Universities can no longer rely on the traditional lecture but the technology that will allow them to replace it with a more active learning experience has yet to be embraced fully.
Roger Schank, director of Northwestern University's Institute for the Learning Sciences in Illinois, told a symposium on virtual universities in Cambridge yesterday that the traditional lecture might have made sense centuries ago, but was no longer appropriate.
"We have been living under the economics of education whereby there are not enough teachers for one-on-one education," he said. "That has just changed, but it is yet to be understood."
Professor Schank, an artificial intelligence and multimedia-based interactive training expert, said the internet would change the shape of education but he did not expect significant developments to emerge for at least five years.
All that had been done so far was to deliver existing courses online. But Professor Schank said that dissatisfaction with the "irrelevance" of the education system would force institutions to embrace technology that allowed students to "learn by doing".
Professor Schank has worked with Columbia University on its most popular course, economics. Through virtual scenarios, students learn how businesses work by manipulating various factors.
"They look more like movies or video games and let students play a role - the whole idea is to change the nature of the experience," he said.
Although such initiatives were not typical, some universities were taking a lead, he said. Carnegie Mellon was launching an online information technology degree that would be a "real alternative" to campus-based courses.
Another factor was the continued use by many institutions, particularly the elite, of methods originally developed to prepare students for academe.
Now that only a tiny fraction went on to an academic career, Professor Schank said such methods were no longer tenable. Students and employers would become increasingly resistant to the idea that postgraduate training was needed to develop business skills.
The notion that learning should be difficult was another idea that must be dispelled.
Professor Schank said video clips of experts explaining concepts could pop up in an online course when students were having difficulty.
Other speakers at the Jesus College symposium on tertiary-level e-learning, part of the Science and Human Dimension project led by John Cornwell, included Richard Wheeler, of the E-Medical School at Starlab, in Brussels, and John Naughton of the Open University.