Higher education is embracing the Internet like never before. Just recently, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) announced a joint venture to create a new distance-learning platform.

Thanks to this platform, a student in Addis Ababa without access to adequate local education, or a secondary school science teacher in Beijing willing to take her work to the next level, can access high-quality lectures, seminars and other learning material online, and earn themselves a certificate. A young professional in São Paulo, who may not have been able to afford an MBA course, can now do so more cheaply online. And a mother in Milan wanting to return to work after a career break can update her skills from home

Why are such university “überbrands” aggressively pursuing online dissemination? After being at the forefront of the traditional academic world for centuries, why do they want to be at the cutting edge of its digital evolution, too?

First, the technology allows them to do what they couldn’t do before. Second, there is clear demand for higher education from young people around the word. Third, there is demand from the private sector to plug the skills gap exhibited by many job applicants. Fourth, there are attractive cost-savings to be made through the online provision of teaching and learning.

No wonder the best universities are examining their business models.

Online collaboration between top universities could be the first step towards convergence, or at least a streamlining of their physical presence. In challenging economic times, uniting forces may be the way for top universities to maintain their pre-eminence in the higher education marketplace. Is it too fanciful to speculate about an eventual merger between Harvard and MIT stemming from this shared online platform?

As distance learning develops, the quality and range of available tools will continue to improve and the market will create classroom “superstars”. Entirely new subjects may emerge and thrive in response to demand.

The Internet’s attractions notwithstanding, a world-class university will always need a physical presence – a “totem”, an iconic place that its brand is associated with, whether Silicon Valley, a Caltech-style “research monastery”, 77 Massachusetts Avenue, or a city like New York or London. Higher education and research still begins in such places. But, as online learning develops, we may see new educational totems emerging in Africa, Asia or Latin America; or global consortia of star professors or other leaders establishing new schools both online and offline; or corporations and new investors entering higher education; or a mix of the above. The focus of such new universities could reflect the major challenges facing the world, such as food security, mental health, sustainable energy or unemployment. Even Davos could become a platform for global instruction.

The universities that can strike a balance between their intellectual traditions and these new educational models will be the most successful. One thing is for certain, this is just the beginning.

Michele Petochi, Director, Academic Networks

Image: Provided by Michele Petochi