The word “university” would seem to imply the universe, infinity, no limitations. The reality of today’s universities is quite different.
Limitations of the Traditional System
University today is an institution with severe limitations. There are limitations on who gets in, limitations on who is teaching courses, limitations on what courses are offered, limitations on which courses you can enroll in, limitations on when courses are offered and on and on.
What’s more, universities are tremendously expensive. The average cost in North America is in excess of $25,000 per year per student, or around $5,000 for an 8 month course of study in one subject. In Canada, for example, 6.1% of GDP is spent on “higher education”.
The Potential of Online Education
The Internet is a much more promising model. The possible methods of delivery of educational content include video, audio, text, web conferences, blogs, podcasts, forums, and other forms of interactive learning.
Face to face meetings can also be efficiently organized through the web. Age, nationality and language need not restrict this interaction. And the web is accessible 24/7, 12 months of the year, and anyone can access the Internet from anywhere.
Professors, experts, coaches, and facilitators who make their skills and knowledge available on the Internet can choose what to charge, how to charge, or what to make available free of charge. The cost of these services will certainly be much less than the cost of courses at a university.
Interactive functionality and methods of searching for, storing and then reviewing bits of knowledge can make this environment a more effective learning space than the University lecture hall.
If the Internet takes a larger and larger share of education space, governments and other third party funders may well pay for some or most of these costs, just as they do for established educational institutions today. And the cost will be much lower, and the reach much broader, than the model of maintaining students at college.
Self Motivated Learning
The argument against “e-learning” is that learners soon lose motivation. However, e-learning methodology is improving just as a new generation of learners is more comfortable connected electronically than sitting in a class room.
What is more, we are not talking about elementary school children here. The mature life-long learner, whether 18 or 80, should be interested in what he or she is learning or else do something else. I know a large company in France that will pay for formal language classes for its employees, only if the employee spends 6 months on an inexpensive self-study program.
In other words, why should they pay for a learner who is not motivated. The same question needs to be asked by third party funders of college students, namely parents, tax-payers, foundations, alumni, corporations etc..
But there is another piece which will go a long way to help with motivation, accreditation or evaluation; the ticket that everyone goes to university to get.
Society (and the learner) needs that “proof” of what the student really knows. I foresee an evaluation system developing via the web that will be independent of the providers of educational content.
These independent evaluators can include private coaches, or organizations administering various forms of essay and test correction. Test results, and correctors’ and coaches’ comments, can accumulate on a digital education profile (or portfolio) of the learner’s activities, which would also include records of written and oral presentations.
Details such as evaluation, verification and standards for the testers and coaches will have to be addressed. I am, however, confident that the economic cost and fairness of such a system would be superior to the university system that exists today.
Finally, if a truly universal “University” can be created on the web, this will provide peer inspired motivation. Perhaps we will achieve the vision of Ivan Illitch of world-wide, interlocking, learning “convivia “, communities of learning communities.
Steve Kaufmann is a former Canadian diplomat, who has had his own company in the international trade of forest products for over 20 years. Steve founded The Linguist Institute Ltd. in 2002 to develop a new approach to language learning using the web. The new LingQ system for learning multiple languages is now available in Beta. Steve speaks nine languages fluently and is currently learning Russian using LingQ. Steve maintains a blog on language learning.