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Success and sustainability in higher education:
An interview with Ralph Young

James L. Morrison and Ralph Young
Published May 2009

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Innovate editor-in-chief James L. Morrison talks to Ralph Young, Microsoft vice president, worldwide communications sector, in an interview based on Young’s keynote address at the Education Leaders Forum 2008, which met in Paris in July. Each year, ELF, one result of the Microsoft partnership with UNESCO, assembles education ministers, senior officials, policy advisors, and leading researchers from more than 50 countries to learn together, pool their collective wisdom, and share best practices. This year’s summit was dedicated to exploring tertiary education’s receptiveness to change and its role in supporting national competitiveness and sustainable development. Young and Morrison discuss the challenges that lie ahead for higher education; discuss the strategies, approaches, and solutions that are being developed across the world; and outline the role technology will play in the future of higher education.

Ralph Young, Microsoft vice president, worldwide communications sector, gave the keynote and concluding addresses at the Education Leaders Forum 2008 (ELF 2008), which met in Paris in July. Each year, ELF, one result of the Microsoft partnership with UNESCO, assembles education ministers, senior officials, policy advisors, and leading researchers from more than 50 countries to learn together, pool their collective wisdom, and share best practices. This year’s summit, which was dedicated to exploring tertiary education’s receptiveness to change and its role in supporting national competitiveness and sustainable development, brought together more than 130 leaders and policy makers to think through the challenges that lie ahead for higher education with a focus on strategies, approaches, and solutions that are already working across the world.

My interview with Young was conducted over a several-month period after the conference.

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James L. Morrison [JLM]: What does Microsoft see in the future for higher education?

Ralph Young [RY]: At Microsoft, we believe that higher education holds the key to solving many of the world’s problems. Our vision for colleges and universities in the 21st century is driven by the conviction that technology will help remove limitations, foster innovation, and enable both students and teachers to live up to their full potential. The Education Leaders Forum, one of the results of a partnership with UNESCO that we established in 2004, is one way that we work toward those goals.

Only 15 years ago, the impact of the Internet, mobile phones, personal computers and a host of other technologies we now take for granted was just starting to be felt. Looking forward to the next 15 years, tertiary education can expect even greater change, challenge, and opportunity. The need for tertiary education institutions to adapt to the needs of a diverse student body for whom a college degree represents a prerequisite for full participation in the 21st century global information society and knowledge economy will concentrate attention on three key issues: scale, access, and relevance.

JLM: Let’s take those in order. How will scale be an issue for higher education?

RY: UNESCO projects that the number of full-time tertiary students worldwide will swell from just over 100 million today to nearly 125 million by 2020 (Foy and Frostell 2007). Higher education participation rates in developed countries are typically between 30 percent and 40 percent. Participation in the developing world has historically been lower by comparison, but as globalization proceeds apace and developing nations shift from agrarian to knowledge-based economies, skilled workers will be in great demand.

Accordingly, demand for places at tertiary education institutions is expected to continue to grow rapidly, particularly in developing countries. In China, for example, roughly 10 percent of the college-age population was enrolled in higher education in 1999. In 2006, that figure stood at just under 20 percent. With 16 million enrolled students, China now stands among the world leaders in the absolute number of students actively seeking a tertiary education. India and Russia also show spikes in student enrollment. Such growth will require a rethinking of traditional educational models and the development of novel pedagogical approaches in which technological innovation has a key role to play.

Although overall growth of tertiary education in developed countries is less pronounced, most can still expect to see at least another decade of enrollment growth rates that outpace overall population growth. And many developed nations will see a continuing shift toward nontraditional students, those beyond the traditional 18- to 24-year-old cohort, amid a growing wave of working adults returning to campuses from the workforce. This trend, which is being driven by the breakneck pace of technological change and the growing need for workers to refresh or update their professional skills constantly, constitutes a seismic shift in the clientele for higher education.

Accommodating all of these students will entail considerable structural adjustment for institutions, as Bill Rammel, United Kingdom Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education, notes:

The scale of this challenge is hard to overestimate. It will certainly involve greater use of technology. And it will also require a hard look at the traditional structures of courses. … All that doesn’t just mean that campuses are going to look a lot greyer. Indeed, they may actually look a lot emptier. I’m sure that issue on its own is one that many vice chancellors are already starting to think about. (Rammel 2008, ¶26-27)

Adapting to part-time students and others who do not fit the model of the traditional college student has fueled the expansion of flexible programs like the United Kingdom’s publicly funded Open University, which offers hundreds of courses that use information technology as a core part of instruction and has thousands of students per day connecting via the Internet.

All of these trends combined pose substantial challenges of scale. Fortunately, advances in technology provide ways of increasing access in order to match rising demand.

JLM: How can technology help institutions meet the challenges of scale while still ensuring equitable access to higher education?

RY: Technology enables universities to deliver instructional offerings attuned to the needs of diverse students that also function at scale in a consistent and easily replicable manner across the mass enrollments that 21st century institutions face. As demand for tertiary education increases and diversifies at an accelerating pace, technology can extend institutional reach and generate improved learning outcomes while driving down costs amid the straitened budgetary environment many campuses face. Once issues related to ownership of intellectual property are resolved, digital content, including rich multimedia features that bring material to life in fresh new ways, can be modularized and easily repurposed across different instructional offerings, enabling universities to reach more students.

At the same time, for technology to live up to its transformational potential in higher education, innovations in interactive media must be coupled with wholesale systemic change, forming an overarching strategy that takes a holistic approach to revamping curricula and embedding technology directly into pedagogy and curricular design. Successful deployment also entails bringing faculty members up to speed so they feel comfortable with technologies that are novel to their practice. This investment in individual and institutional capacity must be focused on keeping higher education relevant in a changing world.

JLM: Of course, higher education is only valuable as long as the learning it offers is relevant for students and employers. How can educators and institutions work to keep learning relevant in this new world?

RY: To be considered relevant, tertiary education must address the needs of all its stakeholders. Students must be fully engaged in learning and feel that the education they are receiving is relevant to their needs and aligned with their interests; employers must be confident that graduates have the skills and capabilities to be productive employees; and the wider community must feel involved in the process and benefit from the education students are receiving. Ultimately, for tertiary education institutions to have fully accomplished their mission, graduates must be not only good employees but also productive citizens actively participating in and contributing to their communities and helping to meet global challenges. Achieving this goal means that students must be involved as co-creators of learning rather than simply passive recipients of instruction.

JLM: What does that mean exactly?

RY: In a 2007 report entitled Implementing Effective Approaches to Student Engagement and Retention in Australian Universities, Professor Geoffrey Scott analyzed 280,000 comments from 94,000 graduates of 14 Australian universities about their experiences in higher education. This analysis has been benchmarked and refined against the findings of parallel surveys in Australia and the US. The key findings emerging from this process provide a glimpse into what students want and need from postsecondary education:

  • Students characterized learning as a profoundly social experience. Social networking, e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, text messaging, and other connective technologies were seen as critical to this experience.
  • Learning is not the same as teaching, and “learning” and “teaching” must not be conflated. The technologies that students use to learn may not be the same technologies that professors use to teach.

An emphasis on student engagement represents the cornerstone of any credible attempt to shape tertiary education for the future. This means facilitating interest-driven and problem-based learning and other pedagogical methods that focus on teaching students how to learn. A love of learning and expertise in mastering new knowledge and skills are indispensable competencies in today’s dynamic, fast-moving global economy. Institutions of higher education must provide a supportive educational environment within which students can shape their own agendas and pursue learning aligned with their interests and needs.

In short, we need to develop educational systems that create lifelong learners. For example, Ole Lauridsen at the Learning Styles Lab at the Aarhus School of Business, University of Aarhus, Denmark has found Microsoft OneNote to be a very effective tool in adapting to different learning styles. In OneNote and Learning Styles — A Perfect Match, Lauridsen (2008) illustrates how the technology can be used to support auditory, visual, tactical, and kinesthetic learners. He also illustrates how the technology can be used to support analytic versus global information processing.

JLM: How are employers invested in the evolution of higher education?

RY:ducation must be utilitarian, aligned with the changing needs of society. In one sense, education’s responsiveness to employers’ needs helps ensure that it is attuned to those of the wider community. Governments, particularly in developing countries, are acutely focused on building higher education capacity as a way to improve the general welfare of their populaces and promote economic progress. Ensuring that the labor force has the necessary skills to thrive in the global information society and knowledge economy is critical to any country’s economic well-being in the 21st century.

Employers know that technology has a pivotal role to play in ensuring that universities are responsive to today’s global economy and fully deliver on their educational mission with high-quality, relevant instruction. The ubiquity of technology in today’s workplace makes digital literacy a prerequisite for every professional field, not just explicitly technical ones. The implications of a deficit of digital literacy skills for employment prospects are stark. Based on interviews with more than 600 employers in 10 European countries, a 2007 IDC white paper concluded that technology skills are essential to succeeding at work (Kolding and Kroa 2007). Some 40 percent of employers interviewed reported that they simply would not consider as a candidate for any job a person who lacked basic technology skills, and this increased to 66 percent for senior positions. At the same time, the employers interviewed did not believe that current education systems adequately equipped future workers with the technical skills they need to flourish.

Moreover, the 21st century skills that employers demand extend beyond technical facility. Employers of the future want workers equipped with a range of sophisticated communication and collaboration skills including the capacities to work effectively in teams, solve complex problems, and think critically. Institutions that produce graduates with these transferable competencies will attract students and commend themselves to employers. Coincidentally, many of the problem-based and inquiry-driven pedagogies that spark student engagement also inculcate these skills. As a result, institutions that can instill these skills are also positioning themselves to attract the new generation of students fresh from high school.

JLM: You mentioned the wider community as a stakeholder in higher education. What do communities need from higher education?

RY: Although employment is a central issue for most students — and business’s need for capable employees means that it has a large stake in higher education outcomes — education must also take account of less easily defined community needs that do not necessarily align with business goals, such as the need for an informed citizenry that is capable of participating actively in the local and national body politic.

The surest way to ensure that education engages the wider community is to immerse the learning process itself in the community, to make the learners themselves a community. Technology can enable the formation of networked, distributed, collaborative communities of learners that in their most highly developed form represent a kind of global commons. In this model, the learner is a node in a network of global learners. These vibrant learning communities can benefit learners by harnessing powerful network effects and social learning pedagogies to transcend physical distances between participants, create compelling learning experiences, and open up previously unimaginable collaboration and co-learning opportunities. They can benefit communities by allowing students to reach beyond classroom confines and connect their learning and ideas with the needs of society. The Imagine Cup competition, for example, challenges students to harness their energy, intellect, and creativity to devise technological solutions that address burning issues and challenges facing the world. It’s about much more than creating software and gadgets; it’s about inspiring future leaders to focus their creative energy on projects that benefit society at large (Exhibit 1).

JLM: So, in the context of the many, sometimes competing, needs you outline above, what is higher education going to look like in the future?

RY: Institutions must take a balanced approach as they attempt to address student demand and adapt to changing societal expectations. There are barriers ahead that will impede the reshaping of higher education, including skill and quality gaps, access hurdles, organization-centric rather than user-centric systems, uneven standards, cultural resistance, and high costs, among other factors. Technology will help higher education meet all of these demands but perhaps not in the ways we usually imagine. The future of education is not necessarily exclusively virtual. Technology can enable blended approaches to education that deploy technology in tandem with face-to-face instructional methods to transform campuses into “clicks-and-mortar” institutions catering to students locally and across the world. There will always be a place for co-located instruction; in fact, many technologies complement and augment the classroom model, such as personal response systems that turn one-way lectures into participatory, interactive learning exchanges.

But there are numerous examples of successful deployments of technology on campuses from which academic leaders can take inspiration, many of which are the product of creative collaboration between institutions and the private sector. The groundbreaking Egyptian Education Initiative, for instance, has made liberal use of a consortium of private partners within a coalition that also includes the Egyptian national government and nongovernmental organizations. This project has delivered technology and e-content development training to 3,000 administrative staff and faculty members, created 18 e-learning labs focused on integrating technology into instruction, and equipped campuses with communications and collaboration capabilities. Such public-private partnerships allow universities to tap into the expertise of a trusted industry partner, itself motivated by the desire to create a stronger, more technologically savvy pool of future graduates from which to recruit.

Ultimately, everyone has a vested interest in ensuring our tertiary education institutions fully embrace technology. It is key to addressing the critical issues of scale, access, and relevance — and it’s nothing less than our students deserve.

JLM: We appreciate your time, Ralph, and the conference, which was one of the most informative events I have attended this year.

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Foy, Jane, and Katja Frostell. 2007. Education Counts: Benchmarking Progress in 19 WEI Countries. World Education Indicators 2007. Montreal, Quebec: UNESCO Institute for Statistics. (accessed May 4, 2009).

Kolding, Marianne, and Vladimir Kroa. 2007. e-Skills: The Key to Employment and Inclusion in Europe. IDC White Paper. (accessed July 27, 2008).

Lauridsen, Ole. 2008. OneNote and Learning styles — A Perfect Match. Microsoft, April. (accessed May 4, 2009). Archived at

Rammell, Bill. 2008. Address to the Guardian Higher Education Summit, February 11. (accessed July 27, 2008). Archived at

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Copyright and citation information for this article

Note: This article was originally published in Innovate ( as: Morrison, J., and R. Young. 2009. Success and sustainability in higher education: An Interview with Ralph Young. Innovate 5 (5). (accessed May 21, 2009). The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher, The Fischler School of Education and Human Services at Nova Southeastern University.

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