An edited and abridged version of this paper appeared in the Multimedia section of the Times Higher Education Supplement, 12 April 1996.

The hidden cost: the demise of the university

A telematics-based distance learning utility offering fully accredited courses would have considerable impact on the future of higher education, the traditional universities unable to offer a comparable degree of flexibility and customisation of learning. What then will become of the traditional universities? Probably very little in the short term — say, the next three to five years.

Those that survive and thrive will do so only by redefining their functions in relation to, and complementary to, the new electronic universities. First, they will themselves become CLRCs, public points of presence providing community access to the online learning environments. Therefore, secondly, they will as CLRCs also become access centres, for on-site use or — in the longer term — by tele-operation from remote sites, for costly research facilities such as high-cost hardware in manual skills-based workshops.

They will no longer have their ‘own’ students, any more than they will award their own degrees — who in his right mind will take a full degree from Swindon Polytechnical University when he can pick and mix accredited modules from MIT, Edinburgh, Berlin, and Harvard? They may nonetheless find they can still generate income from leasing space and equipment to, and providing tutorial guidance and mentorship for, post-graduate and industrial researchers. They will also have the opportunity to focus their resources as research centres for their own and visiting academics.

Finally, they will become courseware developers and course providers to the virtual universities, their curricula competing for custom with those of other terrestrial universities as well as with commercial course providers. Lecturers will increasingly become ‘instructional designers’, spending considerably less time in face-to-face contact with learners (though many will become tutors and facilitators for CLRC-users) as more of their effort is channeled into writing courseware. As academic institutions, they will also have a role in the validation of both their own courses and those from independent course providers.

Where does all this leave our 18-year-old school leaver? I’m not sure. But I’m also not sure there will, twenty years hence, be any 18-year-old school leavers who will have been through a traditional schooling. For, although I’ve been concerned in this article only with higher education, it is clear that schools too will go through similar changes. Clearly the transition from classroom to cyberclass will not happen overnight, but it will be sufficiently rapid to force us to think very seriously right now about what we are doing. And we can’t afford mistakes.

There are clearly many potential dangers: for example, that the creation of the cyber-universities be technology-driven with too little prior thought for the pedagogic issues, that education be trivialised to ‘sound bite’ edutainment as deregulated virtual learning environments succumb to the commercial imperative. Or that there will, after all, be too few learners in this mode to make the whole venture viable. The Circle project has for its aim the creation of an integrated learning environment embracing all the key academic functions and services of a traditional university, yet separate from and independent of the traditional universities. Earlier, I expressed scepticism; and to many, I will perhaps have sketched a dystopic vision in this article. Therefore, while I am personally exhilirated at the prospect of virtual learning utilities, we clearly cannot simply go ahead and build. As a Europe-wide distributed Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Collaborative Learning Environments, we are making it our concern to look closely not only at the beguiling technologies but also, and perhaps more importantly, at the strategic, pedagogic, social, economic, and cultural issues that will ultimately determine the human success or failure of the enterprise. We owe that to the future.