As I was reading Electronics and the Dim Future of the University by Eli M. Noam I couldn’t help but feel I had stumbled upon a very prescient academic. This article resonates just as strongly today as it did when it was written in 1995.
First, before I start cherry picking quotes from the article, let me say that I am not someone who relishes the fact that higher education may be in trouble. I’m not an anarchist or revolutionary who believes the system must break down in order for something new and better to rise from the ashes. I passionately believe there is an enormous amount of societal value in having strong, publicly funded institutions of higher learning like universities and colleges. Which is maybe why I react the way I do to what I see happening in the webscape. It both exhilarates and terrifies me.
The question is not whether universities are important to society, to knowledge or to their members — they are — but rather whether the economic foundation of the present system can be maintained and sustained in the face of the changed flow of information brought about by electronic communications. It is not research and teaching that will be under pressure — they will be more important than ever — but rather their instructional setting, the university system.
I am sure there are other academics who thought like Noam in the early days of the web, but as I read his 1995 article, I was struck by how many of his points have appeared, or are appearing, on the 2012 learning landscape.
If alternative instructional technologies and credentialing systems can be devised, there will be a migration away from classic campus-based higher education. The tools for alternatives could be video servers with stored lectures by outstanding scholars, electronic access to interactive reading materials and study exercises, electronic interactivity with faculty and teaching assistants, hypertextbooks and new forms of experiencing knowledge, video- and computer-conferencing, and language translation programs.
A curriculum, once created, could be offered electronically not just to hundreds of students nearby but to tens of thousands around the world.
In any event, the ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities (they will merely break the ice) but rather commercial firms.
Today’s students, if they seek prestigious jobs or entry-restricted professions, usually have no choice other than to attend university. However, this is a weak and mostly legal reed for universities to lean on, and is only as strong as their gatekeeper control over accreditation and over the public’s acceptance of alternative credentials. When this hold weakens, we may well have in the future a “McGraw-Hill University” awarding degrees or certificates, just as today some companies offer in-house degree programs. If these programs are valued by employers and society for the quality of admitted students, the knowledge students gain and the requirements that students must pass to graduate, they will be able to compete with many traditional universities, yet without bearing the substantial overhead of physical institutions.
Now, granted, I haven’t lived in this world of academia as long as many of you (okay all 3 of you) who are reading this, and I might be suffering from a case of — (oh dammit, what is the word – that term that refers to each generation feeling like they are the generation that is living on the cusp of some GREAT CHANGE)….anyway, you get the idea.
Or maybe I am not far fetched in thinking that the world of higher ed is on the cusp of a shakeup. That we have reached some kind of tipping point. Or, as John Naughton notes in The Guardian article that led me to Noam’s article and inspired this post…
Some things have happened recently that make one think that perhaps the water might be reaching boiling point for traditional universities.