The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It’s a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.
Was the broadcast model ever effective for a plurality of students? Hasn’t it always been a substandard method?
Of course, universities play an important role in the sorting of individuals in society, through the admissions process and the awarding of degrees. One of the most important roles of the university is to screen human capital for future employers, and more broadly stratifying society. Those who get good marks in high school and on their SATs, who are proven to be hard workers and have other talents, get into the best universities. Those who graduate — better still with distinction — have a credential, to get the most desirable jobs or entrance to graduate programs. They have proven they have a degree of discipline and that they’re prepared to play by the rules.
But a credential and even the prestige of a university is rooted in its effectiveness as a learning institution. If these institutions are shown to be inferior learning environments to other alternatives their capacity to credential will surely diminish.
That is what college is for: filtering applicants for employers – it doesn’t matter what they’ve learned or haven’t learned in college. Practically none of it will apply in the work force. Organizations just need a way to process applications, and universities provide that. At enourmous cost to students.
Small, more participatory liberal arts colleges have been around for decades, arguably providing better education than their “designer label” counterparts “taught in large class sizes by teaching assistants, largely through lectures” (as Brockman put it). It hasn’t exactly shaken the foundations yet.
Will the Internet and online education really be the breakthrough that undermines universities? I don’t know.