International Centre for Higher Education Innovation
under the auspices of UNESCO

UNESCO-ICHEI Attends Alt-HE & the Future of Universities Global Dialogue

July 1, 2020
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On June 18th, Alternative Higher Education & the Future of Universities global dialogue was held online. This virtual dialogue was organized by Learnit, convened higher education players who have upended one or more parts of the traditional model.

UNESCO-ICHEI was invited to attend this dialogue for its devotion to promoting ICT-driven higher education innovation in developing countries. BI Xiaohan, Chief of the West Asia & Africa Programme Office from UNESCO-ICHEI, joined as panelist, together with Ben Nelson, Chairman & CEO of the Minerva Project and Minerva Schools at KGI; Alexie Harper, Chief Academic Officer & Co-Founder of the Quantic School of Business & Technology, and Justin Cooke, Chief Content & Partnerships Officer for FutureLearn. Peter Wells, Chief of Higher Education for UNESCO, expert moderator, presided over the meeting.

In-depth discussion was carried out, themed with quality assurance, access and evaluation of online education.

The pandemic has caused a spike in interest in Alt-HE. Justin reported that FutureLearn has seen a five-fold (and holding) increase in enrolments over the last 12 weeks. Both FutureLearn and the IIOE have built oversubscribed courses about teaching online, and the broader IIOE program will be expanding into another 18 universities in developing countries in Africa and Asia Pacific by year end. At Quantic, they’ve seen their executive MBA cohorts grow to 500 per 6 week cohort. And at Minerva, the number of partnerships has ‘skyrocketed’, with requests coming from K-12 schools, undergraduate programmes, and corporate executive education. Ben thinks the requests are driven by opportunity, not panic: people are ‘using the crisis as an opportunity to leapfrog (their) current state of education to something much better.’

It was believed that Alt-HE leaders are simultaneously challenging the status quo, and working to build the capacity of traditional HE. The IIOE employs a networked model, challenging the notion that every university must fend for itself. Its further innovation is in its focus on professional development for university faculty. Xiaohan noted that while the emphasis is often on improving the quality of online content, we also need to ‘think about how higher education institutions or teachers could improve.’ FutureLearn is also working in this space. ‘Some faculty struggle with the mix of the teaching and learning experience when they are online – that it doesn’t have to be one way because of the format, and the student doesn’t have to be online with the teacher at all times to be learning.’

All panelists acknowledged that Alt-HE is a source of new frameworks, models and platforms, for broad use, adaptation and replication. For example, FutureLearn worked with partners to create a common microcredential framework to create portable credentials for lifelong learners. The IIOE has made its quality assurance self-assessment, and other tools, freely available. Quantic is using its mobile-first platform to pilot delivery of high school STEM content to Jordanian and Syrian refugees. And Minerva has experimented with replicating its innovative curriculum, pedagogy and technology, through partnerships with institutions like Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.