Shifts In Learning: Will Traditional Universities Survive?

Shifts In Learning: Will Traditional Universities Survive?
Summary: The traditional mode of learning in universities entails a mix of lecturing, cramming, and examination. For quite some time now, this method of instruction has been questioned. Yet educators often cling to tradition. Which begs the question: Will traditional universities survive?

Will Traditional Universities Survive The Shifts In Learning?

The traditional mode of learning in universities entails a mix of lecturing, cramming, and examination. For quite some time now, the validity of this method of instruction has been questioned. Critics assert that this approach will someday be cast aside, for disruptive changes are coming.

In 2014, The Economist identified three such changes already occurring. First, rising tuition and fees. Students no longer can afford these. Second, an emerging consensus that universities owe a responsibility to educate students not only during their years of enrollment, but also after graduation. Universities are increasingly being tasked with providing instruction and training throughout a graduate’s professional lifetime. Third, the technology revolution is radically changing the way students –and professionals– learn.

These changes pose a serious challenge to traditional systems of education. Yet educators in many parts of the world cling to tradition and demonstrate imperviousness to adapting to the coming changes. Which begs the question: Will traditional universities survive?

Forces Driving Change In Education

Working against traditional education and driving disruptive change are three primary forces. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC, 2014) identifies them as, in no particular order, a transformation of consumer behavior, wide distribution of effective technology, and economic pressure.

1. Consumer Behavior

Students today are major consumers of information. They acquire much of the information they consume by searching for it online and are aided in that pursuit by the excellent online skills they possess. They acquired those skills by virtue of having grown up in a time during which the internet was undergoing rapid development, which is why we sometimes refer to U.S. millennials (those in the 18-34 age range) as “digital natives.” These young adults are online an average of 53 hours per week (eMarketer 2016). Consequently, it should come as no surprise that the expectations created by their time immersed in this new, digital world would carry over to the expectations they have for the universities where they spend long additional hours each week.

“Students increasingly see universities as the main means of securing their future employment, rather than simply learning and self-development. The value proposition for universities is therefore changing and this means that employability and the student experience is more critical than it has ever been.” (PwC, p. 4)

2. Effective Technology

The rapid development of internet technology continues apace. Part and parcel to this advance is the proliferation of smartphones. End-users worldwide bought 380 million of these mobile devices in the first quarter of 2017; a 9.1% increase over the first quarter of 2016 (Gartner, 2017). This, coupled with robust internet access, helps explain why platforms like YouTube and Facebook are now daily visited by millions.

Significantly, these technologies and platforms encourage new forms of learning. For example, students exchange knowledge via Facebook groups. Similarly, people share knowledge at no cost via YouTube videos which anyone anywhere in world can watch, so long as there is a stable internet connection to permit it. The new technology also boosts students’ ability to learn whenever and wherever they want.

3. Economic Pressure

University tuition and fees are constantly rising. The average U.S. tuition package for out-of-state students enrolled full-time at a public undergraduate college or university in the 2016-17 academic year is $24,930. That sum is $860 higher than it was for the 2015-16 academic year. At private, non-profit four-year institutions, the average price is $8,550 higher: $33,480 (CollegeBoard). Not included in these figures are the costs of required textbooks and other study materials.

Students fret about these expenses and the very likely possibility of further increase. They worry for good reason. Costs are already high enough that most students must borrow money to fund their college or university education. Borrowing that much money means students can expect to remain in debt for decades afterward. Until only fairly recently, this arrangement for the most part worked. A college degree was the student’s instant passport to a good-paying job. Such a job would make the financial burden of repaying the loan manageable. Today, a college degree does not automatically correlate to high income. A degree may not even put the graduate on the path to a comfortable income. As a result, it takes students much longer to retire their loans than it did 20 years ago. Students are right to question whether this arrangement is still viable. Consequently, growing numbers of them are coming to see online learning as a means to obtain a higher education but at a substantially reduced cost.

Thus, the confluence of these three forces is pressuring universities to consider new directions. One new direction a growing number of them are exploring is online education –frankly, a positive and thoroughly exciting development.

The Rise Of Online Learning: MOOCs

“An explosion in online learning, much of it free, means that the knowledge, once imparted to a lucky few, has been released to anyone with a smartphone or laptop” (The Economist, 2014).

MOOC stands for Massive Open Online Courses. In late 2011, Stanford University rolled out its first MOOCs. The offerings proved popular with students and paved the way for the open-access online learning movement. By 2016, there were more than 58 million students enrolled in 6,850 MOOCs offered by more than 700 universities (Class Central, 2016). Coursera, the largest MOOC provider, currently has 23 million students taking more than 1,700 online courses.

Massive Open Online Courses are transforming global education. For inefficient conventional universities, the low start-up costs and potentially staggering economies of scale inherent to MOOCs represent a tremendous opportunity. For users, MOOCs are notably attractive because they eliminate bars to enrollment, such as admissions testing, and afford great freedom with regard to the time and place of study.

What users like, critics dislike. Indeed, critics have taken of late to proclaiming MOOCs to be failures. First, they contend, failure is the natural byproduct of giving students too many course choices – and there is no question that MOOCs permit the offering of a great many choices. Students, the critics say, are overwhelmed by the quantity. Second, critics argue that MOOCs are failures because providers lack the means to provide meaningful support to students. The reason is that there are just too many students and, besides, the MOOCs can’t possibly even know who they should support since the students are widely dispersed and almost entirely anonymous.

The Rise Of Online Learning: Lecturio and Private eLearning Providers

Effective technology and changing customer needs are creating vibrant business opportunities for private-sector online education – or, eLearning, as it is more commonly labeled. Rising to meet these opportunities is a burgeoning cadre of eLearning companies. Each is striving to become a standout in the already highly competitive edTech market. These companies want to be known as the best online learning platform in their particular segment of that market.

Lecturio is a perfect example of this. Its niche is medical education. In 2015, Lecturio arrived on the scene, bringing with it an ambitious goal: to create the best English-language medical training courses in the world. In Lecturio’s view, there is an immense need for high-quality online education courses in English to train the next generation of physicians and clinicians everywhere in the world. Such courses, the company contends, have been heretofore nonexistent. Thus, there is a tremendously underserved market for this particular eLearning product, Lecturio believes.

In the scant few years since its debut, Lecturio now offers the world’s most extensive –and growing– library of online medical education lectures. More than 200,000 medical students from the U.S. and approximately 175 other countries have benefited from watching Lecturio online videos, of which there exist thousands and more are in the production pipeline. These impressively high-quality videos feature over 500 hours of lectures delivered by a "teaching team” consisting of acclaimed professors from Harvard Medical School, Yale School of Medicine, University of California at Los Angeles, University of Western Australia, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and University College London. Lecturio is carefully to note that the professors acting in their capacity as independent agents are its production partners, not the schools. Even so, it is a strikingly grand feather in Lecturio’s cap that the participating professors are affiliated with six of the world’s top 11 medical schools. In addition to the online videos, Lecturio users have access to accompanying reading and quiz materials. Together, the elements of the Lecturio package make it possible for students deprived of superior medical training to access precisely that and, as a result, attain their goals for a quality education and a more fulfilling professional life.

How Universities Plan To Compete With eLearning Providers Like Lecturio

1. Digitization

To compete with providers in the eLearning arena, wise universities are adopting digital teaching tools of their own. Among these tools are lecture capture, video conferencing, and digital data access.

The University of New South Wales, for instance, is utilizing high-performance, high-density Wi-Fi to let students watch video lectures before they come to class in the brick-and-mortar buildings on campus. The school believes this allows professors to make more efficient use of class time, as well as supplement live lectures and inspire more and better questions from students.

The University of Oxford takes this competition quite seriously, having committed to the creation of a Digital Strategy and Digital Strategy Group. Its mission is stated thusly: “The University will sustain and enhance its excellence in scholarship by embracing the opportunities afforded by digital technologies. The Digital Strategy will enable us to maintain a position of leadership by providing a foundation for the transformative enhancement of research, teaching and innovation through digital technologies and communications. Effective digital communications will also ensure that this digital shift benefits society on a national and a global scale.” (University of Oxford)

One of Oxford’s key moves in that direction was to create digital.bodleian. In so doing, portions of the Bodleian's extraordinary library collections are now accessible by a plethora of online users from around the world. With digital.bodelein, the University of Oxford aims to facilitate the discovery, creation, and discovery of knowledge. Other digital projects launched by Oxford can be found here.

Then there is Stanford University. The institution is currently digitizing its library in order to give students better access to all that it holds. “Stanford University libraries provide high quality digitization services for materials in a wide variety of formats from across the library collections, or from other cultural heritage institutions. Highly trained staff combines state-of-the-art digitization equipment with best practices to provide support for collection-level digitization projects, systematic digitization, as well as on-demand requests by Stanford researchers and other library patrons.” (Stanford Libraries)

At nearby San Jose State University, the learning experience is likewise being re-imagined for a bold digital future. Thanks to collaboration technologies from Cisco and to video-conferencing infrastructure, San Jose students can, on demand, review any classroom lecture they miss. Additionally, students located around the world can participate in San Jose classes in real-time; indeed, many of the school’s courses no longer require so much as a single warm body to occupy a seat inside a physical classroom on campus.

2. Innovative Education Projects: The Penn State Experiment

Innovative education projects that go beyond digitization are making their presence felt with increasing frequency. All of them represent new approaches that threaten the traditional university model. Let us briefly consider an experiment unfolding at Penn State to understand how this is so.

The experiment revolves around five Penn State College of Medicine students who function as curriculum design partners. It is their task to help to shape the content of their medical studies. More information about this first-of-its-kind experiment can be found here. What the experimenters are attempting to achieve is concisely captured in this statement: “The ability of first-hand experience to inform and reinforce education is nothing new, but, at the College of Medicine, the idea is being given top priority in a first-of-its-kind initiative that could serve as a national model to transform how medicine is taught.” (Penn State Medicine, 2016)

Will Traditional Universities Survive?

Traditional universities will survive, but only if they play their cards right. Fortunately for them, the hand they have been dealt includes at least a few trump cards. For example, it is hard to beat universities when it comes to the teaching of skills that can be learned only through in-person interaction. One such skill is the fine art of debating. Another is that of networking. Yes, these and other interpersonal skills can be learned from watching online videos. But the effect – and, hence, the value – of the learning experience is not quite the same as when student and teacher face one another in a physical room. It is therefore likely that traditional universities will play this trump card by offering students a combination of classroom and online studying opportunities, promising enrollers the best of both worlds. Such an arrangement would enable students to learn at their own pace and on their preferred schedule while also allowing more interaction with professors and fellow students on campus.

Traditional universities will make a mistake –and thereby reduce their chances of survival– if they fail to keep professors up-to-date on technological trends. Many instructors lack digital literacy, which robs them of confidence when it comes to integrating new technologies with their teaching. This places them at a serious disadvantage with their digital-native students. Thus, universities must accept the notion that they, not their employees or contractors, are principally responsible for the introduction and dispersal of digital teaching tools. Otherwise, their students will probably not receive the most benefit from available and emerging technology.

In the long run, much may yet happen to further alter the eLearning landscape or to redefine its outer contours. Technologically, there a few limits. It is conceivable therefore that top brands such as Harvard, Yale, and others might be one day delivering practical training in medicine and engineering to students who never set foot on campus, but instead receive learning through focused, specialized support centers deployed around the globe.

Those centers doubtlessly will brim with high-tech equipment to enable augmented reality, virtual reality, and practical work. There, students might treat a virtual-reality patient while under the watchful eye of an augmented-reality professor. Artificial intelligence might be involved as well by taking on some sizable portion of the instructional workload and by making student learning proceed along a straighter, surer path. Drivers that will affect how this exciting new world of education takes shape include the need to make teaching more scholastically effective and economically efficient. Other factors: student preferences, employer preferences, and regulatory requirements.

In summary, higher-education institutions in the short- to medium-term do not need to choose between online and traditional learning. What they must do is blend the two. Their goal for now should be to seek the proper balance between the two forms of instruction and to demonstrate that universities can deliver an outstanding digital experience on par with that which students take for granted in other areas of their online lives. It will be useful for universities to keep in mind that whatever they do, their eLearning endeavors must be oriented around the needs of the students – the customers, in other words – and not around the needs of the provider.

To the question “Will the traditional universities will survive?” the answer is yes. However, the answer is no if the universities cling exclusively to traditional ways of learning.