Universities keep building, but tech disruptions will sink some

UBC's Vancouver campus

Every time I visit UBC and see all those cranes relentlessly lifting new academic buildings into place, I wonder, “Why do they need all these buildings? Why do students keep coming out here, paying ever-higher tuition fees, when they could stay home and learn the same things from better professors, online, for free?”

Massive open online courses (MOOCs), a concept first developed at the University of Manitoba, have opened up university-level courses to hundreds of thousands of learners who never have to set foot on a campus. They can get lectures from renowned professors, along with peer feedback, and assessments of their work – all the benefits of enrolling on campus, without the cost and commute.

One of the pioneers of the next wave of online learning is UBC’s own Erica Frank, whose NextGenU.org is often referred to as the world’s first free university because it offers free medical and public-health courses in partnership with accredited Canadian and U.S. universities.

“All we need are peers taking the course at the same time and skills-oriented mentors,” said Frank. “You don’t have to sit together on a university campus with thousands of other people to do that. There’s no reason why we can’t have accessible higher education for everyone in the world with a laptop and access to peers and mentors. We’re doing this work in 131 countries already.”

NextGenU just landed a $16 million endowment and is teaming up with some of the world’s leading medical organizations to train 60,000 family medicine residents in Sudan – including measuring their patients’ outcomes and automatically providing ongoing lifetime training, creating what Frank believes will be the most integrated health sciences education system ever.

“The exclusive role of a single bricks-and-mortar setting as the most available and attractive option for legitimate knowledge transfer for everyone is a thing of the past,” Frank suggested.

That’s now a widely accepted view, which is why so many universities are struggling to change course and leave simple knowledge transfer to online sources that can do it better, often customized to individual students’ styles of learning. Many of UBC’s lecture halls are being renovated to open up spaces between tiers of seats, so students can turn around and talk to each other as they work in small groups during their new-era “lectures.”

Universities are also testing their nimbleness in reaching out to new partners (like UBC and BCIT’s joint degree in biotechnology). They’re embracing technology that can provide personalized learning to students still showing up for the structure of campus life. And they’re going after new “customers” like lifelong learners, continuing and professional education “students,” pre-university students and ever more international students who want in-person cross-cultural experiences.

A key challenge is retraining professors to become group leaders who, instead of lecturing, help students actively learn together as problem-solvers rather than as passive fact-sponges. It’s not easy for old-school professors.

“Some people just aren’t going to make this bridge,” cautioned UBC computer science professor Gregor Kiczales.

The same goes for universities and colleges. The accepted wisdom is that there’s going to be a big shakeout in the number of higher educational institutions in North America, including in B.C., as these tech changes tighten their grip on the laggards. Some say the survivors will be the high-profile campuses with great reputations, or others that, like successful businesses, find niche markets.

And then will come the next wave of disruption: the challenge from online organizations like Mozilla, which is offering an electronic alternative to a degree as a legitimate credential for employers. Mozilla’s Open Badges provides links to electronic evidence of a person’s skills or knowledge gained anywhere – much more sophisticated, diverse and complete than a degree.

When post-secondary institutions lose their monopoly on degrees, all bets are off. 

Peter Ladner (pladner@biv.com) is a co-founder of Business in Vancouver.