How online education is influencing university redesign, innovation

At the Economist's Ideas Economy: Human Potential Conference in New York, leaders in the field of online learning discussed how this field is prompting colleges, students, and entrepreneurs to rethink how the world experiences higher education.
Written by Reena Jana, Contributor

The fall semester is in swing at college campuses across the U.S. and around the globe--and on laptop screens, too. Distance-learning in the higher-education realm is an area that both top universities and ambitious open-source initiatives are investing time and resources in. A panel at The Economist's Ideas Economy: Human Potential conference in New York on September 14 asked whether technology can scale education as a business. The issue has implications for the design of campuses and learning environments, too--as well as the "design" of classes and how they are offered.

There's been a lot of recent buzz around online education. Consider Stanford University's free online class, "Introduction to Artificial Intelligence," which will begin on October 10th with more than 100,000 people signed up. Or the recent partnership between New York University and University of the People, a two-year-old site that offers courses online without charging any fees, to scout for potential students in need who would then be invited to apply to NYU's Abu Dhabi campus and possibly receive financial aid.

At the Ideas Economy: Human Potential conference panel, University of the People's founder, Israeli entrepreneur Shai Reshef, joined Ben Wildavsky, Senior Scholar, Research and Policy at the Kauffman Foundation, and Angel Cabrera, president of Thunderbird School of Global Management, known for its distance learning programs and numerous locations, to discuss the future of higher education, as influenced and disrupted by online technology and culture. Here are some of the main points on how online higher education may lead to innovation in the university experience:

  • "The campus won't go away, but it will have to reinvent itself," said Cabrera. "We will need to redesign learning spaces in a dramatic new way, to elicit connections" between students and faculty, rather than base campus structures around the old model of many lecture halls.
  • "We need to be rethinking 'what is a university?'" echoed Wildasky, who pointed to the idea of "unbundling" the university in terms of offering different products that universities traditionally feature, such as professors, classes, credentials, and social interaction--separately. A university's offerings could also be offered in a blended way, with some online, some offline courses.
  • Scaling education via online technologies may be "more important outside the United States," said Reshef. "In other countries, if a student doesn't do well on a placement exam, there is no where to go. Or there are women who are not going to higher educational institutions, or villagers who can't afford to move." He suggested that in the future, universities may be redesigned as both "global" and "local" institutions, and that in the developing world, it may be wiser for governments to not invest in remaking traditional-style universities that are copycats of Harvard or the Sorbonne, but instead invest in less-expensive, accessible online learning instead.
  • New models for educating those in developing nations and areas without basic infrastructure resources are starting to emerge, said the discussion's moderator, Adrian Wooldridge, Management Editor and Schumpeter Columnist at The Economist. "I recently visited an embryonic university in South Africa. There, if you are a very poor person, you can't afford free education--there is no web access, no computer," he said. The solution Wooldridge witnessed was a combination of call center and university. At this hybrid site, students were hired to answer phones, and later could use the computers they worked on to access online classes and other educational materials.

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