We live in interesting times; a good thing—so far at least. One of the momentous waves of change which is just now starting to roll over universities and academics around the world is a whole new online way of learning, accessible from essentially anywhere, for free. This will have a deep and profound effect on academic life. The Australian recently ran an article on this development, featuring my friend and colleague Chris Tisdell (Google: Tisdell, seismic shift, education to access the article).
Increasingly you can log onto YouTube, or iTunes U, or other repositories, and start learning about anything you want. While in many areas the offerings are still in a scattered and embryonic form, the amount of material and resources is increasing exponentially, and the process seems clearly irreversible. More organized courses called MOOCS are using platforms such as Coursera, EdX, Udacity and others to train tens of thousands of students (how successfully is still a question). Other platforms are being established as you read this.
No amount of feet dragging by academics, textbook publishers, college administrators, and other entrenched interests will likely stop this trend. The reality is that universities as sole repositories of high-end knowledge and learning is coming to an end. Academics like myself will have to adapt or be prepared to go the way of the harness and carriage-makers a hundred years ago with the advent of the motor car. The lesson is clear: change, or be made irrelevant.
Right now, I have about four tutorials a week in first year Linear Algebra or Calculus. I find myself saying the same things as the lecturer in the next room, and that I have said dozens of times in the past. The same scenario is repeated with little variation in thousands of colleges around the world. This is an unsustainable situation, much as perhaps we would like it to continue, as our jobs largely depend on it. The reality is that having thousands of essentially identical first year tutorials/classes around the world on, say, “the derivatives of inverse hyperbolic functions”, or “how to apply the normal distribution” is increasingly a situation approaching its use-by date. Clearly it is vastly more logical and practical for a few people to develop the lessons really well, and put them on YouTube for anyone, anywhere to watch whenever they feel like it. Once that happens, and students can access easily the information they need, thousands of academic jobs almost immediately become redundant.
The teaching role of universities, especially for large popular subjects, will inevitably change from providing primarily learning content to providing primarily assessment, support and certification. People will pay to get a certificate of achievement. They will no longer be so willing to pay to get instruction that they can easily get for free online. No doubt there is a social aspect of going to university; meeting other young people, playing cards or soccer during lunch hours, and chatting to your university lecturers. Attending a class can be a positive experience. But it can also be rather lukewarm: some college level lecturers are not stellar teachers, have ordinary communication skills and little real training in education. Once the choice between a mediocre live lecture and a high production video with powerful graphics and an entertaining dynamic expositor is available, I think we all know where most students will go. The core idea that universities and colleges primarily provide instruction, and rather high priced instruction at that, has to change.
Many of my academic colleagues will, quite understandably, be upset at this development. My own efforts at posting lots of mathematics videos online at YouTube (my channel is called Insights into Mathematics, user: njwildberger, check it out!), along with those of Chris Tisdell (his channel is called Understand Mathematics, user: DrChris Tisdell, check it out!) are seen by some of our colleagues as competitive with the traditional lecture format. But the reality is that the changes that are coming are made inevitable by the technology at hand; the question is only whether one is willing to embrace them and move forward on the train, or stand still like deer in the headlights. We see ourselves as potential bridges to the future: establishing UNSW as a key contributor in providing quality mathematics instruction to the world, along with more established and well-funded players like MIT, Stanford etc.
For centuries universities have been elite institutions catering to the sons of the rich to ready them for positions of power and privilege. In the twentieth century that scenario gradually expanded, allowing first women and then more and more middle class and even working class students into the college and university framework. While this has been a great contributor to the rise in equality in the Western world, still most of the rest of the world was excluded from the process, as the high-end educational institutions were concentrated in mostly well-to-do Western countries. The current technology supports a massive expansion of knowledge into the third world, as well as empowering ordinary people, young and old, rich or poor, to learn, learn, learn, as long as they want to! It will be one of the really big game-changers in the brave new world of tomorrow. Education is a killer application for the internet.