Universities need to wise up – or risk being consigned to history

The pandemic has shown that other ways of teaching and learning are possible

The thing about pandemics, observed the historian Yuval Noah Harari, is that they tend to accelerate history. A couple of years ago, appalled by the environmental, financial and working-time costs of running research conferences, I wondered aloud how long it would take for many of these events to be conducted online – and gloomily predicted that it would take another decade. And then in early 2020 along comes the coronavirus and – bang! – suddenly everything is on Zoom. Even, as every sentient being on the planet must know by now, meetings of the planning and environment committee of Handforth parish council. What’s come to mind a lot in watching these transformations is Ernest Hemingway’s celebrated explanation of how people go bankrupt: “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Way back in 1995, the Columbia University scholar Eli Noam published a remarkable article in the prestigious journal Science. Its title – Electronics and the Dim Future of the University – should have given the game away. Noam was writing about the likely impact of the internet on higher education. The new communications technology, he said, would indeed link the information resources of the globe. But while new technologies were likely to strengthen research, “they will also weaken the traditional major institutions of learning, the universities. Instead of prospering with the new tools, many of the traditional functions of universities will be superseded, their financial base eroded, their technology replaced and their role in intellectual inquiry reduced. This is not a cheerful scenario for higher education.”

Noam’s point was that the new technologies could not be ignored because they involved a reversal of the historic direction of information flow that determined how universities functioned. “In the past,” he wrote, “people came to the information, which was stored at the university. In the future, the information will come to the people, wherever they are. What then is the role of the university? Will it be more than a collection of remaining physical functions, such as the science laboratory and the football team? Will the impact of electronics on the university be like that of printing on the medieval cathedral, ending its central role in information transfer? Have we reached the end of the line of a model that goes back to Nineveh, more than 2,500 years ago? Can we self‐reform the university, or must things get much worse first?”

When that article came out I was teaching at the Open University, and to me and my academic colleagues Noam’s article seemed like an elegant, pithy statement of the obvious. This was because we were running a university that had many, many thousands of students, none of whom ever came near the campus. So in that sense, we were already living in the future that Noam was envisaging. But what was astonishing – to me, anyway – was that no one in the conventional university sector paid much notice to the warning. Every [ … ]

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1 month ago

The American education industry hasn’t been about learning for 40 years.

Ms Merit
1 month ago

sure, that’s the problem, online education.
America’s education surrendered… not to equity…
but the complete intentional rotting away of standards…
dragging ALL the country’s students down…
ever since the Dim/Libs took over education in the 1960’s.
And all to make things easier for certain “folks.”

R Bases
1 month ago

Young Americans believe in propaganda and hollywood fake science rather than educating themselves on the real deal.

1 month ago

The problem is not online or physical buildings.

Public Education is nothing more than indoctrination. Higher education is even worse than that. We are graduating people from college that are functionally illiterate and have no skills. 

Frying Pan
1 month ago

Racist or not the sad truth is the Civil Rights Act destroyed public education.

Big Blue
1 month ago

The education industry is just screaming to be replaced . 
No practical skills just a bunch of virtue signaling from Antifa anarchists . 

1 month ago

Higher education…Knowledge? You mean indoctrination



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