Traditional university is on the cusp of a digital revolution – but it should survive

Stian Westlake
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VISIT any British university this autumn and you’ll see Britain’s fresh-faced youth being taught by academics in lecture halls, seminars, and (at the swanky end) tutorials. Although we live in an age when industry after industry has been transformed by the internet, almost all the teaching in our universities goes on face-to-face, in person.

But this is changing. Some of the world’s brightest minds, including Sebastian Thrun, architect of Google’s self-driving car, and venture capital legends John Doerr and Yuri Milner are betting that Massively Open Online Courses, or MOOCs, will be the innovation that takes the university into the digital age.

MOOCs providers like Coursera, Udacity and edX take classes from leading universities and turn them into modules that anyone can take online. If you want to learn applied maths from a superstar Stanford professor, or watch Harvard’s finest talk about political philosophy, you can now do it from the comfort of your home.

It’s not only universities getting in on the act. Codeacademy will teach you how to programme in a variety of languages online for free. Khan Academy allows people to earn virtual badges as a reward for learning maths concepts. And is already a well established source of online “edutainment” – digestible short talks on weighty subjects.

MOOCs rely on a few technologies. At their core is the inexorable economics of broadcasting. Just as satellite TV enables Manchester United to build a global fan-base, broadcasting courses allow celebrity lecturers to “teach” in many places at once. To this, MOOCs add the lessons of user interface design, allowing classes to be more interactive. Finally, they are increasingly incorporating machine learning, so that courses can respond to signs the learner is finding a concept difficult.

Using technology to spread university education is not a new idea, as anyone who remembers late-night Open University TV shows featuring kipper-tie-wearing dons will know. But MOOCs are gaining traction, and smart money is flowing into the sector. Coursera recently raised $43m (£27.6m) of venture capital, Udacity raised $12m , and edX is backed by $60m from MIT and Harvard. Established education companies like Pearson are also investing heavily.

MOOCs’ reach is growing. US universities have begun experimenting with them, using MOOCs to supplement or replace some traditional lectures. Last year, a rash of statistical programming contests were won by coders who had taught themselves machine learning through a Coursera course. edX can point to impressive case studies of its students who have parlayed their skills into new jobs.

With millions of VC dollars and the expectations of Silicon Valley behind them, it’s no wonder people expect MOOCs to shake up university education. Their backers and boosters see huge potential: to meet burgeoning demand for degrees in China, India and beyond, and to replace bricks and mortar universities in the West. This is especially true in the US, where the incidental costs of universities – lavish buildings, expensive sports teams, and highly-paid administrators – have been rising unusually rapidly.

But not everyone is happy. Academics in the US and increasingly in the UK have raised concerns that MOOCs are only a pale imitation of quality university teaching, and that they will destroy swathes of academic jobs. Just as the invention of radio and LPs created a small number of rock stars and a much larger number of also-rans, they worry that MOOCs will cast them into penury.

The truth is probably somewhere in between. Experience so far with MOOCs suggests they are not a replacement for flesh-and-blood teaching, but a complement to it. Both opponents and boosters would do well to remember that many new technologies don’t simply replace old ones. Think of transport: horses were eventually superseded by trains, bikes and cars. But the era in which the US had most horses was not the halcyon pre-railway days. It was the 1910s, when trains had been around for 80 years. Trains made horses more useful, not less, for a very long time.

Properly implemented, MOOCs could increase the productivity of the education system, and extend its reach. They need not impoverish academics: indeed, they could free up funding for more research, which most academics relish, and which boosts economic growth.

We should not expect MOOCs to replace universities. Nor should professors see them as an omen of doom for academia. What we need is a period of creative and collaborative experimentation to see how MOOCs can supplement and improve the existing system. The prize – better learning, lower costs, and more widespread education – is worth striving for.

Stian Westlake is executive director of research at Nesta.