Sunday, 11 November 2012

The End of the University as we know it?

Several of the reviews of Stefan Collini's recent polemical book What are Universities For? suggested that it had missed a trick by ignoring the real threat to the university as we know it, which is not the British Coalition government's funding reforms for teaching but the global - and, of course, California-led - phenomenon of the virtual university. I reflected on this in the latter part of an essay in Standpoint magazine last April.

As the saying goes: we have seen the future and it works ... or does it? This long article in Guardian Online is the fullest journalistic explanation I've yet seen of what is happening. But it's striking that if you go to Khan Academy, edX, Udacity and the rest, the Humanities hardly get a look in. I completely get how Artificial Intelligence, Chemistry and How to Build a Search Engine can be delivered online, but what will the late 21st century virtual Humanities classroom look like? I remember sitting in a Cambridge lecture room as an undergraduate, with 200 others, being dazzled by the brilliance of Christopher Ricks, Jeremy Prynne or Frank Kermode. You could reproduce that online, though perhaps without the buzz of the lecturer's charismatic presence (which Ricks and Prynne had, but Kermode didn't, so maybe charisma isn't all). I remember teaching Shakespeare to a class of 40 at UCLA: a mix of lecture and discussion, with people putting their hands up. You could do this online pretty easily: 40 Skype connections, 40 little screens and a controlled click to allow the questions to be asked one at a time. But what would an Oxbridge style one on one tutorial, the historic apex of higher education, look like online?

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