Are university professors obsolete?

Students of the future won’t be limited to a local institution or faculty member. And much more learning will be less formal and structured

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Roslyn KuninWhat future awaits university professors?

Do you remember telephone operators, mostly women who worked at switchboards connecting and disconnecting phone calls? Operators have long been replaced by automation and the various voicemail mazes we all struggle through.

Did you see that wonderful film Hidden Figures, where “coloured computers” – very smart black women – did, by hand, the numerical calculations that made space flight possible? They were replaced by a computer before the end of the movie.

Are professors next?

Let’s look at university and college faculties. The lecture system (someone standing in front of a group of people, talking at them – what’s been called full-frontal education) has been around for a long time. The word lecture means read. This method of education started well before the invention of printing, when hand-written books were very scarce and valuable. The best way to distribute the knowledge in books was to have them read to groups of people – lecturing.

Education methods change very slowly but hints of things to come are appearing.

Two new medical doctors have revealed that they never went to lectures. Their successful exam results confirmed that there were easier and more convenient ways to get the information they needed than having to sit and listen to someone at a specific time in a specific place.

A man who works in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) sector and has been very successful in business has stated that you get education from books, not from university. He’s obviously of a certain age since the book has morphed into various electronic ways of delivering information and knowledge.

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by Roslyn Kunin

With knowledge growing and changing at a remarkable rate, even universities and colleges are beginning to realize that tenured faculty are not always able to deliver the cutting edge on new developments that future workers need. There’s a huge gap between pre-digital professors and their very much post-digital students. Educational institutions are recognizing this by reducing the proportion of long-term permanent faculty and adding more contract staff whose education is more current and who can be replaced more easily as fields advance. The ivy-covered campus is becoming obsolete as point of learning delivery.

This doesn’t mean that learning is less important – quite the reverse. It does mean that the distinction between the teacher who knows and teaches and the student who learns is blurring.

Students will receive electronically-delivered lectures, videos and texts. They may follow a more traditional pattern by taking MOOCs (massive open online courses) delivered by professors through universities. However, they won’t be limited to a local institution or faculty member. Anyone with connectivity can take courses from the best universities and world-leading experts.

But this will only be part of education.

Much more learning will be less formal and structured. People in every field will now be able to work on their own to develop new ideas, methods and knowledge. People have always done so, but now they’re able to share their ideas with the world. Whether it’s fixing a tap, fixing a computer system or fixing a person on the operating table, you’ll be able to find the latest and best method somewhere on the web. And if you discover or work out something new, you too will share it.

Lifelong learning is more than a cliché. What anyone learns in youth is not enough to get you through life, let alone to teach it for life. We all have to keep on learning, more often from those who are younger than we are. We also all have the opportunity to be teachers by sharing what we learn, develop and know.

For most of us, teaching will only be a small part of what we do and we’ll probably not get paid for it. Hence, the need to work and earn in another field.

A traditional campus-based education does serve other functions beyond learning. It’s often the reason that young people first move out of their parents’ homes. It’s an excellent place to find compatible young people and potential life partners.

But if universities are no longer the best or only way to get an education, using them for these social functions becomes very expensive.

Online dating anyone?

Troy Media columnist Roslyn Kunin is a consulting economist and speaker.


universities, education

The views, opinions and positions expressed by columnists and contributors are the author’s alone. They do not inherently or expressly reflect the views, opinions and/or positions of our publication.

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