Posted By Jonathan Cook,
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
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It was inevitable that someone would break ranks and go the whole hog. I suppose we should have anticipated that it would be in the discipline of computer science. It will be more challenging (but probably not impossible with currently emerging AI in grading) to do the same with English Literature, say.
I do think that this is a significant development, as it represents the next step along the route to virtual universities. This is now no longer strictly a "MOOC", as I understand the original concept, but mass online tuition. My guess is a next step after some time will be the equivalent of "mass customisation" as it emerged in B2C manufacturing – drawing on the benefits of scale combined with intelligent automation, to provide individuals with bespoke learning at prices lower than, and with equivalent certification of, the current batch model of education.
What happens to universities? Which universities? In particular, what happens to African universities? What then happens to the employment and training practices of employers, who currently take their employees (with greater or lesser degrees of satisfaction) from these universities? What happens to current faculty? The good ones? The weak ones? Where will the engine for knowledge generation and dissemination be, if universities are weakened or altered? I think it is quite conceivable, although not inevitable, that in twenty years there will be no recognisable African undergraduate universities left. I suspect graduate schools will remain in some form or other, as communities of research, but why would undergraduate degrees perceived to be of lesser quality be required in expensive plant when degrees from universities perceived to be of top quality are available to me in my home, or in an inexpensive venue with a "barefoot professor" trained to guide me in selecting content and facilitate my interaction with peers? Maybe we will return to the Middle Ages model of groups of scholars doing their own research, surrounded by classes of disciples working with them!
In that case, what is it that will be left? Society probably requires the social role that tertiary institutions play in the transition from childhood to adulthood and work. Clearly there will be something, and I suspect it will have to do with taking groups of young people through rites of passage that include guided selecting and working together on content (provided online); but also other activities to prepare them for professions.
Or maybe Georgia Tech's brave experiment will flop and we will return to convention, after yet another failed promise from computer-aided learning. Either way, I am sure the better universities will survive as there is magic in campus life that cannot (yet?) be recreated online. It's the weak universities that should feel threatened.
Jonathan Cook is the Director at GBSN member school, The Gordon Institute of Business Science