The World Economic Forum convened a meeting of its network of senior university administrators and selected guests to a meeting in New York earlier this year to discuss the incredible proliferation of online course offerings and the ensuing race by academic institutions to sign up to these platforms, create their own, or dismiss them entirely. On that day, the group concluded that the likely evolution would result in a mix of learning experiences, with face-to-face, on-campus and online interactions each remaining a necessary component for the future of higher education and unable to stand alone.

Six months later we took the conversation to Tokyo for a follow-up discussion on where we stand and how Asian universities are tackling the challenge, or, indeed, welcoming the opportunity. The diversity of voices in the room (representing academic institutions in Japan, Korea, Singapore, Australia, Hong Kong, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, the US and Europe) led to a rich discussion on the broader challenges for universities in a changing world. In the face of this growing demand for a better understanding of what is happening in the tertiary education sector, some of the main observations of the day were as follows:

1. Shifting expectations: Although universities have been pretty good at adapting to change over the centuries, what we are currently witnessing is a massive shift taking place in the expectations of universities and those of the students and society at large vis-à-vis the university. In an ever-globalizing world, universities are expected to be the engines of future economic growth and educators of future global leaders. Yet the current education system and established university structures in particular are modelled on the industrial age and have, by and large, not adapted to these modern demands and new technologies, until the advent of MOOCs (massive open online courses) put them, directly or indirectly, into question. As MOOCs, in principle, promote education as a right and not as a privilege, and aim to guarantee access to education for millions, this development has also put new pressures on academic institutions to somehow revamp their social responsibility imperative in their local, national and regional context, also including the responsibility to build capacity in parts of the world that are lagging behind.

2. Reconciling existing tensions: The year of the MOOCs has pushed universities in pursuing new opportunities and repositioning themselves, by working closely with faculty and integrating input from all the various bodies making up the university. Theoretically the future should not hold tensions between a specialized and more liberal education, online or face-to-face courses, choosing employability over a sound general education, or elite and mass education, but rather a strategic mix of different values. Moreover, the grand challenges faced by society and more micro concerns are aligned, the question is how to align interests and use the tools we have for collaboration within and across institutions to best address them.

3. Whither MOOCs? The MOOC model still disrupts and will still evolve for a while, but the group, across nationalities, agreed that the most productive way to use them has to be in conjunction with classroom learning. It is also helpful to distinguish between different types of MOOCs, some of which already address that issue.

  • “Flagship MOOCs” that position the university as present on the current big mediatized online platforms, such as edX or Coursera.
  • “Intranet MOOCs” that are used for internal purposes to supplement and enhance classroom courses or provide basic skills classes or refreshers.
  • There is then a huge potential for the internationalization of MOOCs that could address the new demands on the tertiary education sector to play a role in capacity-building in developing countries. These could be deployed on a large scale at a low or zero cost using basic Internet or telephone connectivity, and could also contribute to lifelong or continuous learning all over the world.

MOOCs remove the limitations posed by geographical and space constraints linked to campus and class size and, as such, could revolutionize access to top-level education. Concerns about privacy, credits and other issues that have been present in the debate on MOOCs this year have substantive implications, but probably are not to be seen as fundamental problems and in spite of challenges and uncertainties, innovation and the market will resolve them in due course.

4. From delivery of knowledge to facilitation of learning: As online courses spread, professors are at the centre and have to consider how they engage students in what seems more and more to be a production or curation job. The issue here is not the technology, but using the right technology for the right purpose in instructional design. The trick is to create the right blend of MOOCs and face-to-face learning in response to student needs, which also respond to traditional objectives of promoting thought leadership and instilling core values. In addition to professors, new professions, more related to instructional design, will probably play a key role. Here there is space to foster collaboration within institutions but also for universities to collaborate with each other, as well as with the private sector. By sharing best practices and, furthermore, enforcing the role that universities have in giving back to communities, academic institutions can fulfil their objective of providing top quality, relevant learning experiences and even promoting new collaborations in research across disciplines.

As one participant noted: “As soon as people started talking about MOOCs, the entire model of the university started being questioned.” That is dangerous. We should be careful not to turn online education into the main topic of higher education and, especially, research. To the question: “Are you now valuing having done an MOOC more in the CV of a professor you are considering to hire?” the answer was almost unanimously “No”. That said, the mix of pressure from the MOOCs and, more importantly, technological progress and the current economic pressures, really offer universities worldwide the opportunity to adjust in order to continue to thrive in education, basic and applied research, and knowledge dissemination.

Author: Viktoria Ivarsson is Senior Manager of Academic Networks at the World Economic Forum.

With the special collaboration of Stefan Catsicas, Richard DeMillo, Yoko Ishikura, Paolo Quattrone, Carlos Villanueva and the other participants in the Tokyo roundtable

Assistance provided by Michele Petochi, Director, Academic Networks 

Image: A young woman stares at a computer screen REUTERS/Andrea Comas