The rampant spread of technology-mediated learning has set off fits of hype and hand-wringing—yet the U.S.'s traditional centers of higher education have mostly failed to confront the pace of change and the implications for students. There is probably no way anyone can keep up with this transformation: the technology is simply evolving too rapidly. Nevertheless, we keep trying. Will these developments truly serve our goals for advanced education? We need to know urgently.
But reacting too quickly could be as bad as adapting too slowly. As soon as the newest experiment in higher-learning technology is announced, would-be experts race to declare its success or failure. Even if their snap guesses prove correct in the near term, any alleged breakthrough will likely be sent to the scrapyard before long to make way for the next educational techno-marvel. Given what we know about the progress of technology, we need to ask which advances will persist longer than a few months.
Higher learning has three fundamental objectives: knowledge dissemination, intellectual development and “experiential growth”—mental maturation, in other words. As the field of educational technology grows, these functions must all be addressed.
The first item—dissemination of knowledge—has traditionally been the province of classrooms and lecture halls. Nowadays even the most venerated names in education are touting what they call MOOCs. These “massive open online courses” are the online equivalent of brick-and-mortar lecture halls, only with better functionality (such as the ability to pause and rewind), free tuition and unlimited seating.
That sounds good, but to see the real future of knowledge dissemination, we must look even farther ahead. Although adaptive learning technologies are still in their infancy, they are already displaying huge promise. The idea is to tailor the teaching process to each student's progress. As the tools develop, adaptive learning will bring seismic shifts to the instruction process. Companies such as Knewton and systems such as the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon University are just a hint of what's to come. These technologies will provide a whole new mode of instruction, and it will be less expensive and more effective than the old “sage on a stage” model. Although many traditional universities are addicted to the tuitions they draw with big lecture halls, online institutions and companies such as Western Governors University, UniversityNow and StraighterLine have begun demonstrating a viable alternative. The mainstream academic world should take notice.
The second priority is students' intellectual development. People often assume, mistakenly, that this area is beyond the scope of technological improvement. They see no substitute for the one-on-one student-teacher bond exemplified by the high-touch methods of the so-called Oxbridge tutorial system. But can even a very good mentor offset the shortcomings of most present-day institutions, where instruction is delivered course by course, with no core curriculum? The scaffolded curriculum at Minerva Schools at the Keck Graduate Institute, the San Francisco–based university that I helped to found in 2013, teaches a core set of concepts and exercises them throughout all classes in every subject.
The third and final task remains the big challenge for educational technology: personal development via experiential learning. For students, this is the lifelong process of becoming a more cultured, accomplished and compassionate human being. Traditional universities try to help students along through hands-on work in laboratories and apprenticeships, and they encourage undergraduates to take summer internships and spend semesters abroad. Nevertheless, students mostly remain anchored to their campuses. Even now technology should make it possible for a student to use the world as her or his campus.
Given the technological transformation taking place on all sides, universities need to think seriously about their medium-term strategic plans. What will universities look like in 2025? The changes will be consequential—so consequential, in fact, that stalling could jeopardize the future of higher education.