February 1, 2013 5:37 pm

Welcome to the virtual university

Today’s students can download ebooks, Skype with a tutor and watch lectures on an iPad in their dorm
Illustration depicting a virtual university©Shonagh Rae

What exactly is the point of a university? Two decades ago, when I studied at Cambridge university, the answer seemed relatively clear: college was where you went to lectures, wrote essays, met tutors – and participated in “improving” activities such as sport, drama or debates (or wild parties).

But these days, my sense of conviction is starting to crumble. Last month I attended a debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos on the future of online education, and it was startling for two reasons. Firstly, the debate was utterly packed, even though it was held in an inconvenient location and competing with other, headline-grabbing topics (such as Angela Merkel discussing the Eurozone). The Davos elite considers this topic ultra hot.

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Gillian Tett

The second surprise was just how much emotion and passion the topic stirs. For behind the scenes (or deep in the campus), the internet is placing universities on the brink of dramatic disruption – and this change could rival, or even eclipse, the type of shocks that technology has produced in the worlds of finance, retail and media in recent years.

Think about it. Back when I was a student, I had to be physically present in Cambridge to listen to lectures, meet tutors and borrow books from the library. Today’s students can download ebooks, Skype with a tutor and watch university lectures on an iPad, in their campus dorm. And that last idea is no fantasy: L Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, for example, says that his institution started putting its courses online a decade ago, via so-called “open coursework”.

“Instead of coming to class many of [our students now] just look at material on open coursework,” he explains. And it is not just students on campus who can benefit: people outside university can join in some courses too. “In the past 10 years, MIT open coursework [has] accumulated 100 million individual learners and [this is] increasing by one million a month.”

In some senses, this is profoundly liberating. Sebastian Thrun, a professor at Stanford, for example, posted his Stanford course on artificial intelligence online a couple of years ago – and since then hundreds of thousands of people around the world have completed the course, including many who never previously dreamt of attending a university. Indeed, one of these online students even appeared at last month’s Davos debate: Khadijah Niazi, a 12-year-old Pakistani girl, announced from the stage that she has spent the last two years completing American science courses online, from universities such as Duke and Stanford, in her house in Lahore. “First I studied artificial intelligence from this Stanford professor, but then I discovered physics,” she explained. Or as Thrun noted: “It’s not the number of students [who take my course] that impresses me, but the type of student. If a 12-year-old in Lahore can do my course, then my life is worth living.”

But there is a downside to this revolution, too: these trends have the potential to devastate universities’ economic models. If students can now download a course on their iPad anywhere in the world, they might question why they need to attend an elite college at all, particularly in a country such as America where there is now almost $1tn of student debt outstanding – and many former students are struggling to find jobs. “Since 1980 the cost of higher education has gone up 400 per cent – the system is incredibly broken and needs to be reinvented,” says Peter Thiel, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and co-founder of PayPal. Or as Reif observes (with commendable honesty): “Today in America, typical colleges charge $50k for room and board and $40k for tuition … [But] once classroom instruction gets replaced, will college campuses still be able to charge $40K a year? I don’t think so.”

That, of course, is a terrifying prospect for many university employees. And some professors insist (or hope) that any revolution will be less dramatic than some observers predict. After all, as Reif adds, university is not just about coursework: it also provides valuable campus experiences (and, as Thiel cynically notes, acts like social “insurance” for middle-class kids, by conferring an elite stamp and network).

Moreover, as Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard university, told the crowd in Davos last week, it is hard to predict the pace of any revolution. “Distance learning” has existed for many years, but thus far it has not gained a scale that could topple existing universities. Nevertheless, not even Summers can deny the potential for change. If – or when – online learning really takes off, he says, “this has the potential to be hugely transformative”, and may upend numerous hallowed traditions, even at Harvard. “Why do you need semesters? Why do you need 10,000 different courses [at different universities] on calculus each autumn?”

Either way, I am just crossing my fingers that if this revolution occurs it will indeed flatten costs, just as surely as the internet has already done in so many other, once-protected areas of life. Better still, here’s hoping it takes place in the next decade – or before my own kids hit college age, iPad in hand.

gillian.tett@ft.com

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