In the age of automation, old-school universities risk becoming extinct
The classroom is changing. Source: Shutterstock

Colleges and universities are not reacting urgently enough to the threat of artificial intelligence (AI) and automation changing our lives as we know it, argues a professor from Oklahoma State University (OSU) in Smithsonian Magazine.

Online learning is seriously disrupting the higher education sphere, leading to the sharp fall in Indian student demand for engineering colleges, as well as putting half of the US colleges and universities at risk of shutting down in the next few decades.

Subhash Kak, Regents Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at OSU wrote:

“Unless universities move quickly to transform themselves into educational institutions for a technology-assisted future, they risk becoming obsolete.”

One example can be seen through massive open online courses (often called “MOOCs”), some of which are providing ways for its course takers to prove their accomplishments on the online course to their employers.

For certain classes from major MOOC provider edX, students can even get an official Arizona State University transcript, listing their courses and grades, without even stepping into a traditional lecture hall.

Subhash wrote:

“This is a period of rapid change unlike what universities have dealt with for centuries.”

As universities evolve from its religion-dominant functions in medieval times to the 21st century’s post-industrial economy, so must it change the way it prepares its students for the changing world and job market.

Jobs requiring routine tasks will decrease significantly because of automation. And while these people will still need education after completing high school, the need to do so in a physical campus will increasingly decrease.

“Colleges that are outside the very top tier of quality and name recognition – and those that have taken on large amounts of debt to build physical facilities – will suffer as demand for their services lessens,” Subhash wrote.

But schools should not plunge headfirst into the online learning business just for the sake of money either, according to Dr Joshua Kim, Director of Digital Learning Initiatives at the Dartmouth Center for the Advancement of Learning (DCAL).

Writing in Inside Higher Edhe warns that to do so “will not end well” and create “a host of unforeseen and undesirable consequences”.

“The real reason that a college or university should get into the online education game is when such a program aligns with, and supports an institution’s key strategic goals,” Kim wrote.

“Only once a clear institutional strategy has been built around areas of differentiating excellence should any online education strategy be enacted.”

New ways forward

Subhash envisions a future where students take a variety of courses, picking the ones they favour from several options – which will reduce students’ costs and universities’ revenues.

Another way forward could come in the form of the Harvard Extension School, where thousands of degree and non-degree candidates take classes online, on campus or a mixture or both.

Aiming to provide education “for every type of adult learner” the school’s estimated cost of US$49,500 per student for a four-year degree is much lower – it costs just as much as one year on campus for Harvard.

For those planning to go the online route, be sure to look out for testimonials about the programs, which can be really helpful if used correctly. US News suggests looking out for these four aspects: Trust & legitimacy, Variety, Responses to your specific concern and Relevance to your career path.

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