10/08/2012 06:20 pm ET Updated Dec 08, 2012

Mainframe vs. Personal Computer? Or Higher Education in the 21st Century

The Salzburg Global Seminar is in full swing here in Salzburg, Austria through Saturday, October 6, 2012. The topic this time is "Optimizing Talent: Closing Educational and Social Mobility Gaps Worldwide" and the agenda is filled with speakers giving their perspectives on how to achieve equity in higher education across the globe. One of the guests is Jim Applegate, vice president for program development at Lumina Foundation for Education. During an open discussion of the Seminar's participants, Applegate urged the participants to think radically differently about higher education, using an analogy featuring the mainframe computer versus the personal computer (PC).

According to Applegate, while computer designers were working feverishly to make a better mainframe during the 1970s, there was another group of designers creating the PC. Those companies interested in the mainframe computers ignored this group; might have even chuckled at the group, wondering why they were spending all of their time on the PC. While the companies focused on mainframe computers were relegated to the back burner (with the exception of IBM), those companies investing in the PC thrived. They saw the future and it looked vastly different and was changing rapidly. They were ready.

Applegate used the analogy to set up a profound statement: "We need to fundamentally and radically change higher education and this change is going to make us uncomfortable." He noted that the "professor on the stage" model does not work for most students and that colleges and universities need to adopt new technologies to advance learning in multiple contexts and among multiple constituencies. According to Applegate, the only way to address the massive inequity in the United States is to change our educational practice -- otherwise, we get the same outcomes, which are unacceptable.

The Lumina Foundation vice president suggested that traditional colleges and universities invest in new technologies for learning, new settings for learning, and new methods of delivery. Interestingly, one of the other participants in the Salzburg Global Seminars, Shai Reshef who is the president and founder of the University of the People, might offer just the new format that Applegate seeks for educating more of the nation. The University of the People is a nonprofit, online university (currently seeking full accreditation) that brings together 1,500 students from 120 countries; most of these students are racial and ethnic minorities from impoverished countries with little access to higher education; 20 percent of the students are from the U.S (but of those over 50 percent are foreign born). Through use of the Internet and social media technologies, students can earn both associate and bachelors degrees at virtually no cost. Classes are taught by volunteer professors and involve intensive peer learning via an online and social media format. The only fees involved are attached to taking course final exams and if students cannot afford the fees, the University of the People has a 'micro scholarship program' that raises money to cover their costs from ordinary people interested in providing higher education to others. The University of the People brings together many new ideas that make traditional higher education educators and administrators highly uncomfortable (Didn't Applegate call for that?). It includes social media (which makes many faculty members cringe), peer-to-peer teaching, online classes (which many faculty members don't respect), micro scholarships, a volunteer teaching force (which some will hold suspect) and mass education.

Of course, as a tenured professor at a rather old and very established university, it is hard for me to jump up and down in support for a major change -- a change that basically causes an earthquake through higher education -- as Applegate suggested. However, a shockwave could be what is needed to get the attention of those in higher education that want to make a difference but who are afraid or unwilling to give up their comfortable spaces. I do think it is possible to keep what is best about American higher education while letting go of the antiquated practices that no longer equip us for success, let alone greatness, in the 21st century. Both Applegate and Reshef give us food for thought. Those of us that hold fast to traditional modes of learning might benefit from opening our minds and rethinking the delivery of higher education. It will make us uncomfortable but we certainly do not want to be "off in a room talking to ourselves as the world goes by" like the mainframe computer companies.