Sure, universites must go online. But that's just a start.

Huge lecture halls are a waste of space. Forget lugging expensive, heavy textbooks around. Sleep in: your old 8am class is now online. We’re all very aware of how technology is rapidly changing big media and the way information is disseminated. Since information is essentially education, what we learn from media may apply to colleges and universities as well. It comes down to this bellwether: if big name (big brand) universities do not adapt then smaller ones will come up from behind to take the lead, or at least diminish their larger rival’s perceived value — exactly like blogs and social media has done for mainstream media.

It’s no secret or surprise that universities need to reinvent themselves, as big mainstream media is doing now. The true answer must involve more than just providing recorded lectures as podcasts and administering online exams — just as the answer for big media involves more than just uploading their content to a website. Of course, certain classes like labs and others that require hands-on and face-to-face interaction will always need a physical room and location. There will always be professors and teachers. In that way, our image of a university and college will never change. But the ways in which students are reached — and more importantly, the way students learn — must evolve.

If you are in education, do not fear. Universities will always make money. These changes I’m talking about are about adapting, not obsolescence. People will always need college credits and diplomas. Universities will always be a place for research, invention and intellectual growth. In other words, universities will always have customers.

The days are already gone when information originates from a single source (whether that be a newspaper, magazine or TV) and is sent out to the masses. Now news comes from The People. News outlets are scooped by Twitter. Blogs can have equal footing with a national magazine. The question is: how will this affect learning on the collegiate level.  I’m not sure anyone has the answer yet.

Last fall, as the leaves turned bright colors on a crisp fall day and students walked across quads all over America, David Wiley, a Brigham Young University professor of Psychology and Instructional Technology, stood up before a room full of administrators and professors with a dire prediction: “Your institutions will be irrelevant by 2020.” That’s a tough message to swallow.

Access to first-rate information in the form of digital media, video lectures, and audio is becoming more and more available. Of course, it wasn’t always that way. When I was young and had a question my parents couldn’t answer, they directed me to our home set of Encyclopedia Britannica’s, complete with Year Book updates. The well-used burgundy books still line the shelves in my childhood home’s library. These days I never consult an encyclopedia as a first source for information, and I doubt if you do either. When I have a question the answer is always in my pocket on my iPhone or on a nearby computer, only seconds away. Accurate answers (Yes. Highly accurate answers, despite what some well-intentioned but skeptical Luddites may have you think) exist on websites and in videos and audio files and are not limited to a few elite sources.

What if in the future all information is free? That’s not such a radical or dangerous concept. Textbooks could be replaced with digital information that is able to be updated quickly and inexpensively. Professors assign links instead of chapters for reading. Professors would be published in professionally edited, copyleft, searchable and peer-reviewed online magazines funded by tuition and advertising. A “class” may be made up of students from across the world instead of just 30-60 who walk into a classroom or lecture hall. Collaboration and the sharing of knowledge will happen faster. Answers to simpler questions will be available easier, leaving time and energy for deeper examination. Wiley has even taught classes where students complete their homework in blogs that are open for anyone to read. Professors will serve in the same way they do now, as guides and stewards of scholarship. The key change will be the scope of information that professors will be able to access and lead their students to will be practically infinite.

In addition to the new pathways for information distribution there is also a more basic problem with colleges and universities. Education has become far too expensive for most families and many carry student loan debt well into their professional lives. Parents either have to save, starting at the birth of their children, to pay for college or they need to take out loans so large that may eclipse the cost of their home. Not only that, college tuition is still expected to increase at 7% a year. That’s not a formula for continued success and is doomed to collapse just like an overinflated housing market.

Change is happening, established models are transforming and history is being written at a seemingly faster rate than ever before. Universities are now faced with a unique challenge: they need to become students themselves and recreate their own business model.


  1. Erika
    June 24, 2009

    Very interesting post. It is strange to think about the process and how things will likely change in the future. I find the thought of one professor teaching many students around the world to be so intriguing, let alone moving lessons from textbooks to online.

    I am friends with one of my college professors on Facebook and I have noticed this year that he has started to have his students post their projects on there for him to grade. So not only will the teacher be able to give their input on the video or design project, but they also get feed back from their peers. I thought this concept was great! I like to check out the students’ work to see what they are up to.

    Can’t wait to see what’s next!

  2. Helen
    June 29, 2009

    It really does make more sense to have textbooks available online because of the cost involved in updating the content and re-printing. It’s nice to know that the internet is turning into a more reliable source since when I was a kid they told us to “never look on the internet for information because you don’t know if you can trust it”.

    It’s funny to think that now because the amount of information on the internet is so vast that I don’t feel like it’s that hard to find reliable information about ANYTHING I want to know. In fact, my experiences with surfing the web have been quite the opposite. It’s when I look for information and CAN’T find something that I am completely caught off guard. A big change of pace from 14 years ago.