Imagine: you wake up at 9:23 a.m. one September morning in 2020. Your alarm failed to sound and now you’re late. But don’t fret. Your commute to school consists of carrying your laptop to the kitchen table. No need for a back-to-school outfit, as you settle in wearing pyjamas.
When you load today’s lecture video you don’t see your professor; instead, a classmate appears on the screen. On the first day of class, you got a list of possible topics the course could explore. You ranked them, and the instructor customized the course accordingly. But instead of the professor teaching – how to prepare lessons, if the curriculum isn’t set until the first day? – he assigned students to research topics then take turns teaching. You’ve never met the student teaching today, who recorded the video at home in India. You won’t meet any of your classmates, who watch this lesson from five different continents.
Your classmate uses the word “atavistic” and you pause the lecture to look it up. In a text window, you type a note containing the definition and link to its occurrence in the video so that your classmates can also view the meaning when they hear it. As you watch, you flag other important points and read your classmates’ highlights and notes.
After a while, your eyes wander to the window. It’s a gorgeous day, the warm morning sun offering reminders of a long, hot summer. You abandon your computer and finish the lecture on your cellphone from your backyard.
If the above seems like a far-fetched prediction of what a classroom might be like in 2020, you’re behind the times. The video highlighting technology was created by a team including the University of Essex’s Thomas Foulsham and Arizona State University’s Evan Risko, who worked together at the University of British Columbia. In fact, much of this futuristic course resembles a real-life one being taught (co-ordinated? delivered?) by David Vogt of the University of British Columbia. “My job as an educator is not to disgorge knowledge,” Vogt explained recently, over orange juice in Vancouver. “My role is to set the parameters, get everybody engaged and in their places, then just ride it like a freight train. I learn as much as they do.”
This is the brave new world of higher education, where students teach professors, technology enables digital note-passing and online courses enroll thousands of students. The pupil-tutor relationship has been turned on its head. A perfect storm − extreme financial constraints, a technological revolution, groundbreaking pedagogical research, and increased expectations from students facing weak job prospects − is forcing universities to reimagine their purpose. And all the while, a university education has never been more in demand from so many parts of the world.
In an era when a student can access more information through her cellphone than a professor can consume in a lifetime, is the university as a physical place obsolete?
In Vogt’s words: “Technology, and mobile specifically, is going to enable a bigger transformation in learning than any invention of humanity ever, from clay tablets onwards.”
Vogt is an admitted futurist attracted to mobile technology’s educational possibilities, in part, because of his interest in science fiction. He was an astronomer before joining the faculty of education. Yet he prefers an in-person experience to online interaction. “I’m a huge fan of live theatre,” he explains. “I would see a poor live play over a good movie any day. On the other hand, a movie is an excellent way to distribute entertainment to the masses.”
In the same way, universities are looking for technological solutions that allow them to deliver education to more students for less money. Higher education seems poised to undergo the type of technological disruption that upended creative sectors such as the music and publishing industries. And this transition has sparked a debate among educators that speaks to the core of teaching.
This summer, one of the most visible front lines of the debate happened at the University of Virginia. A seeming culture clash between Teresa Sullivan, the university’s president, and other administrators at the institution had culminated in Sullivan’s resignation in early June. One of the issues at the heart of the conflict? Sullivan’s apparent reluctance to embrace online education.
(Sullivan was reinstated later that month.)
In the 2011 book The Innovative University, Clayton Christensen, a professor of business administration at Harvard, argues that universities could be overtaken by competitors if they fail to adopt new technologies.
Stanford and Princeton had just announced a new online platform called Coursera that offers free courses to anyone anywhere. New providers such as the Khan Academy and iTunes U joined the online education arms race. And Sullivan didn’t seem to be keeping up.