FOR UNIVERSITIES AND OTHER INSTITUTIONS OF HIGHER EDUCATION, it’s a brave new and wireless world, as the Internet makes it possible for educators to reach far beyond the walls of a classroom and teaching anyone with a computer and Wifi connection. But what are the actual benefits and limitations of these virtual classrooms, and how should institutions respond to both the demand and the opportunity? Are there risks that come with this revolution? And for better or worse, will this revolution change our concept of traditional education or perhaps even redefine it? Most important: what will be the societal impact of this democratization of education?
On September 8, 2014, four international experts met in Oslo, Norway, to address these issues during the 3rd biennial Kavli Prize Science Forum. Entitled “Higher Education in the 21st Century: The technological revolution in open education,” the forum featured an opening address by the Norwegian Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, followed by presentations and discussion with Martin Bean (Vice-Chancellor, The Open University), Monique Canto-Sperber (President, Paris Science et Lettres), Mandla Makhanya (Principal and Vice-Chancellor, UNISA) and Sanjay Sarma (Professor, MIT). BBC science journalist and author Vivienne Parry led the program and moderate the panel discussion.
A New and Open World of Learning Higher education is a “good” for both the individual and society, and the technological revolution we are now witnessing makes higher education accessible at levels unimaginable just decades ago. Yet courses in a virtual classroom present many challenges, such as assessing how well students are actually learning, let alone putting to practice what they are taught. There is also the challenge of recreating some of the vital intangibles of a real classroom, such as the invaluable experience students get simply interacting and learning from each other. That’s along with developing the friendships, partnerships and networking opportunities that can help a student take an education and use it to actually advance his or her life.
New technological developments hope to facilitate these “networks” of relationships via new web-based forms of education and virtual meeting places, but the challenges remain. Certainly to meet the challenge, traditional institutions will need to adapt to this new landscape with web-based initiatives that can maintain both the quality of education, the ability to assess their students, and foster a “learning community of friends” that sustains students after the course are complete.
This year’s forum turned our attention to this transformative but complicated opportunity. Among the questions facing educators:Does the use of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) represent a new way of stimulating and recruiting both non-elite and elite students? If MOOCs are provided by historically great higher education institutions, how does one evaluate whether a student has mastered the materials? The institutions provide the content but not the mentoring, evaluations, grading, or credit. How will traditional higher educational institutions utilize for the wider advantage of all the power of the internet and the web? Will the development of web-based solutions extend to the full range of education and formation, or will they be limited to scientific learning? And if so, are there skills that are important for the industry and society that will be lost, and how will these skills and learning be assessed?
Millions of people all over the globe already use MOOCs, and every day 9000 more signs up for courses at Coursera, the largest provider of MOOCs today. Ahead of the Forum, the Norwegian Minister of Education and Research, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, said we should ask ourselves why? “I believe the flexible and innovative character of these courses ranks high among the reasons. We should take all these preferences seriously when we develop further policies for higher education, because we want to make higher education more attractive and accessible. But also, because by exploring and using MOOCs our universities can improve the quality of their education.”
This year also marks the bicentennial of the Norwegian constitution; consequently, the connection between education and democracy will also be discussed at the Forum. Education is fundamental to a democratic and prosperous society, and technological developments can increase the access to education and create new arenas for learning. However, will it contribute to the same national foundation that was important for the development of Western democracies and state-building in the 1800’s? And can it be an even greater contributor to the development of democracies?