If universities aren't careful, the future of higher education could be a nightmarish 'MOOC world' where there are fewer jobs for researchers and a scholar becomes a 'rare bird'. This was the scenario painted by Gideon Rosen, an American professor of philosophy, at the second annual Princeton-Fung Global Forum.
Titled "The Future of Higher Education", the Forum was held from 9-11 April in Paris, France, and brought together experts and officials mostly from the United States and Europe to explore some of the challenges faced by higher education in a world of rapid technological advances.
What emerged after the two days of debates is that change is inevitable but no one knows where it will lead.
MOOCs, or massive open online courses, came in for intense discussion during the event.
Some proponents touted their ability to reach constituents who would otherwise not have access to higher education, while critics wondered about the long-term impact of a loss in traditional face-to-face interaction between students and teachers.
"When those things go missing, something of real value is lost," Rosen said during a panel debate on the risks and rewards of online education. "If you doubt that, just ask yourself the question, is that the sort of education you would want for your children?"
Rosen said he also worried "that what is lost will be forgotten", especially because the benefits of such interaction are hard to measure or quantify.
But most forum participants seemed to agree that there was no turning back from this uncertain new world.
"Technology has advanced and effected enormous changes in the way education is provided," said Paulina Gonzalez-Pose, chief of the higher education section at UNESCO.
She participated in a forum discussion titled "How to Think About Universities in the Global Age" and said in an interview later that "universities are not immune" to the rapid technological changes and that in fact they need to adapt very quickly.
"There is the expectation that these new technologies are useful to expand access," Gonzalez-Pose told University World News. "Demographic changes have produced a massive demand for higher education, and countries need to be able to meet that demand, and technology seems to be one way in which the demand can be met."
Quantity versus quality?
According to the organisers of the Forum - United States-based Princeton University with French partner the Fondation Maison des Sciences de l'Homme - the number of students enrolled in universities globally has risen twenty-fold over the past century, from roughly 500,000 students in 1900 to more than 110 million currently.
They add that "developing countries now have higher enrolment rates than European institutions had a few decades ago" and that "surging numbers have eclipsed precepts that universities should be bounded, autonomous communities".
"New social missions, the changing funding landscape, greater geographic mobility, and emerging internet capabilities have challenged the bricks and mortar of higher education," the organisers say in the introduction to the Forum.
"The stress is evident in the struggle to balance providing public goods and the commitment to private achievement, or the tension between useful knowledge and free inquiry."
From the UNESCO point of view, policy-makers "need to make sure that whatever is done is done with quality, and that people are not being deceived about what they can get out of those new modalities of education," Gonzalez-Pose told University World News.
UNESCO is currently working on a global survey of higher education institutions to find out "exactly what it is they are doing and how they're using these technologies", she said. "There is a lot of talk but we really don't fully know what is being done."
MOOCs the rage
Meanwhile, MOOCs seem to be all the rage among some institutions.
Daphne Koller, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and co-founder of the online learning system Coursera, said that students in many regions had benefited from MOOCs given by a range of colleges and universities, including Princeton and Stanford.
She said that the technology was especially changing lives in developing countries and told forum participants about a woman in Bangladesh who had managed to build a business after learning the necessary skills through MOOCs. This 'student' and her partner were able to employ other women as they became more successful, Koller said.
The technology can also be used to train educators themselves, according to Judy Curry, chief executive of the Commonwealth Education Trust, which is one of the partners of Koller's Coursera.
"We are using MOOCs to train teachers right across the world," Curry said in an interview. "We have 20,000 students that we are managing to reach, whom we wouldn't be able to reach otherwise."
She told University World News that her organisation was "bringing in top professors from around the world" to do the teaching. "One of the great advantages of doing this is that we're having conversations about education going on globally, and people are very supportive of one another," she added.
Curry said she did not think MOOCs would completely replace actual classroom interaction. "I don't think you will ever not need the personal touch as well," she commented. "It's a mixture." Or what is being called 'blended learning'.
An example from journalism
Potential students for MOOCs can come from all regions and all disciplines, including journalism, educators say.
For instance, The Netherlands-based European Journalism Centre, or EJC, in cooperation with technology partners, is offering a free online data journalism course called "Doing Journalism with Data: First steps, skills and tools", starting on 19 May.
With more than 14,000 participants, this "five-module introductory course is the largest massive open online course on the topic of journalism to date", the EJC says. The aim is to "enable more journalists, editors, news developers and designers to make better use of data and incorporate it further into their work".
But will the course enable participants to quantify the loss of 'traditional' face-to-face educational interaction? That remains an open question. Meanwhile, journalists have to learn about much more than just data.
"Technology is transforming journalism and therefore journalism education," said David Remnick, editor of the American magazine The New Yorker and moderator of the forum's opening session titled "Knowledge for What? Have Universities Lost Sight of Their Purpose?"
Remnick told University World News that some elite journalism schools, for instance, had modified their way of hiring teaching staff.
"The whole business of employing established reporters to teach is passe," he said. "You now need to know how the internet works."
While that may be true for other higher education institutions, being proficient in the latest communication technology is particularly relevant for journalism schools and the media they aim to staff.
"What matters to me most is what we publish, but I can't relax and think that print is the only technology that there is," Remnick said. "I see people increasingly reading the magazine on their phones."
Teaching students to write or produce audiovisual content for this format is thus part of the future of journalism training, according to some educators, but many of the changes are happening too fast for universities to keep up.
"We're all swimming in turbulent waters without knowing what's on the other side," said Remnick.
* The Princeton-Fung Global Forum was established from a gift to Princeton University from William Fung, a class of 1970 alumnus who is group chair of the Li & Fung companies based in Hong Kong. The forum is designed to bring together thought leaders and policy-makers from around the world to address pressing issues of the day, according to Princeton.
I don't see this happening!
Richard Aghama Okundia on the University World News Facebook page
I see that happening if universities stay affixed to a profit-making system with little regard to the students and those from underprivileged backgrounds.
Christopher Weir on the University World News Facebook page
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