edX: What is the future of universities?

Technology is changing how education is done. Anyone my age (shall we say larger, but not much larger, than 40) who has gone into a school recently will see that it’s vastly different from what they themselves experienced at school. Technology abounds, and the children are using it. Also, university is vastly different from what I experienced just 20 years or so ago. While we had computers, they weren’t common-place things – in fact we had a couple of special ‘computer projects’ as part of our degree which taught us how to use them and program them. If we wanted to use a computer, it was a case of going out in the cold to one of the computer labs and, if you were lucky, you found a free terminal (going out late at night, especially if it was snowing, gave you a better chance of finding one available). The internet was just beginning. Email was a quirky little toy – not something we ever did anything serious with.

But, deep down, at university level, how much has really changed? Sure, every student has their own laptop and i-wotsit, and many of our classes are recorded and posted online for later viewing – with nice printed lecture notes available to download, etc. But, fundamentally, students still come to lectures, sit on long rows of seats in a lecture theatre with their backs to other students, do practical classes, write assignments and go through the stressful process of exams (in our case twice a year). And still, the majority of their lecturers, who are recruited and promoted on their research credentials, actually have no more than a  ‘gut feeling’ of whether they are giving their students a good education or not, because there isn’t any incentive for them to go and find out.

However, things may be about to change in a BIG way.  Harvard and MIT (I don’t mean the optimistically-named South Auckland Institution here) have just stirred-up the tertiary education system with the launch of edX. They are offering FREE on-line courses, to whoever has the internet available, no matter what country they are from, or what income they have. And these aren’t just a few notes chucked on Wikipedia for people to read. It’s a properly thought-out system of quality education – one of the basic ideas is that it has the same quality and rigour as anything Harvard or MIT would offer for their ‘normal’ students. It’s interactive, taught by the top people, and rigorously assessed. You get a Harvard / MIT education, but at minimal cost. True, the institutions emphasize that completing the course doesn’t mean you can claim to have a degree from Harvard or MIT – or get to have one-on-one discussions with your teachers in their offices (try that with half a million students in a class) – but the idea is that it provides the education for all, and an educated world is a good thing.

Universities need to take note of what is happening here. Their role might be about to change significantly. Why should a student enrol at Waikato (and I pick on Waikato simply because it’s my university) and take on a lot of debt for a tertiary education which may require them to relocate, come to classes everyday, and generally re-organize their life (though often in a good way), when they can get what is internationally recognized as a quality product for no cost?  What is a university for? What does a student get from it?  If EdX is successful, I believe we will see these questions come suddenly  to the foreground, and our tertiary organizations would do well to prepare for it.

Incidently, the video on the edX launch page is well worth listening to. What’s really great is hearing people very high up in the organizational system of these universities talking about ensuring quality learning.






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