Learning how to teach in the digital era

13 October 2015

The deep discipline-based knowledge and skills of our graduates must be accompanied by attributes that will prepare them better for the future, argues Dr Michael Spence.

One of the reasons universities are valued places of learning is that they have stood the test of time. In both the knowledge we share with our students and the knowledge we create through our research, we have for centuries been on a constant quest to understand the world as deeply and clearly as possible.

In the 21st century, though, changes in technology have challenged education providers in many ways. Our buildings are being refitted to ensure our infrastructure can support the way we present lectures - to students both on and off campus. Our libraries are being radically transformed: at the University of Sydney in 2012 we issued 1.4 million physical items while users downloaded nearly three million e-readings and more than eight million journal articles.

There is great opportunity for students in these changes. Twenty-five years ago students at universities like mine had access, on average, to about 16,500 current journals; by 2012 they had access to 100,000. This would have been neither viable nor affordable in a print-only environment. We are now truly in the information age.

But the digital revolution has changed not only how we deliver education but the skills and knowledge we must instil in our graduates.

At the University of Sydney we have decided that the deep discipline-based knowledge and skills of our graduates must be accompanied by attributes that will prepare them better for this new era. In such a rapidly changing environment they need the skills and understanding to work effectively, critically and creatively with all kinds of technology-enabled information, data and tools.

We have always produced graduates with communication, critical thinking and problem solving skills. Now more than ever, though, they will need a capacity for inventiveness and the ability to respond effectively to novelty. The new world will require them to have a thirst for continuous learning, for updating their knowledge and skills in information literacy. They will need the personal resilience to deal with uncertainty and failure, and, if they are to lead the response to the many challenges confronting us, they will need confidence in their own values and a commitment to the wellbeing of society.

We do not yet know what all of these challenges, or the jobs that will be required to solve them, will look like. A recent report by Universities Australia has confirmed that within two decades up to 40 per cent of current jobs may disappear. Yet Australia is the only OECD nation without a national research and innovation plan.

The same report also revealed that China is on a path to becoming the world's greatest investor in research and development within a decade.

It's not all bad news for students. We will also need our universities to produce an extra 3.8 million skilled graduates to meet the projected needs of the new knowledge economy by 2025. Australia has many fine universities in a position to equip our graduates with the skills and knowledge they need throughout their lives.

Keeping up with all this change will be difficult, but it can be done. As a nation we need first to decide that we want to be a nation of innovators, of researchers and a leader among knowledge economies. And then we must work together to make it happen.

Dr Michael Spence is Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney. This article was first published in the Daily Telegraph.

Kirsten Andrews

Vice-President (External Relations)
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