Chris Lloyd has a nice piece on the future of universities and academics on the conversation. The issue of how the internet and, more broadly, the revolution in information communication and delivery, will affect universities has been a significant topic of debate all year. For example, see here and here. However, I don’t think that on-line course delivery will spell the end of our current undergraduate institutions. Rather it will change the way they operate. The reasons are simple:
- Good students learn from other good students. There will be a role for universities to facilitate interactions between students and to help students interact, both virtually and face-to-face. Problem based learning is an example of this.
- Undergraduate educators will be more like mentors than lecturers. Their role will be to assist learning and guide students. They will be one of numerous resources available to students.
- Large lectures, to the degree they exist, will involve feedback to students on material they have worked on (on the internet) before the class (automatically graded with feedback to the Professor), together with real-time questions and feedback in the classroom. Even large classes will need to be interactive. The best undergraduate educators are already doing this. But …
- Most large classes will disappear to be replaced by smaller tutorials. Any economies of scale in presenting material will be exploited through the internet, not by crowding hundreds of students into a lecture theatre. This means that…
- Most ‘teaching’ in universities will not be done by research academics. Research academics may hang around undergraduate institutions to add their name and reputation to the institution but they will have little effective role in teaching.
How do we get to this new world? As I have suggested before, a good first step is to break up our existing universities to separate out undergraduate and graduate education. Research goes with the latter. Like Chris, I think there will be a lot fewer research academics and only the best researchers will find a role in the research/graduate universities of the future. Undergraduate education will require professional mentors/educators – not researchers.
A couple of final points. At present our universities survive on foreign students paying high fees. Will this flow of revenue continue if a Chinese or Indian student can get a Stanford or MIT qualification at home? I suspect that many overseas students will still want to spend some time in a western/hybrid country like Australia and will want work experience after they earn their degree. This means that twinning programs and programs that provide overseas students advanced undergraduate education, a ‘western’ experience and work experience, will grow. And demand at the graduate level for one or two-year professional courses may continue to grow.
Second, many academics will fight these changes because they will not like them. Australian academics get paid to do research – it is about 40% of their salary. In the future, most of these academics will not be paid to do research. And research is fun. So many academics will fight tooth-and-nail to hold on to the current system.