Plugged in: The age of online universities

Look back and you might still catch sight of the imposing red brickwork as it slips away into the distance. Look forward and you will see a different horizon, one which is veiled by uncertainty and mixed messages.

Unbeknown to many, universities are standing at a crossroads. Whilst these ancient institutions have never been so numerous or sought after, their future is opaque. Enter the digital world.

Knowledge is now literally the push of a button away. Every aspect of our lives has been made easier, thanks to the digital age and all its technologies. We can write an academic essay without lifting a book.

We can carry out research by filtering through thousands of web pages from the comfort of our own homes. But all this comes at a cost – to the perception of what university actually stands for, that is.

In a culture where information is passed on so freely, can universities maintain their superior position? Are they still the instigators of thought, or can anybody now spearhead just as exciting discourse?

Art: Jonathan Robinson

In 1997, the late scholar Peter Drucker boldly stated that universities would not survive the digital age in a Forbes magazine article. In it, he argued: “Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics.” He controversially proposed that the basic function of a university, unchallenged for hundreds of years, would be contested by the availability of integrated communications.

For Drucker, the orthodox idea that universities were establishments that stored and disseminated knowledge was redundant.

Going to university was no longer the only way for a person to access that knowledge. If information, lectures and teaching resources were all available online, why should students pay fees and invite debt by living away from home?

Could students study a university education without stepping foot inside the institution itself? If that was thought-provoking in 1997, it’s even more so today.

Most universities failed to embrace the digital age, dismissing Drucker’s warning. They believed their status – their elitist brands – would be enough to sustain themselves.

Others recognised the way education was heading and utilised the internet as means of circulating knowledge and research, and engaging a new breed of student. Some even made their course content available online for public viewing.

There was also, of course, the inauguration of the Open University here in Britain, which constructed the notion of distance learning and the idea of people of all ages and backgrounds studying out of leisure. But even that wasn’t enough.

What’s important is that all attempts to facilitate the online community stopped start of one thing: completing an actual degree online from an already existing university – a degree taught outside the classroom, but one comparable to sitting in lively, packed lecture theatres five days a week.

The most recent development could therefore potentially revolutionise the idea of what universities stand for in modern society. Three courses available by Stanford University in California have brought us closer to a new age of digital universities.

What makes these three courses (machine learning, database design and artificial intelligence) different is that they are; free, multifaceted, open to all, taught entirely online by world leading academics, academically challenging and regularly assessed.

Take database design for example. The course is taught to university standards and covers topics including relational algebra and database management.

Students are guided through the degree by online video lectures, which introduce course content and the mechanics behind each newly taught concept.

The subject matter is challenging, but requires no specific expertise or past qualifications. They can also contact tutors for any advice.

And it’s wholly academic – each student must complete about 10 hours a week, completing weekly assignments and regular exams. This is in order to receive a final “statement of accomplishment” from Stanford.

Demand for the endeavour was overwhelming; more than 160,000 students signed up to the courses, from over 150 countries. But what is really astonishing is that 23,000 of them stayed on to complete the entire course. There is clearly interest in the notion of free education.

As a result of its pioneering success, the University is looking to open up more degrees this way. So could this be an internet revolution?

Sam Scalise, a chief information officer at Sonoma State University in California, thinks so.

“The professor’s role is evolving from instructor to mentor. Homework, quizzes and projects will have to be designed in such a way as to require genuine thoughtfulness on the part of the student,” says Scalise.

You could argue that Stanford is just extending the legacy left by the Open University and co. – with that emphasis being on greater educational integration – and that is partly accurate.

But up until now, universities have been reluctant to hand out fully-fledged qualifications for their free online offerings. Surely, it would undermine those students paying thousands for a similar degree?

The idea that students can earn a degree that shuns the traditionalist scheme of university education is alien to some, and one which some may think is of lower quality.

Of course, not attending higher education in person has its drawbacks – you will miss out socialising with different types of people, attending societies and working as course mates – but in today’s society, certain types of people are too busy to spend three or more years studying in a different environment.

The new internet degrees, which Stanford look to have initiated in America, could be ground-breaking to single parents wanting to enhance their career credentials, to people who have wanted to fulfil a lifelong ambition and to people who just want to learn at leisure.

2012 is the halfway point in Drucker’s 30 year prediction. Are we any nearer to the end of university education?

Undoubtedly not, universities remain the hive of academic thought, but there is plenty of evidence to suggest the demands of technology are altering the way we learn and providing more choice to would-be students.

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