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Universities of Tomorrow May be Entirely in Cyberspace

 Future Education from Cyberspace? - Grj23
As higher education costs rocket, technology advances apace, everybody could soon get a degree online from home. But it would mean a major cultural shift.

All economies under stress, as most of the world’s are in 2010, look to reduce expenditure and raise revenue. Universities have long ceased to be ivory towers, above such grubby concerns. As debate polarises around student fees/debt, quality and range of degree curricula, and young adults decide for financial/debt reasons, not to go away for 3 or so years, it’s time to wonder if future universities are almost entirely on-line, but harnessing an old idea.

Correspondence Courses: An Idea That Worked

Correspondence courses are old fashioned. They have been around, in Britain certainly, for over 200 years and were a means for people to improve their minds, gain qualifications they wouldn’t ordinarily have had or to enhance a hobby or interest. Isaac Pitman offered typing lessons from a distance in the 1840s. The University of London first offered a degree through an external programme in 1858, and after that the development of postal services ensured success for such ventures.

“Home Study” took off, a continuation of the British Victorian ethic of hard work and self-improvement, as in adult evening classes and education institutes. May’s Correspondence College, headquartered in east London, was founded in 1894 and was still going in the late 1970s. Students worked through a book or folder of instruction, tackled set tasks, and posted work to a tutor who marked and returned.

Today there are thousands of modern equivalents of correspondence colleges across the world, teaching everything from mathematics, business, accounting, architecture, management, English, other languages, any of the “ologies” (sociology, psychology, philosophy), journalism and writing, Bible studies, history, astronomy and art appreciation. The Association of British Correspondence Colleges keeps a membership list.

While remote areas of Australia, Canada and other countries have long had Radio of the Air, or televised lessons for children and young people miles from population centres, learning where teacher and student are not simultaneously together in time and space could become the norm for post-school learning.

A pioneer of learning from home was the UK’s Open University, founded in 1969. It has maintained an open-entry policy, whereby prior qualifications are not taken into account for entry. Most courses are delivered from a distance, with around 180,000 students enrolled, including 25,000 studying outside the UK. It has graduated more than 3 million people, most of whom have rated it highly.

It has accreditation in the USA and has been modelled around the world with Open Universities from the Philippines and Israel to Hong Kong. Whether people are able/disabled, literate, highly technological or not, more can access the learning than by almost any other educational style.

Distance Education: A Buzz, Now Idea

“Distance Learning” is up to the minute. It delivers teaching/learning, information or exam training to people who are not physically present, (a bit of a problem in subjects like drama and the performing arts) but can access materials online or by mobile phone technology. This is one-to-one teaching, or small group seminars; or it may be written modules on screen or paper, which are marked and returned, by the same principle as the old correspondence colleges.

Most universities now offer distance education as an alternative route to graduation, and it serves a number of socio-economic benefits. It allows education to reach populations (remote or impoverished) who would otherwise have no access. It can work out cheaper. The BBC reported a survey in August 2009 that suggested new students at British universities faced an average debt of over £23,000 after studying for a three year degree.

May Pullian Weston of the Los Angeles Times wrote in May 2010 about the concern that graduate debt could harm mortgage applications in a regime of tighter lending controls. A US project on student debt in the 2008 year class found average deficit per graduate rising about 6% pa, from $20,000 average for seniors, to over $100,000 for some college graduates. And this in a time of soured employment prospects for the young.

This coincides with a time of reductions in overall public expenditure. Distance learning demands smaller staffing than traditional teaching, and the income from students is as welcome to institutions as from those who come to stay.

Contemporary enthusiasm for “lifelong learning,” means that older people, who may or may not have had university education when younger, can join and learn. Many seniors are happy as “silver internet surfers,” so adult education by web comes as second nature. As people live longer, more healthy and active lives, the demand for education in its broadest sense is relentless. New technologies and changing attitudes to formalised centres of learning mean that distance learning may enable institutions to keep up to date.

The plight of just one graduate seeking first work in a recession, was highlighted by Beth Lattin in 2009. The system of student loans with apparently low interest rates and no requirement to repay until a certain income level is achieved, means that generations of British young people shoulder debts for their higher education that can never be repaid. Except, ultimately, by the taxpayer.

If there is a cultural shift and most students tomorrow stay home to study, there will be adverse effects on social economies (entertainment, food, drink, accommodation) in student communities, possibly on students’ own social skills development and the last thing a world driven by computers wants is more isolated people.

However, things can not stay as they have been.

First published on Suite 101, 25 September 2010.

Photo: Future Education from Cyberspace? – Grj23

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