Questioning Higher Education

As digital alternatives get cheaper and easier, can universities justify their existence?

Research universities are under attack in virtually every jurisdiction in advanced industrial democracies. The issues in this crisis are many, diverse and often contradictory: cutbacks in already antiquated financing models; tuition fees that are too high, or too low; infrastructure and equipment that consume operating funds, and are too expensive to replace; employers and a public interested in practical skills training, rather than broad and adaptable education that hones critical thinking; professors who must publish or perish on the road to tenure, and so cannot focus sufficient attention on teaching; and disruptive uses of emerging information technologies.

A treatise could be written, and many have been, on every one of these issues. In this essay, however, I want to concentrate on the technological disruption of education. Universities today face three major challenges from digitally driven shifts in learning, information and space requirements—shifts that could erode traditional higher education’s very foundations.

First, the current generation of undergraduates consists of what some commentators have labelled “digital natives”. They are at ease with the internet, new hardware and social media in ways that make their parents, and certainly their grandparents, both proud and envious. Among pedagogical experts, there is heated debate about how profoundly these digital natives’ technological familiarity changes the ways they think and study. But it is already clear that today’s university-bound cohorts expect to learn using information technology.

How have universities prepared themselves for the arrival on campuses of this exigent digital generation? Not well, I am afraid. Pedagogical approaches have not adapted to this new style of learner, or even to the available new tools.

Second, digital natives have grown up with mind-boggling stores of information readily accessible on the internet, and the means of accessing these data are increasingly ubiquitous. Unfortunately, more often than not, the quality of this information leaves much to be desired. How can today’s students know which information is valuable and correct, and which is questionable on both counts?

University librarians, pedagogues and professors must now therefore go beyond just introducing students to the academy’s own carefully curated scholarly sources: they must be able to teach students how to sort and transform the raw information available online into useful knowledge. Which often means learning to do so themselves, first.

Third, the physical spaces that define most universities make responding to the first two shifts much more difficult, helping keep schools locked into old methods.

The traditional physical design of campus classrooms does not encourage deep engagement in the learning process. Active learning rarely takes place in the lecture hall or when the only speaker in a seminar is the professor. And with so much material being born digital, what happens to all of those books on the library shelves that no longer circulate, indeed often just occupy prime campus real estate at a premium cost?

Taken together, the shifts above open up a radical possibility: why not create communities of active and engaged learners that extend far beyond the walls of the classroom or the gates of the university? This notion has helped drive the recent rise of “massive open online courses.” Called MOOCs for short, they embody the promise and disruptive potential of digital technology for higher education.

There have been many attempts, over the last 15 years or so, at using the internet to reach students separated from the instructor by time, space or both. Among the best known are the online degrees offered by the Open University in the United Kingdom and the University of Phoenix in the United States, but Athabasca University, eConcordia and Teluq (in French) have been offering fully Canadian online programs for some time. Other variations include recorded lecture courses—such as those offered by Bill Gates’s favourite, The Teaching Company—and programs designed to teach foreign languages—such as those from Rosetta Stone.

For each of these models, traditional courses have been designed and presented in much the same way that one would on campus. The big change is in delivery, with a proliferation of new roles—from online instructor to educational coder—that did not exist in the pre-Web world. But the result is a somewhat pale imitation of the campus-based experience: courses are not at the same level, and have not lived up to the early hype around digital distance learning.

Then, about a decade ago, starting with a project at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University, the “open courseware” initiative was born. Universities, including other elite institutions, began publishing course materials such as syllabi, assignments and multimedia lecture recordings. Subjects ranged from linear algebra to television criticism—from the very hard to the extremely soft, from the obvious science and engineering choices to offerings in the humanities and social sciences. Materials were made openly available, but courses were not taught.

This relatively simple gesture raised the stakes for all universities. By making the design of courses and programs taught on prestigious campuses for a premium price available to all for inspection without cost, the open courseware movement stimulated revisions at many other institutions.

The new approach also helped pave the way for full-blown MOOCs—a concept actually first developed in Canada. In 2008, George Siemens and Stephen Downes, in the division of extended education at the University of Manitoba, tried an experiment with their course on “Connectivism and connective knowledge.” In addition to teaching 20 or so registered on-campus students, they made the class freely available to a world-wide audience of auditors via the internet. Beyond receiving access to masterfully presented course materials and quizzes, these auditors could interact with one another—and the traditional students—through various tools such as discussion threads and online meetings. Over 2,000 auditors participated, even though only the on-campus students were assessed, graded and received course credits.

In the five years since, however, some of the most exciting and challenging higher education MOOC experiments have been designed by university professors who used outside organisations to nurture their concepts.1 Two of the most prominent MOOC providers are now Udacity and Coursera; both are venture-funded private enterprises spun by professors of computer science out of their work at Stanford University in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Such organizations need not work directly with traditional institutions of higher learning, but use renowned professors from world-class universities to design, develop and deliver their courses. These are quality products for interested and motivated learners, not just canned courses or recorded talking heads so much as entirely new ways of packaging materials and conducting assessments, in order to teach incredibly large numbers of students.

While the definition of what constitutes a MOOC varies, the most significant offerings share several key features:2

They generally are the equivalent of university-level courses, of varying intensity and duration, but provided either for free or vastly cheaper than on campus offerings.

Lecture materials are packaged into manageable 10- to 15-minute chunks, usually with regularly scheduled times when lectures and background materials can be viewed and when support of various types is available.

While facilitators are often on call, the platforms for delivering MOOCs have embedded areas where social media features can provide students the opportunity to help each other.

Throughout the course, exercises and other learning tools are provided for self-assessment of subject mastery. Where and when appropriate, these include test repetitions personalized by artificial intelligence algorithms.

Successful completion of modules or whole courses can be determined by third-party testing procedures, such as exams supervised by webcam or administered in person at local facilities.

The economies of scale here are incredible—forget teaching a 1,000-student introductory course. MOOCs can reach hundreds of thousands of learners, potentially millions, with a single offering. At least some of these courses are educationally successful, even when judged by the standards of traditional higher education. Earlier this year, the American Council on Education recommended that its 1,800 member colleges accept a number of Coursera MOOCs as counting toward completion credits. The expectation is that sooner rather than later, participation in the right MOOCs will provide a credential accepted by many employers as equivalent to a diploma, certificate or even full university degree.

Taken together, these higher education MOOC start-ups and the disruptive technology-driven trends that enable them represent a truly significant challenge for universities, and probably for the whole post-secondary sector. If students anywhere can take a for-credit course designed and taught by an Ivy League superstar online, for a fraction of the equivalent’s cost at a local college, a whole new economic logic and competitive landscape emerge. The founder of Udacity, Sebastian Thrun, boldly claimed in a 2012 Wired profile that “in 50 years … there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education”—and those institutions will not all necessarily be today’s ­universities.

Hyperbole provides a good sound bite, but the erosion of traditional institutions’ monopoly on issuing credentials is indeed a palpable threat to established universities. They can learn a lot from new competitors, however; many are already doing so.

Regular operating budgets of research universities, be they derived from government appropriations or tuition fees, cannot provide sufficient development resources to deliver on the MOOC promise. Some have therefore established formal partnerships with new companies such as Coursera, but institutions have also turned to philanthropists to cover the initial costs of MOOC-related work.3 This includes cooperation between schools to improve the residential campus experience for digital natives, by experimenting openly with new delivery mechanisms: the MOOC platform edX was founded as a wholly owned but not-for-profit subsidiary of Harvard and MIT, as an alternative to for-profit offerings, and aims to recruit other institutions into a loosely collaborative consortium.4

But notwithstanding the enthusiastic response to MOOCs on the part of some universities, support and high hopes for the technology are hardly unanimous.

It is increasingly apparent that despite often-extensive campus consultation, significant numbers of faculty—not to mention librarians and pedagogues who help them teach—view MOOCs as disruptive to the academic profession.5 They might be right. And if this is the digital tsunami, advanced warning systems are certainly important.

Questions about quality control are common, i.e., ensuring that these massive courses allow for true teaching, rather than just information delivery or “edutainment.” This basic worry about whether MOOCs serve students is reinforced by the fact that given the size of the audiences they can reach, one must wonder if we are entirely sure about whom we are talking when we refer to students in such classes—not to mention the massive dropout rates, believed to average around 90 percent. (While this means that thousands often still finish any given course, and the dropout numbers’ meaning is hotly contested, the phenomenon needs careful consideration by those who care about the future of campus-based university education.) Beyond teaching, faculty also wonder, how will professors’ research function be preserved in a MOOC-dominated system?

These concerns feed into questions of equity, both for students and academics themselves. Some fear new technology will divide institutions and professors even more starkly—MOOCs for the masses, residential higher education for the privileged, and “never the twain shall meet.” Critics also see contingent academic employment as potentially exacerbated with a proliferation of assembly-line positions producing MOOCs. And faculty groups have similarly raised intellectual property concerns over ownership of the MOOCs professors are now asked to create, warning that “the future of their profession” is at stake.6

Members of university boards, however, tend to favour delivering their schools’ courses through MOOCs. Especially at public research universities, they are probably drawn to them as a way of driving down costs. But it appears that in some cases, boards have not fully considered MOOCs’ implications for extant university financial models. Given the expenses required for high-quality MOOCs, how can they be a panacea for rising costs, especially short to medium term? If students take MOOCs for credit and eventually receive accredited degrees, will they manifest the same allegiance to the institution that campus-based alumni do? And are MOOCs what current alumni and potential future students expect from a particular institution?

Administrators, on the other hand, are ambivalent about this trend—love it or hate it, join it or avoid it, or all four in combination. They know all too well that no one has yet generated a serious financial model to sustain still-costly MOOCs’ existence once launched, an uncertainty that cannot last much longer without dampening donor and investor interest. That is not to say possibilities have not been discussed; indeed, they have: continuing to give course access away free, for instance, but charging for premium services, from special tutorial assistance to proctored assessments to certified credentials.7 Or charging companies for recruitment access to top students. It is just that no one has fully tested the waters to see if the market will tolerate these costs. After all, this is higher education, not razor blades.

Such reservations have left several journalists openly questioning the “irrational exuberance” of some boards and administrators for jumping on the MOOC bandwagon. But the print journalism industry’s current straits should certainly give pause to those who think MOOCs can be ignored: prominent daily newspapers and weekly magazines have gone from billion dollar enterprises to little more than vanity presses, if they have survived at all, simply because they did not take technological change in their business seriously.

So might the campus truly become a thing of the past, except for those employed in Silicon Valley or Silicon Alley?

The fundamental educational question is how much the campus-based, face-to-face university experience can sustainably add intellectual—as compared to social and personal—value, even while MOOC sophistication and adoption increase.8 Some MOOC converts are convinced that this model will lower costs, eliminate redundancies and satisfyingly replace university for many learners. Others are entering the arena cautiously but deliberately, because they think MOOCs can teach them how to improve technology-mediated on-campus courses.

In order to be able to sort out which of these two perspectives is correct (or least incorrect), researchers will have to accumulate and make sense of enormous quantities of student records, along with information captured from MOOC usage. The plural of anecdote is not data; there is hard quantitative work ahead.

But if universities were traded on the futures market, I would only buy stock in those that are seriously addressing the key educational challenges of shifts in digital technology. As the chief academic officer at McGill University, I am pushing my institution to do just that. I have argued in our academic plan for strategic rethinking and the creation of “MILE” (McGill Innovative Learning Environments) to address the three challenges that opened this essay. Our approach builds on four interrelated pillars: evidence-based pedagogy, sound management of information resources, redesigned physical spaces and appropriate adoption of new instructional technology, including but not limited to MOOCs.

Traditional universities do not currently possess appropriate, accurate and timely data on how our students learn, which adds frustration in trying to develop sound teaching guidelines and recommendations for professors. Another consequence of the lack of analytics is that units such as medicine and engineering, which need curriculum-mapping capabilities for their accreditation requirements, are left without the necessary tools. And the promise of such information is just one reason that McGill University has become a member of the non-profit MOOC consortium edX.

Similarly, many of us who have the great privilege and serious responsibility of serving in the administration of research-intensive universities have hypothesized—and often asserted without sufficient supporting evidence—that the best researchers are, more often than not, the best teachers. By serving huge, world-wide audiences, MOOCs have the potential to provide empirical evidence to support or reject the link between research excellence and quality instruction.

But in other areas, the study of teaching and learning in higher education is actually already quite well advanced. Unfortunately, professors and academic administrators at the world’s major research universities are often just not particularly well versed in its findings, even those based on work done on their own campuses. The single most important conclusion from the vast amount of scholarly work on higher education pedagogy is that the best outcomes are obtained when students are active learners. Insofar as active learning requires engagement, a facile take-away is something like “small is beautiful.” But this is not sufficient. The fact of the matter is that no one has found an acceptable financial model that would permit such intimate experiences across the undergraduate curriculum for students at research universities, especially those that are publicly funded.

Of course, an alternative to being small is to be creative in the way courses are conceived, designed, developed and delivered.

For over a decade, along with other informatics tools, learning management systems have been used on campuses. An LMS is a Web-based software application that allows professors to design and deliver course content, to monitor students and to assess and record individual and group performance. A well-implemented system contains interactive features to encourage and facilitate discussions, including video conferencing. But an LMS alone is not enough. Other information and communications technologies used successfully on campuses are screen-sharing software, ePortfolios, lecture recording systems, audience-response devices such as clickers, and other tools designed to increase student engagement.9 We can also build on tools students already use themselves, exploring the application of social media (Twitter, blogs, Facebook and similar tools) for pedagogy, supporting and learning from the experiences of those professors who are going this route independently.10

Further still, consider the “flipped” model of large lecture sections, which has shown promise in providing active learning situations: professors pre-record lectures and other materials and students view them at their convenience before coming to class, where instead of rehearsing that content, professors (or other instructional personnel) interact with students to ensure that they are engaging with the material.11 If the technology is well deployed and the information readily available, such as through an appropriate MOOC, then this is a clear opportunity to enhance classroom results. Indeed, the University of Maryland Baltimore County has reported impressive results from adding online learning support to conventional lectures, even as they increased in class size: this resulted in a 70 percent reduction of costs for one introductory chemistry course and a significant increase in successful completion rates—performance benefits they have also seen in digitally enhanced visual art courses, among others.

At first blush, all MOOCs may be taken as this type of “flipped classroom,” but those offered today by most major providers are simply too large to permit individual student engagement, leaving course designers to draw on peer interaction, assessments and, increasingly, on artificial intelligence algorithms, to pursue similar results.

Ultimately, on the plus side, universities are lucky to have core groups of qualified academic and professional staff that are already dedicated supporters of teaching and learning tools, both new and old. Likewise, professors already create most of the truly useful educational information available on the Web for courses and programs, so are well placed to help students make sense of the ever-growing masses of data online.

I fear that we will burn these people out, however, if we do not provide adequate human and financial resources and an environment in which they can feel room for creativity and engagement. Professors have to relearn their role and take the time to teach as well as they conduct research. This will not be easy, and these new expectations must be clearly communicated, but also backed up with new incentive schemes.

Finally, everyone from administrators to students themselves is now questioning hallowed assumptions about how academic spaces should be designed. This is especially true in libraries, as they become “liberated” from paper and circulation of physical titles declines.12 Compared to traditional library stacks, for example, high-density book storage facilities can hold 20 times the number of volumes per square metre and are usually robotized, offering considerable space and cost savings.13

But the reconceptualization of physical spaces even extends to laboratory settings. Going, going and soon to be gone are the fixed rectangular benches. Computers are now the constant companions of the equipment and supplies needed to do experiments. Common work areas with writing capture spaces, directly attached to round lab benches, are correspondingly making enormous headway in renovation projects and new construction of science facilities.14

More than at any time in the 35 years that I have been at McGill, I worry about how information technologies are affecting my institution’s present and how they may transform its future. At the same time, however, I have come to appreciate digital disruption’s potential to reinvigorate teaching and learning in higher education.

Research universities are the engines of any country’s innovation system, and therefore its competitive advantages, as well as preservers of its cultural and intellectual life. But resources are only likely to get scarcer, and technological change faster paced. So while many professors and administrators know the radical departures from normal required to adapt, we also know that we are not making them fast enough or profoundly enough.

MOOCs, for example, are shaping up to be a game changer. Will they allow universities to make the necessary accommodations more quickly, or force them to make room for new education providers who can? I hope for, and I am working to encourage, the former; but right now, I am not sure that I would bet against the latter.


  1. Sir Daniel John. Education across space and timeOpen and Distance Learning Association of Australia, 2013; C. Koproske. Making sense of MOOCs: Implications from early entrants into large scale instructional innovation. Education Advisory Board, 2012; L. Yuan & S. Powell. MOOCs and open education: Implications for higher education, 2013. 

  2. Koproske, 2012; Yuan & Powell, 2013; B. D. Voss. Massive open online courses (MOOCs): A primer for university and college board membersAssociation of Governing Bodies (AGB) White Paper, 2013. 

  3. Koproske, 2012; Voss, 2013; Yuan & Powell, 2013 

  4. Koproske, 2012; Yuan & Powell, 2013 

  5. S. Kolowhich. Why professors at San Jose State won’t use a Harvard professor’s MOOCThe Chronicles of Education, 2013; The Association of Commonwealth Universities. (2013). MOOCs: Disrupting the academic profession? Association of Commonwealth Universities Insights, 2013; S. Jaschik. Skepticism About Tenure, MOOCs and the Presidency: A Survey of Provosts. Inside Higher Ed, 2013. 

  6. P. Schmidt. AAUP Sees MOOCs as Spawning New Threats to Professor’s Intellectual PropertyThe Chronicles of Higher Education, 2013; G. Maslen. Rising Demands Around the World for Copyright ExceptionsUniversity World News, 2013. 

  7. S. Kolowich, How Will MOOCs Make Money? Inside Higher Ed, 2012; 2012; Koproske, 2012; Voss, 2013; Yuan & Powell, 2013. 

  8. Jaschik, 2013; P. Deneen. We’re All to Blame for MOOCsThe Chronicles of Higher Education, 2013. 

  9. E. D. Bojinova & J. N, Oigara. Teaching and Learning with Clickers: Are Clickers Good for StudentsInterdisciplinary Journal of E-Learning and Learning Objects, 2011; W. G. Bowen. Higher Education in the Digital AgePrinceton University Press, 2013; K. Bredl, A. Grob, J. Hunniger & J. Fleischer. The Avatar as a Knowledge Worker? How Immersive 3D Virtual Environments May Foster Knowledge AcquisitionThe Electronic Journal of Knowledge Management, 2013; L. R. Kay & A. LeSage. Examining the Benefits and Challenges of Using Audience Response Systems: A Review of the LiteratureComputers & Education, 2009. 

  10. A. Tyma. Connecting with What is Out There!: Using Twitter in a Large LectureCommunications Teacher, 2011; H. P. Aagard & Olesova. Hotseat Opening the Backchannel in Large LecturesEducause, 2010; B. K. Pursel & H. Xie. Adoption, Pedagogy, and Analytics: Exploring Two Years of Institutional Blog DataEducause, 2013. 

  11. S. Knewton. Flipped Classroom. n.d.; S. Lonn & S. D. Teasley. Saving Time or Innovating Practice: Investigating Perceptions and Uses of Learning Management SystemsComputers & Education, 2009. 

  12. K. Bailin. Changes in Academic Library Space: A Case Study at the University of New South WalesAustralian Academic & Research Libraries, 2011; J. K. Elmborg. Libraries as the Spaces Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third SpaceReference & User Services Quarterly, 2011; A. Grafton. Apocalypse in Stacks? The Research Library in the Age of GoogleDaedalus2009. 

  13. L. Payne. Library Storage Facilities and the Future of Print Collections in North AmericaReport Commissioned by OCLC Programs and Research, 2007; The University of Chicago. The Joe and Rika Mansueto Library: How it Works [Video File], 2011. 

  14. L. Brown. Learning Spaces. In D, G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds), Educating the Net Generation, 2005; Joint Information Systems Committee. Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Learning Space DesignHigher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) on Behalf of JISC, 2006.