Will Technology Kill Universities?

11 minute read

Zócalo Public Square is a magazine of ideas from Arizona State University Knowledge Enterprise.

In 2001, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced it was going to put the university’s entire body of course materials online, for free. That meant syllabuses, as well as problem sets and exams—and their solutions. There were even going to be some video lectures online. In 2002, the MIT OpenCourseWare pilot project debuted with 32 courses. Today, according to MIT, 125 million visitors access material from 2,150 classes, including the very popular “Introduction to Computer Science and Programming,” which helps students feel confident about “writing small programs that allow them to accomplish useful goals.”

MIT’s creation of OpenCourseWare is credited with sparking a global movement to make educational resources free to access, adapt, and redistribute. It’s been over a decade and hundreds of universities now offer open course material online. The Internet has expanded its reach, computers have gone through several generations, and mobile phones are nearly ubiquitous. In this new environment, it’s clear that sitting down in front of a chalkboard with a spiral notebook and pen is an anachronism—but what else will be? In advance of the Zócalo/Arizona State University event, “Will Technology Kill Universities?” we asked experts: How will technology—from massive open online courses and web-based textbooks to big data collection—change universities?

Students will be in the driver’s seat — Andy Miah

Technology will force universities to re-define their role within 21st century life, and this has a lot to do with the DIY generation, who figure out what they need to know via Google and Wikipedia. These platforms are the equivalent of the single-celled organisms that gave birth to humanity’s evolution.

In a world where learning experiences are ubiquitous and we rely less and less on institutions to deliver them, technology forces universities to re-think what they offer in the 21st century. Universities are no longer the gatekeepers of new knowledge, even less so with the rise of citizen science experiments, where non-experts can gather important data, and alternative qualification options, such as Mozilla Open Badges.

Students of tomorrow will want flexible, mobile-enabled learning experiences that are as compelling as film or theatre. The success of TED talks is indicative of the changing demands on teachers today and the changing attention economy of the new generation. Universities need to think carefully about how to curate learning experiences, making each lecture truly memorable and life-changing. The classroom now has to empower students to set the agenda and drive their own learning.

As we move into an era of sentient computing, universities need also to see technology not just as a vehicle for communicating ideas or enriching learning, but as a co-collaborator. Computers will become entities onto which students will project learning expectations. The machines will teach us, they will also learn, and they will spend more time with students than a lecturer ever can. If we want humans to remain at the heart of that interaction, we then need to really reconsider what we offer that they can’t.

Andy Miah is a professor and chair in science communication and future media at the University of Salford in Manchester, England. Follow him on Twitter @Andymiah.

Teachers and physical classrooms won’t go away — Kui Xie

Every generation of new technology brings excitement because it changes and improves human experience. Think of how excited people were when the book, the radio, and the television first entered their lives. These tools significantly changed the way we taught and learned—and the Internet, the personal computer, and today’s participatory cyber-infrastructure are carrying on that tradition. The creation of massive open online courses (MOOCs), for example, enables flexible and free educational opportunities to hundreds and thousands of learners around the world.

MOOCs have sparked debates about whether they will replace teachers and physical schools, but this is an alarm that has been sounded before with other new technologies. From a historical perspective, the answer has been a clear and consistent no. The reason: the human element is indispensable for educational systems. Student experiences in schools and universities aren’t only about mastering a particular body of domain knowledge and acquiring cognitive skills such as problem solving. They are also—and more importantly—about interpersonal social experiences, such as collaboration, leadership, friendship, and apprenticeship. MOOCs just cannot afford such immersive and comprehensive educational experiences. And let’s not forget that current MOOCs have limitations (for instance: credibility, accessibility, the high demand for motivation, and self-regulation).

Having said that, I still recognize that technologies have had far-reaching impacts on teachers and physical schools. The voluminous amount of MOOC content enables “blended learning” where a student learns partly in traditional classrooms and partly through online learning activities, and “flipped classes” where students watch lectures at home and take on “homework” in class with the teacher as a guide. Virtual games have revolutionized students’ perception of education: learning can be motivating, engaging, and effective. Big data analytics can provide new insights to inform teaching practice, diagnose when student interest flags, and help administrators make decisions.

Future learning technologies will continue to bring more exciting changes to educational systems that will improve the functions of universities, making them more efficient, effective, and able to make an impact on a broader population of human society.

Kui Xie is an associate professor in learning technologies and he directs the Research Laboratory for Digital Learning at The Ohio State University. His research interests include computer-supported collaborative learning, engagement, motivation and human cognition, learning analytics, and instructional design.

Education will spread to every corner of the world — Shai Reshef

The field of higher education is undergoing rapid and profound transformation: Demand is surging, providers are increasingly diverse and students are more mobile than ever. However, the accessibility and quality of education is vastly unequal. Huge populations remain underserved. With the number of college-age and college-eager students rapidly outpacing both material and human resources, there is a critical need for smarter, online resources.

Technology will transform higher education from being a privilege of the few to being a right for all. With increasing scale and spread has come a decreasing cost for Internet and wireless technologies. This has resulted in three important realizations: (1) access to education is a human right, (2) freedom of information is a universal freedom, and (3) people are naturally willing to help one another, as shown through social networking.

The spread of technology will ultimately bring education and academic studies to every corner of the world. But many of those who have Internet access still don’t have broadband, limiting the educational benefits of technology. This is a challenge we have thought about at University of the People, the world’s first non-profit, tuition-free, accredited American online university, and so we have designed our courses to use the technology that is available to our students, not the broadband we might wish they had. This has greatly increased our outreach across the world (to over 150 countries).

While technology has the power to spread knowledge everywhere, in order for people to study most effectively, they need personalized attention. (This is even truer for those who live at the margins—away from cities or barred historically from higher education.) For this reason, at University of the People, we put our students in small virtual classes (of 20-30 students) to ensure that those who need personalized attention in order to succeed get it.

The combination of technology, open access, and personalized attention, in a tuition-free, accredited online university, is the education of the future. University of the People runs a virtual university in English, but its model could very well be one that translates.

Shai Reshef is the president and founder of University of the People. He has appeared in WIRED magazine’s list of 50 people changing the world, and was selected as a top global thinker by Foreign Policy magazine. Previously, Reshef chaired KIT e-learning, the first online university in Europe.

The public will help classify galaxies and tag paintings, but universities will survive — Kathryn Eccles

Technology is transforming universities, right across the sciences, arts and humanities. Just look at my own career: I’ve metamorphosed from a traditional historian to a “digital humanities scholar,” examining the impacts of technology on humanities scholarship.

Many of the technological shifts we have witnessed have enhanced and improved access to learning for everyone, providing formal and informal routes into education that were previously unheard of. Through citizen science and crowdsourcing, we’re solving some big data problems by inviting the public in, asking for help and giving people the chance to participate in research problems: cataloguing, transcribing, archiving, and all the time seeing the workings of collections, libraries, and research projects that would previously have been off limits. In crowdsourcing projects such as Galaxy Zoo and Your Paintings Tagger, the public was asked to classify galaxies and provide information about things and ideas in paintings, tasks that are difficult to ask a computer to do because of the subjective nature of information. Some tasks, decisions, and interpretations can’t be done by machines. They go to the heart of what makes us human.

Are these changes killing universities? Not from where I’m sitting. I work in a deeply traditional university, with an ancient, unrivalled mechanism for teaching and an excellent, rich, and diverse research culture. This traditional university houses a multi-disciplinary department devoted to understanding life online, and one of the largest communities of digital humanities scholars and projects in the U.K. Universities are places of research, reflection, and understanding, as well as of teaching and learning. If there is anything certain to ensure their survival, it is the continued need to research, understand and reflect upon the things that shape our world. Douglas Adams once said that books would never die, because “books are really good at being books and no matter what books will survive.” Technology won’t kill universities, because they’re too good at what they do.

Kathryn Eccles is a research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute and digital humanities champion at the University of Oxford. Her primary research interests are in the impacts of new technologies on public access to and understanding of cultural heritage resources, and on scholarly behavior and research, particularly in the humanities.

Community colleges will show the way — Hans Johnson

A popular prediction is that new technology will revolutionize higher education, making traditional brick and mortar colleges obsolete. Certainly, new technology offers tremendous potential—democratizing access to college, enhancing instruction, and improving graduation rates, to name a few. But before we jump on the bandwagon of declaring a new era in higher education, we should assess the degree to which new technology can address fundamental challenges in higher education.

Perhaps the greatest challenge of all is to ensure that higher education serves as a ladder for economic and social mobility rather than simply reinforcing economic and class divides. By that standard, we can dismiss most Massive Online Open Courses offered in conjunction with the nation’s elite universities. Most of those courses are taken by people who already have a college degree, and the vast majority of students who enroll in such courses never finish them.

A different experiment in online learning, and one that serves hundreds of thousands of students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds, is taking place at California’s community colleges. With over one million course enrollments, California’s community colleges are the largest public provider of online education in the country. They are the gateways to higher education for low-income and nontraditional students—those with jobs and family obligations.

At the Public Policy Institute of California, we examined student success in online courses in the state’s community colleges. In our study, we found that course completion and passage rates are substantially lower in online courses than in traditional ones, even though students in online courses tend to be more advantaged and academically prepared. Moreover, gaps in academic performance that we see among demographic groups in real-life classrooms are exacerbated in the online setting.

What these early findings demonstrate is not failure, but the need to improve both technology and the way it is used in instruction. If we can get it right at the community colleges, we can deliver on the promise of online education.

Hans Johnson is a senior and Bren policy fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California.

This article was written for Zocalo Public Square.

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