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If there is one issue that is buzzing through Davos like a prairie fire among thoughtful people, it’s that the time has finally come to reinvent higher learning. (JESSICA RINALDI/Reuters)
If there is one issue that is buzzing through Davos like a prairie fire among thoughtful people, it’s that the time has finally come to reinvent higher learning. (JESSICA RINALDI/Reuters)

The week university (as we know it) ended Add to ...

For many years I’ve been writing about how the Internet and new models of pedagogy will bring an end to the university’s monopoly on higher education.

Nothing is as powerful as an idea whose time has come.

It’s happening right now. We may even remember this week as the turning point. If there is one issue that is buzzing through Davos like a prairie fire among thoughtful people, it’s that the time has finally come to reinvent higher learning.

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The big three companies that provide the technology of free online learning – Coursera, Udacity and edX – are all present at Davos, and are jubilant in and out of sessions. Coursera just announced it will soon be offering more than 200 free massive open online courses, or MOOCs, in conjunction with more than 33 universities. Having opened for business just five months ago, the company already has more than 1.3 million students.

In a new twist, some universities, such as Arizona State University and the University of Arkansas, have announced they want to develop a way to give students credit for the MOOCs they complete. And last week, San Jose State University and Udacity announced a pilot project to jointly create three introductory mathematics classes. The courses will be free online, but students who want credit from San Jose State will pay $150 per course – a small fraction of the price that students usually would pay.

At one session here at Davos, the presidents of Harvard, Stanford and MIT all readily acknowledged that the experiments in new models of online learning will soon radically disrupt higher learning.

One expert suggested many universities are facing the early days of bankruptcy. Another predicted there may only be 10 universities that survive this transition.

At one insightful panel discussion held at a nearby hotel on how the Internet and digital technologies are transforming higher education, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times was the moderator, and said that the upheaval beginning in higher education is the biggest Internet-induced revolution currently underway in the world.

Mr. Friedman noted that one online course offered by MIT currently has more than 150,000 registered students, which is more than the total number of graduates MIT has produced since it was founded.

One of the panelists was the gifted and versatile Sebastian Thrun who founded Udacity. I wrote about Mr. Thrun earlier, regarding his previous incarnation as a Google vice-president. He led the team that developed the Google self-driving cars that have circled the globe taking pictures of streetscapes for its Street View service. Commenting on the many students Udacity was educating, Mr. Thrun said that education was the number one enabler of people, and that education should be a basic human right.

One of Udacity’s students is Khadija Niazi, a 12-year-old girl from Pakistan. This exceptionally bright young woman has taken a number of Udacity’s online courses, and is currently focusing on physics; Mr. Friedman interviewed her on stage. No one was suggesting that Ms. Niazi is a typical student, but all agreed that putting courses online and making them available free to citizens around the world would have tremendous impact on our global society.

Daphne Koller from Coursera spoke of many students who took advantage of her company’s courses so that they could get their first job. They had previously lacked marketable skills. Other students credited Coursera for helping them aspire to better jobs with their current employers.

MIT President L. Rafael Reif talked about the university’s Open Courseware project, which started a decade ago. The university decided that it would put all of its educational material online and available at no cost to anyone with an Internet connection. Mr. Reif said the material had been accessed by more than 100 million individual learners and that the number of learners was growing by almost 1 million per month.

But Mr. Reif said that he felt that university involved more than just watching videotaped lectures of university professors online. Many had predicted a similar transformation of education with the arrival of educational television decades ago. Rolling a TV into the classroom or having students watch lectures at home was thought by many to portend a revolution to existing pedagogical models. Of course, almost nothing changed.

Mr. Reif believes that the university experience had three components. The first is life on campus: living in dorms and hanging out with other students. The second is the classroom lecture. And the third is the smaller group discussion required for projects and in labs, where he thinks “the real education occurs.” He said he sees a future where educators were viewed less as fountains of knowledge and more as mentors.

Former Harvard president Lawrence Summers challenged the notion that students would abandon the classroom and flock to online lectures. He likened the educational process to a professional football game in the United States. Football games attract tens of thousands of spectators who pay hundreds of dollars for their tickets for the pleasure of sitting on cold benches, drinking overpriced drinks, eating overpriced hotdogs, and listening to raucous fans shout in their ears. All these fans have the option to sit in their living rooms, watching high-definition action and replays, drinking cold beer and eating delicious snacks. Clearly there is a market for both.

But Mr. Summers is missing the point. From my perspective, we should eliminate all lectures as a method of instruction. Universities must shift their business model from the centuries-old notion that a professor lectures students, to a more collaborative, interactive model.

Any subject where students need to absorb fact-based material – that is, where there is a right or wrong answer – should be taught using computer-based learning. Instead of being the “sage on the stage,” teachers should be the co-pilot for students as they explore and collaborate online to acquire knowledge. Without changing the model of pedagogy, the physical campus will not survive.

One can easily see a day when students treat all the universities as one big à-la-carte menu that can lead to something we could call a “MOOC degree.” Take some law courses at Harvard, economic courses at McGill, some engineering courses at MIT, and round out the degree with courses from Queen’s, Yale and the London School of Economics. The result will be students acquiring a better education by shopping around then they could have acquired at just the one institution. And it won’t take long before employers recognize this.

The biggest obstacle to this happening is the question of credentials. Aside from the couple of experiments I mentioned earlier, none of the prestigious universities will grant a course credit – let alone a degree – based on the strength of online courses.

But this will change. More and more universities will agree to issue credits for their MOOC courses. Then they might consider issuing a credit for a MOOC course taken at another university if the student agrees to an assessment process, such as exams or essays, which demonstrate the student has the requisite knowledge.

Private-sector third parties may step in. Just as private-sector companies can certify competence in Microsoft or Oracle software, other companies can certify competence in academic fields.

University leaders are finally waking up to the need to reinvent a pedagogic model that is centuries old. And this week may be remembered as the turning point.

Don Tapscottis reporting from Davos daily for The Globe and Mail. He is an adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management and the author of 14 books. He just released a TED book (with Anthony D. Williams) called Radical Openness: Four Unexpected Principles for Success . Twitter:@dtapscott

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