The University of 2030

February 01, 2009

Posted in Higher Ed.

Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book. Peter Drucker, Forbes

That was 1997.

Today, students don’t need to memorize because they can pull it up on Google.

They can access course materials and watch lecture videos from their dorm rooms, filmed minutes or hours before.

They cite Wikipedia in their research papers (much to the consternation of my wife and other faculty).

None of these existed in 1997. Technology – and the culture it has created – has altered the landscape of higher education.

It’s natural to wonder what’s horizon. What will education be like in 20 or 30 years?

Small Changes through New Tools

There are a lot of groups asking and answering this question, if only at a tactical level. The Flat Classroom project wants to “lower the classroom walls so that two or more classes are joined virtually to become one large classroom.” Classroom 2.0 is helping educators “learn new ways to integrate online instructional resources in the classroom and engage students in curriculum lessons.”

Some argue that our model for teaching will change, eliminating the one-way flow of information that characterizes a lecture. Instead, we should pay attention to what students do outside the classroom that affects learning. The Department of Psychology at the University of Strathclyde has used online group activities to supplement the lectures, with significant results.

This change is already occurring, and much faster than people realize. In the late 90s, higher-ed leaders sensed changes on the horizon. Since then, significant technical barriers have been overcome. Connection speeds, processing power, and storage costs have continued to improve dramatically, making breakthroughs possible.

Medium Changes through Re-organization

But the change extends even deeper, and some are questioning the validity of the University structure itself. Nature Magazine wrote about the need to examine the static nature of the department system to improve collaboration and better prepare graduates for a flexible future. Even now, careers shift and appear so quickly that undergraduate training is often obsolete by graduation. So the purpose of a university education isn’t necessarily vocational, but rather, “how does it serve a society in which people may have to retrain and recreate their careers throughout their adult lives?”

Big Changes through Mergers and Acquisitions

James Duderstadt, President Emeritus of the University of Michigan, takes it a step further. In The Future of the University in an Era of Change, he argues that universities will be forced to evolve from “faculty-centered” to “learner-centered.” He speculates that some schools will close entirely, while other schools might be swallowed up in acquisitions. He even suggests that some could merge, such as the Big Ten combining into a single conglomerate institution.

University: 2030

It’s silly to believe we can accurately predict what the University of 2030 will look like. But it is possible to develop a culture of innovation and tolerance for new methods and the technologies to make them happen. Strathclyde serves as an example, not of how we should be teaching, but of how we should be experimenting with new approaches. Universities can’t just observe these changes taking place on their very campuses. These institutions must plan for change. The culture must embrace new ideas and models of learning, all the while measuring what works best.