06/07/2012 12:09 pm ET Updated Aug 07, 2012

Higher Ed Online: Curriculum, Context, and the Culture of Innovation

Higher education around the world is changing, and its changing fast. The digital era, with online courses, electronic resources and real-time interaction with faculty thousands of miles away is going to drastically change the way we teach, interact, engage and ultimately learn. With programs such as MITx and similar initiatives started globally, knowledge will no longer be confined to the ivory towers but will reach those who have not had the opportunity or the means to access it. With increasing mobile phone access globally, "m-education" and innovative ways to access resources through cellular phones will continue to change the landscape of higher education.

Despite this remarkably exciting era in higher education globally, there is a danger lurking in the shadows of this revolution. Online education will have a significant influence on curriculum development and will have a long-term impact on fostering a culture of innovation in the developing world. While we are focusing on innovative tools to address the gaps in access, we are becoming less concerned about what education can and needs to do for innovation itself.

There is little doubt in anyone's mind that some of the biggest challenges seen in the developing world, particularly in engineering and health, need local sustainable innovative capacity. There is also an obvious direct correlation between local innovative capacity and strong higher education institutions that fuel this innovation. So these rigorous courses, from the best places in the world, should help these institutions in the developing world, create the best possible capacity to innovate. Right? Well, not exactly.

In the developing world, where supposedly these open-access and online programs will have the highest impact, there is a tendency to rely too much on the ready-made courses. Growing up in Pakistan and working very closely with a number of engineering institutions of higher learning in Africa and Southeast Asia, I am cognizant of attitudes that may develop towards these courses and resources. There is a general feeling that the courses developed at some of the best institutions in the world, for a number of reasons, will be better than the courses developed at home. There is some merit to that argument. But lost in this feeling, is the sense of what curriculum is meant to do, what is the role of local context and how does curriculum aid in developing and sustaining a culture of innovation.

A quick scan of engineering curricula in a number of developing world universities would suggest an uncanny similarity with the curricula at institutions of highest repute in the developed world. While learning from best practices is a robust strategy, it should not be at the cost of innovation. At a recent meeting with higher education officials in Ethiopia, I was told that the curriculum in agricultural engineering was identical to the one taught at an institution in Texas. While the Texas curriculum, for obvious reasons, focused on Longhorns, the need for that emphasis in a country without a single Longhorn seemed less obvious. Similar emphasis on subtleties of stem cell engineering where basic cell culture facilities were not available in the labs, or bio-nanotechnology in the absence of any Nanotech fabrication facility in the country are equally alarming. Now, I am not arguing that we should not teach about the latest trends and the coolest discoveries in our classrooms in the developing world, I am only proposing that we strike a balance between local context and the curriculum.

Recently, I had the opportunity to analyze curricula of biomedical engineering institutions in Pakistan. Among other things, I was alarmed at the lack of local context in the curriculum. As I probed further, I was told by one of the officials in charge of the curriculum that it was based on the curricula in biomedical engineering of the leading institutions around the world. That argument, in itself is very solid. But somehow, that does not fit well with the overall mission of the program, which is to foster biomedical innovation in Pakistan. Innovation in Pakistan, and the value of the local needs, market and context do not appear anywhere in the curriculum.

Institutions all around the world, and particularly in the developing world, have to ask tough questions at this junction of information overload. The balance between access and relevance, between the cool and the contextual is going to be hard to achieve. The curriculum at any institution in the US is neither designed nor optimized to meet the needs or challenges of Ethiopia or Pakistan. That said, the fundamentals of engineering are also universal. So how do we take some and leave the other? This is where the temptation needs to be reined in. The question that we have to ask is what is the real value of this digital educational revolution? How does an engineering institution in the developing world view it? Is it like a "walker" that helps us transition from crawling to walking and eventually running? Or is it a narcotic that is attractive, stimulating but at the end addictive and detrimental to local innovation? We should ask this question before it is too late.