In the late sixties and seventies, we wanted universities to become more accessible. We founded the Open University, the Université du Québec, and many other universities with accessibility as part of their mandate.
The stated goal was to make degrees more accessible. We succeeded.
Yet, we are now facing an intriguing paradox due to this success. Technology, by making access easier than ever to access educational content, is also shaking the very foundation of the University. As an example of this transformation, Michael Nielsen was pointing out this morning that you can watch 120 hours of lectures on Physics by Lenny Susskind, for free on YouTube. You are in deep trouble if what you are selling in 2009 are mass-produced lectures. The market price just went through the floor.
Lance Fortnow pointed us to a short essay by Martin Rees about technology and universities. Rees’ point is that technology creates a more level playing field as far as location is concerned. A hundred years ago, airplanes made it possible for Indian Mathematicians to travel to Cambridge where they could be taken seriously. In some sense, airplanes made Indian Mathematicians more globally competitive, though only marginally so. The Web—with repositories such as arXiv—pushes this idea further, an order of magnitude further. After all, Gregori Perelman won a million dollar and the equivalent of a Nobel prize by posting a few papers on arXiv.
The revolution is all around us, not just in Science. Recently, an unknown writer, Sam Landstrom, posted his novel MetaGame on the Amazon Kindle. No publisher, no ad campain. Sales rank of his novel? 540. Considering that Amazon reported selling more ebooks than paper books over Christmas, I am sure many authors envy Landstrom success. Yet, Landstrom did not need an office New York City to either write or publish his book. For all I know, he lives in his parents’ basement.
Thankfully, bona fide Universities have some form of monopoly on University degrees. Yet, like Rees, I think that we are coming to the end of the road for mass universities:
Traditional universities will survive insofar as they offer mentoring and personal contact to their students. But it’s less clear that there will be a future for the ‘mass university’ where the students are offered little more than a passive role in lectures (generally of mediocre quality) with minimal feedback.
One thing is clear to me: The value of a lecture in front of 80 students—or the equivalent as a webcasted show—is exactly zero. (From an educational point of view.)