The University of the Future

3 10 2011

An increasing number of academic lectures are now available online through iTunes University. I’ve sampled more than a few of them and find that listening to the lectures of others gives me ideas about how to increase the effectiveness of my own communication with students.

Downloadable lectures have been around for a few years now, so we now have charts similar to those used to record music sales. Some fascinating patterns have appeared. According to the BBC, the lectures of the Open University, which was designed to extend access to higher education for non-traditional students, are more popular than those of prestige institutions such as Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard.

There is no official league table of university download totals, but Apple says that other highly popular providers are Oxford, Yale, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of California Berkeley and South Florida.

Neither the Open University nor the University of South Florida are terribly famous, yet their podcasts are roughly as popular as those of famous universities.

The conclusion I would draw from this is that while technology will doubtless cause a major shake up in the higher education sector in the coming years, it is too easy to predict which universities will be the beneficiaries of this. Old and prestigious universities such as Oxford and Harvard clearly have an advantage in the downloadable lecture market, but it is possible for a relative obscure university to develop a worldwide reputation for high quality lectures.

About a month ago, economics blogger Matt Yglesias speculated that technology might destroy the traditional university. His reasoning is this: if everyone can listen to academic superstars lecture online, why bother listen to an average academic at your local average university? As he put it, universities might be the new newspapers.  He was referring to the financial problems faced by many newspapers in medium-sized cities in the United States, which have lost readers to the New York Times etc and to bloggers such as himself thanks to the advent of the internet. Twenty years ago, you were pretty much forced to read the Boise newspaper if you lived in Idaho. Today you can read the best newspapers in the world thanks to the internet. Read more here.

I’m not entirely convinced by Yglesias’s argument. Watching a lecture online just isn’t the same as being in a lecture theatre where you can put your hand up and ask a question. I know that some academics are worried about technological unemployment (i.e., that the podcasting of lectures might put most of us out of  our jobs). Those of us who have studied economic history know all about the weavers who once made a good income working on hand looms, before industrialization.

Perhaps the solution here is to shift from emphasizing lecturing to focusing on the sorts of activities where you absolutely need someone in the flesh and blood (e.g., leading seminar discussions,  one-on-one meetings with students in offices, and, of course, actual academic research). These are things that can’t ever be outsourced to a superstar lecturer on YouTube.

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