Center of Educational Technologies


The Future of Universities: The Digital Degree


FROM Oxford’s quads to Harvard Yard and many a steel and glass palace of higher education in between, exams are giving way to holidays. As students consider life after graduation, universities are facing questions about their own future. The higher-education model of lecturing, cramming and examination has barely changed for centuries. Now, three disruptive waves are threatening to upend established ways of teaching and learning. On one front, a funding crisis has created a shortfall that the universities’ brightest brains are struggling to solve. Institutions’ costs are rising, owing to pricey investments in technology, teachers’ salaries and galloping administrative costs. That comes as governments conclude that they can no longer afford to subsidise universities as generously as they used to. American colleges, in particular, are under pressure: some analysts predict mass bankruptcies within two decades. At the same time, a technological revolution is challenging higher education’s business model. An explosion in online learning, much of it free, means that the knowledge once imparted to a lucky few has been released to anyone with a smartphone or laptop. These financial and technological disruptions coincide with a third great change: whereas universities used to educate only a tiny elite, they are now responsible for training and retraining workers throughout their careers. How will they survive this storm—and what will emerge in their place if they don’t?

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