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The Impending Demise of the University

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Last week I wrote a substantial essay for the Edge arguing that the universities are entering a period of crisis.

I argued that is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn. The reaction on Twitter, mainly from students has been enormously positive. So far two academics have written critiques of my views at the Edge.

However because the Edge does not enable readers to comment, I'd like to know what you think. Please read a summary below and then check out the Edge article and let the world know what you think here on HuffPost:

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still common. It's part of 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.

Students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities are to remain relevant, they will have to change.

Professors will have to abandon the traditional lecture, and start listening and conversing with the students -- shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one. They should be encouraging students to discover for themselves, and learn a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorizing the professor's store of information. They need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the university. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students' individual learning styles.

Some leading educators are calling for this kind of massive change; one of these is Richard Sweeney, university librarian at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He says students are smart but impatient. They like to collaborate and they reject one-way lectures. While some educators view this as pandering to a generation, Sweeney is firm: "They want to learn, but they want to learn only from what they have to learn, and they want to learn it in a style that is best for them."

This is not fundamentally about technology per se. Rather it represents a change in the relationship between students and teachers in the learning process.

In the old model, teachers taught and students were expected to absorb vast quantities of content. Education was about absorbing content and being able to recall it on exams. You graduated and you were set for life - just "keeping" up in your chosen field. Today when you graduate you're set for say, 15 minutes. If you took a technical course half of what you learned in the first year may be obsolete by the 4th year. What counts is your capacity to learn lifelong, to think, research, find information, analyze, synthesize, contextualize, critically evaluate it; to apply research to solving problems; to collaborate and communicate.
This challenge to the existing order raises a deeper issue -- the purpose of the university

"The time has come for some far reaching changes to the university, our model of pedagogy, how we operate, and our relationship to the rest of the world," says Luis M. Proenza, president of the University of Akron.

He asks a provocative question: Why should a university student be restricted to learning from the professors at the university he or she is attending. True, students can obviously learn from intellectuals around the world through books, or via the Internet. Yet in a digital world, why shouldn't a student be able to take a course from a professor at another university?
Proenza thinks universities should use the Internet to create a global centre of excellence. In other words, choose the best courses you have and link them with the best at a handful of universities around the world to create an unquestionably best-in-class program for students. Students would get to learn from the world's greatest minds in their area of interest - either in the physical classroom, or online. This global academy would be also be open to anyone online. This is a beautiful example of the collaboration I described in the book I co-authored, Wikinomics.

The digital world, which has trained young minds to inquire and collaborate, is challenging not only the lecture-driven teaching traditions of the university, but also the very notion of a walled-in institution that excludes large numbers of people. Why not allow a brilliant grade 9 student to take first-year math, without abandoning the social life of his high school? Why not deploy the interactive power of the internet to transform the university into a place of life-long learning?

Read the full article at The Edge.

Don Tapscott is the author of 13 books on new technology in society, most recently Grown Up Digital. He recently completed a $4 million dollar investigation of the Net Generation. He is Chairman of the think tank nGenera Insight and an Adjunct Professor at the Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. On Twitter @dtapscott