Image: REUTERS/Darren Hauck

This blog has been originally published on World Economic Forum Agenda, 22nd January 2016

The Fourth Industrial Revolution urges us to think creatively about the manufacturing process, value chain, distribution and customer service processes. In the meanwhile, the future of education emphasizes the immense need to look beyond these areas and strategically utilize the “Internet of Things” to prepare the coming workforce for the challenges ahead.

Universities emphasize their role in shaping future technology by being the testbeds for innovation and educating future generations. Traditional education has contributed greatly to the current levels of industrial evolution and technological advancement. However, in order for higher education to deliver future generations with the right set of skills and knowledge; an imperative question has to be asked regarding how higher education institutes would be affected by the Fourth Industrial Revolution and how the delivery of education will be transformed.

There are different opportunities available that will shape the role which can be undertaken by higher education in the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Combining the strength of the traditional higher education with the increasing trend of MOOCs represents necessary steps to scale qulity education. On the other hand, “Global Identity” and “Education for You” embody aspects, if globally embraced, that would transform global higher education. Let’s explore these in more details.

A mix between traditional education and MOOCs

At times where the boundaries between the internet, physical world and people are becoming more blurred by each passing day, the need for education in general and higher education in particular to be “Place-based” is diminishing. Currently, education is being connected to mobile devices through applications in the cloud and is no longer limited to knowledge but extended to skills acquisition. With the expansion in networking services nationally and globally, physical boundaries are no longer barriers to education.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a potentially disruptive innovation. The number is increasing exponentially across the globe, making learning more accessible to people. According to By the Numbers: MOOCS in 2015, the number of participants has doubled in 2015 from 16-18 million students to 35 million students across all MOOC providers; even universities are digitizing some of their courses. However, one can’t overlook the importance of direct and face-to-face interaction between the learners and teachers as an influential part of a quality education. Therefore, a mix between MOOCs, which are gaining more and more popularity, and traditional ways of delivering education is extremely vital for meeting the global job markets’ needs.

One of the main issues facing MOOCs is related to accreditation and trust in the associated credential. On the other hand, higher education institutions are trusted and have had a long experience in accreditation. The future mix between MOOCs and traditional education can provide higher education institutes the opportunity to expand services to offer credentials using the experiences of the lecturers and teachers. One of the main services universities offer is the provision of certification for students upon the completion of their studies. Nonetheless, there are many students whose education is disrupted whether because of war, conflicts, or a lack of financial resources. The higher education community might address this great challenge by creating micro certificates recognizing the level of knowledge or skills acquired by the sum of a person’s education until the moment of its interruption.

Global identity

At a time when the world is witnessing the largest refugee crisis since the World War II; education is being stressed more than ever for those millions of refugees around the globe. According to the report “Uncounted and Unacknowledged” about Syria’s refugee university students and academics in Jordan, one of the main challenges facing the provision of higher education to refugees and their inclusion in their host countries’ educational system is the lack of official documents verifying the educational levels acquired in their home countries. Having a digital identity that is trusted, portable and secure, which stores an individual information and can be used across countries especially in cases of conflict eruption or natural disaster, would address this challenge.

As individuals gain education from different universities, work at diverse and global organizations and participate actively with different initiatives, his/her identity is no longer tied to one organization. Creating identities based on every institution one learns from or organization one works at could be very confusing and overwhelming; which raise the question of “What is our identity and where can we find it?” Douglas Van Houweling, the founding President of Internet2 and Professor in the School of information at the University of Michigan, predicted the creation of “Global Identity” as key development in Higher Education in 20 years’ time. The trust placed in Higher Education institutions could be the driver for Higher Education to be leading the creation of a global identity that is portable across universities and organizations. Higher Education is not proprietary nor limited to one ideology; its openness and long history of tryst makes it eligible to act as a custodian for protecting this identity and continuously create environment for knowledge and skill attainment.

As a first step to the Global Identity, the need for federated identity is being recognized globally; where a local login access to global resources is facilitated. The Research and Education FEDerations REFEDs group, a place to exchange Identity Federation processes, practices and policies and holds discussion to facilitate inter-federation work, has participants from 61 countries; with 43 countries producing federated identity and 18 countries in the pilot stage. Nonetheless, privacy remains a main concern for every individual in the digital world; where individuals would like to maintain control over their identity. Unlike commercial companies that aim to maximize control over ones’ data, Federated Identity and privacy management give users much more control over what to be shared with minimal disclosure of relevant data.

The shift for “Inter-federated Identity” is scaling the process of sharing entity metadata globally between different national federations with minimum barriers. The student or researcher’s behavior can indicate his/her identity and tracking such behavior, which is becoming more possible than ever through the fourth industrial revolution, will ensure the verification of the identity; a vital step for accreditation. These efforts could lead to the vision of “Global identity” which can extend beyond the education sector to health sector and others and across countries.

Education for You

Data analysis and automation help companies not only to survive but also to thrive in the future. Similarly, Higher Education institutions are embracing data mining in order to gain better understanding of student performance and deliver “Education for you” that is tailored to meet the demand of the job markets while considering the students’ needs. Alan Blinder, an economist at Princeton University, argued in “Education of the Third Industrial Revolution” that for students to adapt to the information age, a great focus should be of the type of education students receive rather than the quantity they receive. Education is increasingly becoming “just in time” rather than “just in case”; it is more about what you need to know for a certain time than compiling knowledge that may never be needed. Data regarding student performance, behavior, development, and interaction inside classrooms and on the online platforms of MOOCs as well as data from smart campus would create diverse and fast-changing data. The ability of Higher Education institutions to integrate this information into smart data would result in intelligent decisions in regards to the delivery of customized education and personalized learning experience for students.

The challenges ahead

Altering higher education is more necessary than ever before. However, the challenges ahead have to be considered in order to ensure effective and immediate transformation. With the reduced public financial support for higher education; universities need to think strategically regarding methods to utilize their experience in credentials, trust and identity to offer new services. Furthermore, higher education leadership needs to be less risk averse especially in this world of disruptive change. It is no longer an option to keep doing things the old way; innovation and accepting change are now prerequisite for survival.

Inequality would still be a concern for digital higher education since more than 4 billion people are still offline without access to the internet according to a study by McKinsey & Company. Most of those people are marginalized families who live in developing countries with no access to an affordable education. Although digital higher education can be more affordable compared to other education options, higher education institutions need to consider the best ways to reaching underserved populations where education can serve as a strong empowerment and change tool.

Risk, privacy and security are other challenges facing higher education. Collaboration, integration and aligning security process are key words for scaling higher education efforts and bringing sustainability. During the World Engineering Education Forum 2015, professor Sabina Jeschke from RWTH Aachen University said “the complexity of the systems developed to meet the demands of the fourth industrial revolution necessitate interdisciplinary and collaboration as a precondition for innovation.”

This is the time to ask whether the global higher education community will only react to how the business world is shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution or if it will be among the key players of shaping the Fourth Industrial revolution! Furthermore, the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum happening in Davos, 2016 is the place to investigate and explore further the previously mentioned question and challenges.