Feature: Envisioning Future Universities

By Oh Ee Teik (ohet@oum.edu.my)

Looking at present teaching-learning trends and how technology is being used in this area, I believe there will be radical changes in future universities whose existence will definitely be different from present-day universities.

Traditional universities that exist today as large campuses with many faculties will likely still stand in future but universities of tomorrow will have a very different setup - firstly because distance learning is becoming more workable as a practice due to significantly improved electronic communications technology and lifestyle changes resulting from the information revolution contributed mainly by the internet.

I would thus speculate that future universities, while still maintaining and preserving their main role as institutions of higher learning, will be physically much smaller in real estate size in comparison to their traditional counterparts, which have many small branches or specialized schools scattered across various geographical sites.

If electronic communications continue to improve at the present rate, very soon fast and efficient connectivity will make distance learning even more easily realized. When that happens, there will no longer be any need for traditional classroom lectures. The latter may still remain but will likely be significantly reduced in importance.

Instead of attending 40 hours of lectures for a particular course, this can be reduced to perhaps eight hours of classroom lectures. In reality, the concept of flexi-hours can be adopted by future universities very much like how it is being implemented today in the work environment in advanced Western countries. This would thus reduce the need for classroom space and administrative offices in future universities.

It is amply evident that the teaching-learning process has changed significantly over the years. The last two decades have witnessed the following:

  • In many instances, standard hardcopy textbooks for university/college education are no longer the main source of information. Most of these are now available in the electronic format. In addition, there is a wide range of articles and materials on the internet which can be used for teaching and learning, and which can be updated in minutes or hours instead of the months or years required to update hardcopy publications.
  • Information and knowledge are definitely more accessible now compared to the past. Internet search engines make it possible for anyone to find out more about virtually any topic. Indirectly this has driven down the costs of accessing information and knowledge. For example, if someone wanted to learn a software application like MS Word twenty years ago, he or she would have had to invest in books in order to learn. Now, it is possible to find free "how-to" or "teach-me" articles on virtually any topic (academic or otherwise) on the internet.
  • Delivery time of information and knowledge has also been shortened drastically. If a new technological invention or a new academic theory is discovered, it can be easily published on the internet and made accessible to all within a matter of minutes.
  • Tools are available today which have improved significantly or changed the way we teach and learn. For example, if a learner were to read a traditional textbook and after reading a chapter of twenty pages, he may end up with ten unfamiliar key terms and has to invest more time in cross-referencing them against other texts in order to understand their meanings. The same book in the electronic format will significantly reduce the time and effort for the learner to do the same. Interactive e-books have definitely eased cross-referencing and searches. Referring to other related texts is as simple as clicking on given links and in a matter of seconds the reader will be taken to the related material. Compare this to manually searching through the appendix or index of a hardcopy book.

Due to changes in the teaching-learning process, the roles of the learner and teacher have also changed. For the learner, the biggest change in learning can perhaps be set out in the points below:

  • The amount of knowledge that can be learned is definitely greater today. This is due mainly to the easy availability of information as well as to the fact that knowledge and information are now available almost immediately after discovery or publication.
  • While the internet is an indispensible tool for learning, it is crucial to recognise that there are also many errors or half-truths out there. The ability to discriminate between what is right and wrong or what is relevant and irrelevant has become a critical skill for the learner to acquire.
  • The learner has to be a much better manager of his or her own time as teaching-learning becomes more flexible. Gone will be the days when it is mandatory for the learner to attend a fixed number of lectures in order to pass examinations. Self-discipline is extremely important to ensure that time for learning is well spent.
  • In future the duration for learning may be even more flexible than it is now. A quick learner can complete a programme in a shorter time while the less-quick may take longer. Also, there may not be a need for university intakes to occur only at fixed times during a year. Learners should be able to register for any course or programme at any time convenient to them. Among other benefits, this flexible arrangement will allow learners to better manage their lives.
  • Learning will arguably become more affordable in future. Instead of spending a small fortune buying hardcopy textbooks, the learner can perhaps subscribe to e-books as a member of an e-library at a fraction of the usual cost.
  • Study-related travel and accommodation costs for learners could be reduced. In the distance learning model, the learner would not need to be physically close to the university to follow a programme. Occasional stays rather than long term permanent ones will reduce learning costs significantly.
  • Finally, with the amount of information and knowledge available, learners will also have more flexibility to choose the courses relevant to the preferred field of specialization or interest, instead of having to select only the "package" offered by universities today.

Aside from the above, there will also be key changes in the way teachers teach. These are outlined in the points below:

  • The number of face-to-face learner-teacher meetings will decrease dramatically due to the reduction of the number of classroom lectures. Teachers will have to find new ways to interact effectively with their learners, perhaps through instant messaging tools, video-cameras, and so on.
  • Like learners, teachers will also have more flexible working hours and would not need to be physically present at the university for long hours any more. Working from home will be a very workable concept.
  • Also, like learners, teachers will be exposed to more information and knowledge and would thus need to spend time to learn or relearn.

Finally , there will be changes in the way universities operate:

  • In future teaching and learning, ICT will be a great enabler. Thus all universities will need to have state-of-the-art ICT infrastructure and this must be a mission critical component.
  • Smaller universities may not be able to offer certain courses as the costs involved may be prohibitive. With distance learning, they can pool their resources by sharing the costs of hiring the required teaching staff and by offering shared programmes to all learners as a combined effort. In general, the sharing of academic and teaching staff will become a very workable concept.

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