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Higher Education Is Stuck in the Middle Ages -- Will Universities Adapt or Die Off in Our Digital World?

There is a huge clash between the model of learning offered by big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital learn.

For fifteen years, I've been arguing that the digital revolution will challenge many fundamental aspects of the University. I've not been alone. In 1998, none other than, Peter Drucker predicted that big universities would be "relics" within 30 years.

Flash forward to today and you'd be reasonable to think that we have been quite wrong. University attendance is at an all time high. The percentage of young people enrolling in degree granting institutions rose over 115% from 1969-1970 to 2005-2007, while the percentage of 25- to 29-year-old Americans with a college degree doubled. The competition to get into the greatest universities has never been fiercer. At first blush the university seems to be in greater demand than ever.

Yet there are troubling indicators that the picture is not so rosy. And I'm not just talking about the decimation of university endowments by the current financial meltdown.

Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning, as the web inexorably becomes the dominant infrastructure for knowledge serving both as a container and as a global platform for knowledge exchange between people.

Meanwhile on campus, there is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University -- the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn.

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It's a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.

The model of pedagogy, of course, is only one target of criticism directed toward universities.

The Many Challenges to the University

Most resources of large universities are directed towards research, not learning. The universities are not primarily institutes of higher learning, but institutes for science and research. In his book Rethinking Science, Michael Gibbons developed a scathing critique of the current model science as conducted in the university.

Recently the questioning has heated up on other fronts. In the New York Times last month, Mark Taylor, chairman of Columbia University's religion department, whipped up a storm of academic controversy with a provocative OpEd page article called "The End of University as We Know It".

"Graduate education," he began, "is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans)." The key problem, he noted, began with Kant in his 1798 work, "The Conflict of the Faculties." Kant argued that universities should "handle the entire content of learning by mass production, so to speak, by a division of labor, so that for every branch of the sciences there would be a public teacher or professor appointed as its trustee."