In New York City on 12 June, the World Economic Forum brought together senior university administrators, faculty staff and entrepreneurs in online education and university ventures to discuss online learning. Everyone is talking about this “tsunami”, which could have the same impact on higher education as the Internet has had on printed newspapers.

The debate centred on what future universities will look like as a whole, not just their online components. The participants strongly agreed that education is broader than content. There is still some concern that the physical intimacy and intellectual proximity found on a real-world campus would be lost in the virtual space. But the conclusion is that some blend of offline and online education is inevitable.

It is already happening
There are several reasons these conversations are happening now, and we face an inflection point for institutions that have otherwise been thriving for many decades – centuries, in some cases. These reasons are being debated at length in academic circles and mainstream media.

Online is already an accepted norm
All agreed that students’ expectations are changing now that the digital world has become a reality. For this generation, teaching and interaction within the online space is as natural as offline. Evidence suggests that rates of placement, retention and academic performance are just as good online as offline. Online degrees are now well-tested and proven.

Online facilitates easier peer-to-peer feedback among students, something they value highly. It also helps students continue learning when they are not together. And many of the new online degrees offer students the possibility of completing high-quality programmes that are as good as the ones on campus, without the need to quit their jobs and move to new locations.

A really good online platform can create deeper levels of intimacy than many residential programmes, but without restrictions such as geographical location or time zone. Many of these programmes are as expensive as residential education, yet students are willing to pay the same fees as long as the technology employed is of the highest quality and the degree is exactly the same.

More fundamentally, the reach of online education multiplies students around the world. That suggests a market with incredible potential in which the best ideas will increasingly find support and funds. This is relevant not only to students, but also to university faculties, which can engage well with the online space, provided they are given the right incentives. In short, online can help a faculty extend its reach, build brand awareness and attract more fee-paying students.

What are the downsides?
Not all universities have embraced online courses. Academia is notoriously resistant to change. But also, setting up and maintaining an online platform is a substantial investment that not all can afford.

One concern is that online education may lead to an unhealthy uniformity of content. But one could argue that there is already some uniformity in residential education, at least in the basic concepts. Moreover, if uniformity were to become the norm, students would be unlikely to enrol in advanced degrees and investment in these projects would probably dry up.

What about academic freedom? The moment governments and other players have access to such material, they may be tempted to interfere with it. It remains to be seen whether existing projects continue to thrive and new projects begin to unfold in this area without such interference.

The student at centre stage
Online learning brings the student back to centre stage, as a customer looking to derive value from a university through an excellent online user-experience. This has profound implications for higher educational institutions and their value propositions.

Not surprisingly, many questions emerged during the discussion, from the strategic imperative of universities to the way successful outcomes – online or offline – should be measured.

Thinking of online education as a user-centred project may help illustrate the value of residential education, too, both in the classroom and on campus. If one sees campuses as platforms for disseminating knowledge and intellectual development, one could view online in the same way. So we shouldn’t be talking about residential versus online but, instead, viewing them as complementary platforms delivering the best possible education in ways tailored to meet the needs of the student, the end-user or customer.

This is analogous to the health sector, where online and mobile health services have added a new dimension to residential care and put the patient experience at the centre, empowering them to demand better, more responsive services.

But this begs the question: Who should decide what the best form of education is? Academics and universities, or students?

What will the successful university of the future look like?
We asked participants to list a set of winning characteristics the future university might have.

The exercise generated many ideas, but one salient view was that globalization would force each university to spell out its unique appeal, whether that is the city in which it is based or an industry with which it is associated. Most agreed there is a unique opportunity for universities to identify with their cities, and vice versa.

There was also agreement that the online tsunami will impact revenue streams. Certification and degree awards may have to be aligned. Universities will have to work harder to justify high tuition fees by offering a truly distinctive experience – offline or online. In the age of information transparency, the difference in value propositions will become glaringly apparent.

Universities that prosper will be the ones that embrace change and put education and the student at the top of their agenda. They will capitalize on their real-world reputations to leverage their online offerings. Those who don’t will struggle.

For this reason, elite universities are well positioned to thrive. One participant forecast a potentially polarized higher education system, with “Tiffany-on-Fifth-Avenue” universities at one end of the scale, and “Wal-Mart-type” universities at the other, both successfully serving their customer bases, with the ones in the middle struggling to survive.

Cooperation or competition?
There was also discussion of how universities can cooperate to offer degree programmes that are better than those they can offer individually. Some institutions are already doing this; but there are still many educational, legal and practical issues to be resolved.

What is the difference between a degree and a certificate, for example? How will students and employers view the difference? There is a risk that the value of a degree may be downgraded if we don’t define it properly. How will online affect a university’s research work? How will research collaborations be managed and the data shared?

While we ponder these questions and try to find answers, one thing is certain: more students are getting married. There is anecdotal evidence that online education is acting as a kind of intellectual dating agency.

Well, that’s one form of cooperation we can surely all applaud?

Authors: Michele Petochi, Director, Academic Networks, World Economic Forum. Viktoria Ivarsson, Senior Manager, Academic Networks, World Economic Forum.

Pictured: An art installation of 857 empty school desks stands at the National Mall, near the Washington Monument, in Washington. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst