The tertiary landscape is shifting to reflect changes in participation, different demands from employers and constant technological changes.
In March last year, The Productivity Commission released its New models of tertiary education report, thought to be the most extensive review of the sector in more than a decade.
The report looked at how New Zealand’s tertiary system is responding to emerging trends in technology, the internationalisation of education, flexibility in the system and future skills needed in the economy.
“A good tertiary education system also supports innovation and new models of tertiary education, so that it can respond flexibly to ongoing – and often unpredictable – changes in technology, demography, costs, internationalisation, and student and employer demand,” its introduction states.
Among a range of future trends predicted for the sector, the report points to technological ‘disruptors’ changing the way courses are delivered and assessed, but most likely in a complementary relationship to traditional campus-based tertiary offerings.
MOOCs and micros
Two examples of potentially disruptive change that have recently arrived in New Zealand are MOOCs and micro-credentials.
In 2014 the University of Auckland partnered with UK ‘social learning company’ FutureLearn to deliver its first online courses, free of charge. Registered students can study from home at their own pace, and log in whenever it suits them.
Massive open online courses (MOOCs) are growing in popularity around the world, and the University of Auckland now offers three courses in this format: data analysis, academic integrity and values, and logic and critical thinking skills.
While MOOCs present the opportunity to study for free and at one’s own pace, their impact on the sector may not be as significant as first thought.
Dugald Scott is professor emeritus of Victoria University of Wellington and deputy chair of the Committee on University Academic Programmes (CUAP), working in the area of quality assurance for Universities New Zealand.
He says there was an initial feeling that MOOCs were going to cause a significant change in how universities operated.
“I don’t know that the world has quite come to grips with what MOOCs mean, but I don’t feel that significant change happened,” he says.
“After all, most universities, as far as I’m aware, offer programmes online. They vary in the extent to which they’re offered and the way in which they’re assessed.
“With MOOCs, they offer a course online for free, but many universities tend to charge for the assessment of them, and it’s the assessment that is the key.
“A number of prestigious universities offer MOOCs, but I don’t know that they have changed their other, more conventional offerings, such as on-campus and online courses.”
Scott points to a pilot phase of micro-credentials, also known as badges and nanodegrees, at Otago Polytechnic as a recent example of institutions looking at different ways of accrediting skills.
“The idea of micro-credentials is something we’re discussing, and we’re not quite sure what they will look like. At the moment we’ve got a qualifications framework, and we have unit standards for trades training, and we don’t yet know where micro-credentials might sit in all that.”
Shorter and sharper
Otago Polytechnic chief executive Phil Ker believes the qualification system is gaining momentum internationally, and is proud to see micro-credentials flourishing at the institution.
Under the name ‘EduBits’, Otago Polytechnic’s micro-credential system is able to validate a student’s expertise in a specific skill, simply and quickly.
“We believe that workforces are very ready for this – employers have been saying for years that they need shorter, sharper skill development,” says Ker.
An NZQA pilot programme with Otago Polytechnic was completed in June this year, with the strengths and weaknesses of the system explored.
Under the new system, a student submits evidence of their skills which are then assessed and recognised with a digital credential that can be shared on social media sites, online CVs and with employers.
EduBits can be NZQA-endorsed and provide assurance for employers that workers have the right skills needed for a particular role. Many are offered in partnership with industry bodies such as Primary ITOs.
Another major benefit, says Ker, is that new EduBits can be quickly tailor-made to meet organisation-specific requirements.
He believes the driving forces behind micro-credentials are workplace-influenced.
“From an individual learner point of view, full qualifications are costly in both time and money, and are not always necessary for people to secure good employment in their field. And there’s some consumer demand for upskilling in different sectors.
“Traditional qualifications tend to be quite slow in terms of responding to new skill needs that come with rapidly-changing technologies. One example would be electric vehicles, which have taken off in New Zealand recently,” he says.
“There are issues around safe handling of electric vehicles, and there’s a new set of skills involved in maintaining and working on them. If we were to wait until these were incorporated into the usual qualification system, it would take a year to develop the course, then another year until people are able to graduate.
“Micro-credentials allow these to be developed within weeks or months. Obviously, they’re not the same as a full qualification, which looks to develop a person as well as technical and specialist skills.”
But the qualifications can be used just as easily for upskilling.
Ker points to a recent partnership between Otago Polytechnic and Northland doctor Lance O’Sullivan, who developed iMOKO, an app that enables teachers to send health information about students securely to a digital health team working from Auckland.
“We’re now the training provider for this project. The teachers are taking on an additional skill alongside their work as educators, and for the programme to work, they need to have the necessary upskilling. EduBits are providing that assurance.”
“The neat thing about this is that if you’ve already got the skills, but no qualification, we can assess the people and then issue the micro-credential for the skill they already have.
“This system will also help to give more focus to training that happens within industry and within workplaces. It will give employers confidence that the money they spend on training is worthwhile.
“It was the missing piece of our vocational education provision. We believe it’s going to transform the upskilling and reskilling of the workforce.”