Monday, June 4, 2012

The End of the University as We Know It?

The hallowed halls of learning are no longer the place they used to be, exclusive enclaves of learning that allowed those fortunate enough to attend to gain the skill sets and make the social contacts to climb the social hierarchy.

In short, maintaining bricks and mortar institutions, tenured faculty, and financially exploitive publishing practices to deliver post-secondary education is economically inefficient and cannot compete with the Internet delivery model.

Throughout the centuries, universities have grown around a physically situated knowledge repository known as a library. It made sense to locate professors, researchers, and students in close proximity to the information resources. Moreover, these cathedrals of knowledge could charge exorbitant fees to students desirous of securing their futures, which in turn allowed them to expand.

As post-secondary education became part of the post war, publicly-funded panoply of social services offered to the population at large, enrollment in universities sky-rocketed. Universal accessibility became the mark of a developed country.

However, thirty plus years of neoliberal politics has brought the existing university business model to a precipice. Even with generous student aid programs in place, the cost of maintaining traditional universities has outstripped the state's capacity to guarantee universal access to post-secondary education.

The return to the user-payer model of university access is effectively reducing the numbers of lower and lower middle class students who can afford to attend university, especially when current economic conditions make it very difficult for recent graduates to find employment that generates sufficient income to repay their student loans.

Rather than accepting entry into a wage slave existence, increasing numbers of potential university students are deciding that they simply cannot afford to attend a traditional university.

Fortunately, their future need not be bleak.

In a wired world, higher education can be delivered to millions at a fraction of a cost as compared to the tradition model.

For example, Stanford's recent experiment in delivering an undergraduate course on artificial intelligence simultaneously to the 200 Stanford university students on campus and to approximately 100,000 students on line demonstrated that advances in information and communications technology make the traditional practice of bringing together a group of students in a lecture hall to hear the words to wisdom delivered by a professor appear quaint.

What remains to be done is to develop an appropriate certification process that recognizes that courses delivered via the Internet possesses the same intrinsic value of those delivered in the hallowed halls. MIT and Harvard are working together to address this need.

In my opinion, what's missing in the debate surrounding the increase in student fees in Quebec and the rising levels of student debt in the US is the notion that affordable university education can be delivered to those who desire it if the university business model is altered to take greater advantage of the economies of scale that the Internet offers.

But this means a large scale re-engineering of the present model, which will likely mean the loss of a great number of teaching positions as more and more courses migrate to the Web and an end to the lucrative business of academic publishing in favor of open access models.

Imagine being able to choose courses for credit from renown universities like Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford, the London School of Economics, the Sorbonne and do the course work from the comfort of your home and the public library.

We have the technology. We just need the collective will.

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