Why I... believe virtual universities can remove teaching drudgery

August 29, 2003

It took universities some 200 years to change from medieval theological institutions that explained the world in terms of the Bible to the modern university that explains the world in terms of science, in the language of the nation-state that supports them. Now universities are changing again, albeit more quickly, as they become increasingly global and virtual and intent on explaining the world in ways that sell.

Perhaps the most obvious and inevitable development is that there will be vastly more students wanting to go to university. A hundred years ago an elite 1 per cent of the population in developed countries went to university. Now their governments promise that 50 per cent of secondary school pupils will have access in future. There is also a growing demand from older people as the idea of education as a lifelong activity takes hold, and from people in developing countries who see education as a way out of poverty.

There is no way that this growing global demand for university education can be met with conventional classrooms. The infrastructure for expansion will be information technology: not the internet and computer technology universities use today, but the broadband telecommunications environment and wearable computers of tomorrow. These will make possible a hyper-reality where full-immersion virtual reality intersects with physical reality and artificial intelligence interacts with human intelligence.

A virtual university can be accessed by anyone from anywhere at anytime.

With no massive building and transport costs, it has the potential to be more economic than a conventional university. This will be a key factor as entry becomes more a question of whether a student can afford to go to university than whether they have the ability. Many administrative functions can be automated and an increasing proportion of teaching tasks can be done by intelligent tutoring systems. Wherever teachers find themselves doing routine administration, repeating themselves and answering the same questions year after year, that part of their job can be done by computers.

First-generation virtual universities have introduced no-frills degrees at cut-down prices, leading to charges that they are simply "diploma mills".

It could be that information technology will help standardise and automate - but it has the potential to seed a renaissance in universities.

Intelligent tutoring systems could rid academics of drudgery and allow them to focus on research and assisting individual students in their quest for meaning in what they are learning. It will become possible to have a class in hyper-reality, where students from different countries with different languages come together to dispute with an avatar (virtual-reality character) of Pythagoras controlled by an artificial intelligence expert in the logic of his theorem. In this scenario, human and artificial intelligence would interact and create a knowledge paradigm accessible to students who speak a host of different languages. Already intelligent agents roam the internet and websites present bodies of knowledge that can be accessed in a variety of languages. Universities need to prepare people to be masters, not victims, of their technological environment.

A university needs to adapt to the communication media of its time, to the economic and social environment of its time, but above all it must address the great problems of its time. For a university of the future this means confronting the challenges of globalisation. IT provides the means to do this, but it might take a John Fisher or a Cardinal Newman to globalise the curriculum.

John Tiffin (emeritus professor of communications) and Lalita Rajasingham (senior lecturer in communications, Victoria University of Wellington New Zealand) have been studying the future of universities for 20 years. Their projections are described in The Global Virtual University, published this month by Routledge, £18.99.

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