As university tuition costs rise, the institutions themselves creep dangerously towards obsolescence. In the face of esteemed establishments like MIT opening their gates to the world wide web, the pressure is on for universities to re-establish themselves as bastions of higher education. Online lecture courses, better yet, free online lecture courses, might have prospective students stroking their chins wondering, “Why pay when I could just get it for free?”.
For the students that are motivated, lecturers are redundant and for the students that are not motivated lectures are hard to follow and unengaging. On the internet, there are resources with cohesive structure, simple navigation, and supportive communities that independently remedy these problems. Simultaneously, the perceptions of 'university' are changing. With tertiary education attendance at 49% for 17-30 year-olds, the need to further distinguish oneself is more pressing than ever. All this combined with increasing tuition costs and unreliable government policies on student-finance have created an environment in which people are encouraged to look elsewhere.
There is an association with alternative sources of education that can leave a sour taste. Some may imagine problems such as a supposed lack of direction, un-recognised accreditation, or outdated information when addressing the topic. However, where some see problems, I see growing pains in an emerging market. I believe the negative connotations we now have will fade, especially as demand shifts from expensive and less-relevant traditional education to options such as the Open University. After all, I’m sure employers could appreciate the self-discipline and industry of obtaining one’s education, not to mention the skills needed to balance learning with work experience. Universities are historically known as sources of quality education; there’s no better place to be than surrounded by experts to receive cutting edge education in the disciplines you’re passionate about. Ironically then, how is it that universities are lagging so far behind in how they engage and educate their students? The flourishing example of success in platforms like Khan-academy, Lynda, and YouTube highlight the increasing shortcomings of traditional education: innovation using the internet. The online market is forced to develop continually, unlike the stagnation seen with conventional education.
However 'university' is more than education. It is a culture. With experiences like studying abroad, industry placements, societies, and sports clubs one can experiment and grow as a person, revealing personal potential that would have otherwise never emerged. People who want the most efficient education or can’t justify the debt may miss out on these opportunities, making it a crying shame that universities are not learning from the advances pioneering enterprises are developing.
Having said all that, who knows what ingenious solutions could be thought of if the market opens up enough? A lot of the opportunities universities offer have traditionally developed over time from alumni connections and growing respect and trust in the institution. There is no reason the same cannot be valid for alternatives. For example, remotely studying could transform the concept of 'study abroad' and Open University has some interesting solutions with class meetups and social media. Scalability with the internet is incomprehensible; if online alternatives gain in popularity, students could indeed become part of a global community.
There is a growing body of young people that will say 'no deal' when they see what UCAS is offering – and entrepreneurs are welcoming them with open arms. As the value of being a graduate goes down, and the quality of alternatives go up, there could be a massive shift in the tertiary education market. The problem is that this doesn’t have to be so black and white: universities have a wealth of experience, resources, and respect that new alternatives lack. However, if universities don’t start to catch on and learn from the structure and engagement that the internet can give, higher education as we know it will become redundant.
Innovation, for the People
The best things in life come free, and that’s no less true for education. Humans are curious by nature, and when they have the chance to learn at the pace and depth that they need, it can be life-changing. Universities should be hubs that represent the best of human thought, as of now, they're an embarrassment; what MIT has done with its OpenCourseWare sets a precedent to be followed by others. By releasing their courses online for free, MIT has opened up the opportunity for education to include people from disadvantaged backgrounds; this can cast a wide net of influence felt across humanity. Universities should be leaping at the chance to join them.
The traditional role of academics as both teachers and researchers has its disadvantages: chiefly the necessity to balance one's passion for researching and teaching. This dissonance is unnecessary; with public engagement and the ability to connect with experts at an all-time high, streamlining the learning process by putting it online would give researchers more time for pushing the frontiers of physics. Alternatively, they could put more resources into engagement with students, for instance by replacing lectures with seminars or projects, providing a personalised education experience.
With technological advances, one can revisit presentations, ask questions in open forums, and access online-courses from multiple institutions; giving students a vast archive to learn from leaders in all fields and find teaching styles that suit them best. Slowly, as the tertiary education paradigm changes, competition will drive ease-of-use and accessibility - we'll truly understand what it means to be a lifelong learner. In the future, there will be the resources available to support this vision, for everyone.
The internet has and will affect how we learn as a species. I’m of the perspective that this can only be a good thing. The internet has created a competitive market that can only result in a better product for its clients: society. And if universities want to be a part of that, it's time for change.