The benefits of digital technology

Monday, October 6, 2014
The Financial Times

The modern research university came to life as a deliberate act of disruption. In Massachusetts Institute of Technology's case, on the eve of the US civil war, our founder, William Barton Rogers, called forth a scientific university that would be grounded in practice and insist on hands-on learning. It would not be an ivory tower but a laboratory for brilliant minds geared to tackling real-world problems. 

Variations of that story played out around the world, and the radical new model worked. Contributions from universities have improved lives (genomics), created new industries (computing) and revealed mysteries of the universe itself (particle physics). As different as they are from each other, all these innovations were made possible by that pedagogical leap of faith – replacing an emphasis on rote memorisation with an emphasis on hands-on learning and experimentation – which in turn shaped the modern research university, whose output fuels the modern economy. 

Today, research universities face a new kind of disruption unlocked by a force they themselves have pioneered: technology. The internet and its burgeoning tools may unleash the greatest change to how we learn – and who gets to learn – since the arrival of the printing press. We can use this technology to transform our pedagogy, extend our impact on the world and lower barriers to access. 

This will neither happen overnight nor without intense debate. There is, after all, an inherent tension: how do we preserve what is best about universities while pushing ourselves to change? 

The opportunity begins with the transformation of pedagogy, thanks to the power of digital technologies to radically lower the cost of transmitting information. Since the invention of the internet, those technologies have become effective not only for sharing information, such as lecture notes, but for connecting teachers with students and students with each other, vastly expanding access to knowledge and opportunity.

In 2011, taking advantage of that progress, MIT launched MITx, a learning platform that offers interactive online versions of MIT courses free of charge. With its “open-source” design, the teaching technology itself is also available free for institutions and coders everywhere to use – and improve. MITx inspired MIT to join with Harvard University to build edX, an online learning portal that offers online courses from universities around the world. 

That same technology brings this unexpected advantage: to create more opportunity on campus for hands-on learning. If students can use digital technology to view lectures in their own time and at their own pace, teaching time can be much more interactive and problem-based. Digital technology also opens doors to flexibility: can we make our classes more modular, and can we offer students shorter (or longer) paths towards graduation? 

Tomorrow's research university will have the campus as the centre of a much-widened sphere. Right now, some of the most selective universities have acceptance rates in the single digits. This is a heartbreaking statistic: many of those we do not admit are fully qualified. Digital technology holds the power to increase radically the number of students who can access our teaching. It forces us to ask: can't there be other kinds of learners besides the small number of students we can teach on campus? Can't there be some meaningful credentials apart from the traditional university degree? 

The possibilities we see at MIT are stunning. Today, 1m people around the world are taking MITx courses. Online-learning sceptics have correctly noted that only a fraction of them complete the courses they begin. (Though it is worth noting that even those “tiny fractions” are many multiples of the total students we can teach in person!) But this itself represents a trend: a hunger for subjects offered in something other than an “all or nothing” fashion. As we learn more about how people wish to learn, we will develop firmer answers to the question, “How many kinds of MIT students should there be?” 

The financial implications of that question may be significant for all of us in higher education. Research universities make the future possible but are inherently expensive to run. If we can create value propositions for millions of people around the world who would benefit from online credentials, we can better support campuses that welcome not only full-time students, but online learners who visit us for brief periods. 

What's more, we can use digital technology not merely to teach more people around the world but also to learn from them as well. The university of the future will harness the knowledge of the global community of learners who have different perspectives and leverage their expertise in pursuing the world's hardest problems. At universities everywhere we should dare to be as bold as our founders.