I remember the day, 30 years ago, when we ordered the first mainframe computer at Université Sainte-Anne. It cost $80,000, was enormous and had an air-conditioned room all to itself. We had to learn new languages like COBOL and FORTRAN. Who would ever have thought that 30 years later, nearly everyone would own a hand-held powerful computer at an accessible price?
When I ask students what they think will be the next invention, they see essentially the same devices only "smaller, faster, more powerful, solar powered, able to be implanted or worn, and use fuzzy logic to make decisions."
Ten years ago with demographic growth and greater access to higher education, we reconfigured classrooms to accommodate large lectures. We began incorporating technology to improve learning environments, to accommodate a new generation of techno-savvy students and to reach across distances to serve other regional campuses and people at home.
Today the economy directs our attention to technology to reduce costs, educate more students, more rapidly, for less money. People speak of revolutionizing higher education and completely changing the way we teach.
Technology brings additional information on learning styles and helps assess rapidly what has been retained, allowing lectures to be adapted to students' needs and to be made more meaningful. Classes can combine Internet connections, Skyped conversation, video-teleconference and satellite hookups with videos and segments of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) produced around the world. Students can benefit from international online discussion groups. All of this enriches the learning experience and represents considerable up-front investment with intensive labour commitments from faculty and technical support.
How can this lead to cost reductions? The savings can accrue rapidly if the course is massively enrolled and subsections are taught by less well-paid individuals; or if the course lasts several years and the designers and lead professor may be paid over time.
MOOCs will soon conquer the mechanical glitches which have been highly publicized. Some have already solved the evaluation and accreditation issues. When this becomes the normal process, students across the world will have the option of taking a history class at 8:00 am on Friday or the Ivy League professor's MOOC any time. Students will then ask for transfer credits.
The campus experience will continue to be valued but will change. If students do a portion of their courses online , universities will need to look to strengthening the role of teachers as mentors in the old Oxford style. Support for students will become ever more important. Learning labs, group study spaces, tutors, advisers, and study guides, aides and sessions will be in high demand. Classrooms will be more interactive while fewer of them will be required. Favourite faculty members will gain "rock star" status and be known internationally. If students take fewer courses on campus to obtain a degree and universities are required to provide continued and more specific learning support, then funding and fee structures will, of necessity, evolve along with the roles of those working on campus.
These changes will occur over the next decade and the clear winners will be students who will have access to a world of knowledge, extraordinary guides and sage mentors. While the financial structures will likely change, it is not realistic to imagine significant reductions in cost in Canadian universities and in the American state universities where a fine education already costs less than $10,000.
The savings will be realized in time to degrees for students, improved time allocation for faculty, (allowing more attention to research), and greater access to continued education, making our workforce ever more qualified. Professors will be able to mentor students, advise them and review with them all they have learned. Professors will have the role of helping students turn information into knowledge and transform knowledge into wisdom.
Canadian universities are excellent, inexpensive and innovative. They will move with technological advances to achieve greatness we do not even imagine today. They will continue to offer fine opportunities for a truly modest investment in individuals and in our nation's economy and future.
Roseann O'Reilly Runte, PhD, is President and Vice-Chancellor of Carleton University.