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The Future of Higher Learning: Classrooms Optional

By Jason Kohn, Contributing Columnist

Reading David’s post on “TEDTalks” got me thinking about how we conceive of the classroom and what the future holds for higher learning. How important is the traditional college experience in a world where ubiquitous broadband networks let us see and interact with teachers virtually, from anywhere in the world?

In his 1854 essay “The Idea of a University,” John Henry Newman argued why, even in an age when knowledge was widely accessible in books, the college experience was still vital:

“The general principles of any study you may learn by books at home; but the detail, the colour, the tone, the air, the life which makes it live in us, you must catch all these from those in whom it lives already. You must imitate the student in French or German, who is not content with his grammar, but goes to Paris or Dresden: you must take example from the young artist, who aspires to visit the great Masters in Florence and in Rome. …we must come to the teachers of wisdom to learn wisdom.”

This basic rationale for the university has endured for many centuries, but ultimately, it’s a function of the limitations of physical space. Elite academic institutions are elite because their physical boundaries keep the masses out. Lecture halls can only hold so many students. Even the most well-traveled professors can reach only so many young minds.

As broadband service providers bring us the next generation of the video-based web, these limitations begin to evaporate. And you don’t have to look far to see that the revolution has already started.

Blurring Classroom Boundaries

TEDTalks is a great example. Championed by its creators as “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world,” the TED organization brings lectures by the world’s premier innovators and thinkers on diverse topics to anyone who has an Internet connection and half an hour to spare. Now, the TED Open TV Project is bringing TEDTalks lectures to television broadcasters as well.

The Roku digital video player has enabled TV presentation of online video services and of video-based higher learning content. The CDNTwo channel brings free courses from Yale, Berkeley, and other prestigious institutions into your living room.

This new model for higher education is not just a top-down phenomenon. People like the scientist and mathematician Salman Kahn are producing academic video content in their own homes and educating millions of viewers online.

Universities worldwide are also getting involved, lowering barriers to entry for higher learning and establishing “open education” opportunities for anyone in the world who wishes to participate. Thousands of hours of university lectures are already available as “open educational resources” online.

A New Template for Higher Education

Today, these online video-based lectures are chiefly aimed at the casual learner. But is it so hard to envision them directly competing with — and ultimately, maybe replacing — the traditional college campus?

Perhaps John Henry Newman asked the question best: “Why, you will ask, need we go up to knowledge, when knowledge comes down to us?”

In Newman’s mind, the answer was that, until the day books can replace the full sensory experience of learning directly from a teacher, “the fullness of wisdom” can exist in a classroom alone. As we watch the college classroom extend to our living rooms and mobile smartphones, that day may have finally arrived.

The Future: Imagine the Possibilities

Video:  Cisco Vision -- The Learning Society

Video:  Cisco Vision -- Expanding the Classroom

How will the process of our ongoing learning evolve in the 21st Century? We welcome your thoughts.

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