Prepare for a shock

September 3, 1999

Will profiteering firms and the internet kill off universities? No, says Donald Norman, but they could eclipse campus teaching

There is a new model of education in the land. Crass, money-making companies are entering the field. Universities are scrambling to respond. Suddenly, universities speak of "brands" and ownership of their intellectual products. Some predict the death of the university. Can this be true? Will the university, an institution that has existed for over 1,000 years, disintegrate before the force of the mighty internet?

I represent both sides of the debate. I am an academic, professor emeritus of one of the top research universities in the United States. But now I am with the profiteers, president of a division of a distance-learning institution, UNext.com. As a good academic, I have a mixed response to the death threat. On the one hand, don't be silly: the university will be with us for a long time. On the other hand, these new forces are likely to have a major impact on the teaching side of the university.

For those who predict the death of the university fail to understand its true roots. Teaching is only a small part of the life of the modern research university. Instead, the faculty see their main responsibility as pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge, whether it be of ancient history or the nature of the universe.

Professors are not taught how to teach, but rather learn by a sort of osmosis, in which they imitate the way they were taught (by similarly untaught professors). It is this that is under attack, and rightly so, for even those professors who truly care about teaching know little about the art. Promotion at the best universities depends upon one's scholarly publications, not upon teaching ability.

In fact, the traditional university suffers from serious defects. First, because teaching is not the primary function, at least not as far as the professors are concerned, costs are high. The university is very labour intensive, for the style of teaching has hardly changed in the past 1,000 years, with the most important innovation being the invention of the blackboard 200 years ago.

Second, the university has a narrow view of scholarship: the more irrelevant the discipline, the more it is prized. In many universities, even professions such as law and medicine are frowned upon and painting, popular writing and acting downgraded in favour of the analysis of art, literature and theatre.

And then there are those entrance exams. Although exams measure only a very small part of a person's abilities, they remain the major selection method in university systems across the world.

The style of teaching is also one that is best suited for the professor, least suited for the student. The length of the course is that which makes scheduling of the instructors and rooms easiest, with the year divided into terms, and the lectures into hour-long slots. Note that lectures are the easiest form of delivery for the professor, one of the least effective for the learner. Finally, the university is geared around full-time students who live close by.

The result is a system that is expensive, elitist, and aimed at the first third of today's ever-increasing healthy life-span.

The opportunity for innovation seems clear: take the best course materials developed by universities and offer them to everyone. Let people learn throughout their lives, when the need arises rather than when it is convenient for institutions. And make the length and style of the course whatever is most appropriate to the topic and the student. Make the quality of instruction paramount.

Hence the rise of distance learning. The best example is the UK's Open University, which has been very successful as a teaching institution, a bit less successful in convincing the traditional academic community that its graduates are worthy of serious consideration. Pity.

Hence the rise of for-profit companies, seeking to fill the voids left by the traditional university. My company is an example. We work with some of the world's leading business schools (London School of Economics, Columbia School of Business, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University and Stanford University) to develop courses. The education will be available to all, regardless of age, location or even time of day. We intend no entrance requirements.

Yes, we will use the internet, for this allows global instruction. We will employ highly skilled instructors qualified to teach - cajoling, tutoring, mentoring.

"But what about social interaction?" the traditionalist will object. "What about face-to-face contact with the professor, with other students? What about the libraries, the bars?" These are valid criticisms. The technologies of distance learning cannot replace these. We believe that students who can afford to be unemployed for several years and to move from their homes to the university should do so.

But not everyone can do this. Once beyond the years of formal education, most people cannot spend the time or money required to go to a traditional university. Many students outside the industrial nations do not even have access to high-quality universities.

These new educational methods need not replace the traditional university, they can complement it. But the nature of the university is apt to change. I believe that, in the end, these profit-making institutions will do a better job of education than the university, for after all, quality of education is their major reason for existence.

Will universities die? I doubt it, but they are about to undergo substantial change.

Donald A. Norman is president of UNext Learning Systems and professor emeritus at the University of California, San Diego.

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