading between the lines of current higher education plans, the Irish government intends to sweat assets in a spirit of consolidation.
In the middle of all this, the world is transitioning from a teaching model to a learning model. Yet we will retain a focus on seats filled in a classroom, hours taught during daylight, and examinations sat at specified intervals. Ireland could achieve a much higher level of efficiency by consolidating development teams for the production of shared learning objects to be syndicated across curricula in universities, institutes of technology and colleges of education. Instead, the 21st century strategy for higher education in Ireland enshrines lecturers in front of multi-tiered classrooms inside buildings that remain unused for at least 40% of the calendar year.
I'm resigned to the prospect that Ireland will hold firmly onto precious physical assets located in vote-getting parishes throughout the country while much of the world continues moving resolutely into a new frontier of a teacherless education system. We don't seem to notice this trend as we pursue an overall strategy that maintains last century's edifices.
Higher Education Authority -- Initiation of reform of Irish Higher Education, February 13, 2012.
Photo of Martin Dougiamas watching Jen Burke during Moodle Moot 2004 in Dublin City University.