Higher education is no longer locked in the ivory tower

  • Tue Aug 14th, 2012 6:39pm

<b>POINTS OF VIEW | </b>By Taso G. Lagos

The University of Washington joining an elite group of top-tier schools to offer free online classes is only one part of a larger change taking place in higher education.

When universities first started in the 12th century in Europe, lecturing meant a teacher reading aloud from a handwritten book and students copying down the dictation. Books were rare then, so this method of passing wisdom and learning from one generation to the next made sense. With Gutenberg’s printing press in the 1450s, this rote method no longer worked. Since books were now widely and sometimes even cheaply available, teachers actually had to explain what was in them and not just read them to the class for dictation. Lecturing set the basis of higher education for the next 500 years.

Now it’s about to go through another revolution. Thanks to the Internet, the ability to get the wisdom formerly locked up behind four walls allows anyone to be an “expert,” therefore the mere lecture no longer works as the centerpiece to higher education. The privilege of libraries and professors’ offices to contain the specialized books from which lectures could be drawn now comes to a close.

Not just lecturing to students, but guiding them is what the new educational system is about. This means teachers must possess strong presentation skills, speak clearly and powerfully, and use graphics and other visual devices. They must also engage students and do so across time zones and cultures and historical backgrounds, which is what online courses demand, and that also means more cosmopolitan-minded instructors.

Higher education will split between students who attend class and those who get their degrees online.

While the online courses are free now, in the near future they will cost a small fee. With huge numbers of subscribers (Stanford’s online “Artificial Intelligence” course last fall attracted over 160,000 “students”), even a nominal amount like $20 per student could net big revenues.

More importantly, it shifts teaching into a mode that absorbs the changing technological world around us.

This is exciting but also challenging. How we train teachers must change as much as how we think of education and universities — not simply as a set of buildings, but as central informational hubs that offer learning and knowledge and skills for anyone around the globe willing to absorb them.

One thing will not change, however: learning to truly think, to explore creatively, to reason reflectively and to develop intellectually. You still have to pass the exams.

Taso G. Lagos blogs at http://studyingabroadingreece.com and lives in Edmonds.