How will digital content be delivered to university students? A digital pervasiveness blog

| August 5, 2014

The development of digital content for higher education is changing rapidly. Leon Sterling, Pro Vice Chancellor at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, explores developments over the last forty years and speculates on the future.

It is hard to keep track of all the relevant trends for developing digital content for higher education. Universities worldwide are experimenting with MOOCs. Enterprise software such as Blackboard is being challenged by Platform-as-a-Service solutions. Smart phones and tablets are on the rise as everyone desires mobility. At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January this year, wearable technology was proclaimed as the next big thing. All these may impact on how we deliver content in the future.

To know where we are going with digital content in the ubiquitously connected digital world, it helps to know where we came from. So let’s explore developments over the last forty years, with snapshots every ten years. Relevant are the hardware used, software available and processes demanded of academics and content developers. Then let’s speculate on the future.

Forty years ago, I was studying science at university. Lecturers stood at the front of the class speaking and/or writing on blackboards. Students were expected to take notes. Resources were found in the library. Photocopiers were only just invented and students spent many hours putting coins in slots to copy the knowledge found in books to peruse at one’s leisure. Primitive hardware, no software, and individual processes.

Thirty years ago, I was a postdoc giving occasional lectures and tutorials. Overhead projectors were commonplace. Lecture content was expected to be pre-prepared. Occasionally slides were distributed as handouts. Computers were on our desks to help create content. Ten years later, I was a senior teaching and research academic. Personal computers had become commonplace and were beginning to be hooked up to data projectors. Powerpoint had become the presentation medium of choice, and the Web was about to take off. Hardware common, software standardising, and more process being requested.

Ten years ago, the web had become commonplace. It meant resources were viewable from computers in homes and libraries. Content development and distribution companies had thrived (or survived) the dotcom boom. Enterprise class learning management systems were starting to be deployed seriously in universities. Standards and process for teaching were now mandatory.

Today learning management systems are almost mandatory, but the delivery platforms are in flux. Smartphones and tablets are part of the picture, and consideration needs to be given for new hardware choices. The cloud is replacing standard software for email and is challenging in other areas. Universities are beginning to contemplate outsourcing. It is questionable why organisations such as universities should own hardware and software when teaching and research are their core business.

Let us consider future developments. Re hardware, we will see the continuing demise of traditional PCs in favour of mobile platforms such as tablets. There will be new crossovers between innovations in wearable technology and tablets. I personally do not imagine that people will want course material delivered on Google Glass, but some advocates think otherwise. Different parts of the body may come into play. Will people want electronic notes on their hands? Innovative products such as the Rufus cuff, integrated with smart phones, might be an interesting alternative.

Re software, we need to think beyond enterprise software. Organisations evolve quickly. It is not easily possible to adapt enterprise class software. An alternative is viewing software as a collection of services. Emerging offerings of PaaS, Platform as a Service, allow more rapid development of custom services in practice.

Re process, personalisation will be paramount, for both students and content developers. There are already products promising adaptive learning for students. Content will need to be developed accordingly. Commercial models for content developers also need to develop. Not all academics will prepare their own content, but how much will higher education providers pay for their content? And what will consumers want? Quality, celebrity and economy are at odds with each other and there is an argument for each. Free content, freemium, subscription or other pricing mechanisms. Exciting times, and we are in for change.

Global Mindset presented Leon’s ideas along with digital thinking, leadership thinking, global thinking, lateral thinking and an education technology Start Up pitch at the conference ‘Innovations in Learning’ on 13 August in Sydney.