The old model of a teacher delivering a one-way message through a lecture is no longer engaging 21st-century students.
This post was co-written with Alex Tapscott.
If there is one institution due for innovation, it's the university. It's time for a deep debate on how universities function in a networked society. The centuries-old model of learning still offered by many big universities doesn't work any more, especially for students who have grown up digital.
To start with, big universities are still offering what I call the broadcast model of learning, where the teacher is the broadcaster and the student is the supposedly willing recipient of the one-way message. It goes like this: "I'm a professor and I have knowledge. Get ready; here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory so you can recall it to me when I test you."
The definition of a lecture has become the process in which the notes of the teacher go to the notes of the student without going through the brains of either.
This is no longer appropriate for the digital age and for a new generation of students who represent the future of learning. Today's generation want to converse when they learn. They like to share. Immersed in digital technology, they are keen to try new things, often at high speed. To them, university should be fun and interesting, so they should enjoy the delight of discovering things for themselves.
It's true that universities are trying to update this broadcast model. And of course many professors are working hard to move beyond this model. However, it remains dominant overall.
If universities want to adapt the teaching techniques to their current audience, they should make significant changes, especially if they want to survive the arrival of free online courses, some from the world's top professors.
The professors who remain relevant will have to abandon the traditional lecture, and start listening and conversing with the students. To begin, the mastery of knowledge (anything where there is a right or wrong answer) should be achieved by students working with interactive, self-paced computer learning programs. This can be done outside the classroom, freeing students and faculty alike to spend class time on the things that matter: discussion, debate and collaboration around projects.
This is now possible because of the wonders of modern technology. It is starting to happen at select campuses where professors have introduced a "just in time" approach to their teaching.
Warm-up questions, written by the students, are typically due a few hours before class, giving the teacher an opportunity to adjust the lesson to focus on the parts of the assignments that students struggled with. Harvard professor Eric Mazur, who uses this approach in his physics class, puts it this way: "Education is so much more than the mere transfer of information. The information has to be assimilated. Students have to connect the information to what they already know, develop mental models, learn how to apply the new knowledge and how to adapt this knowledge to new and unfamiliar situations."
He's right. What counts these days is your capacity to learn lifelong, to think, research, find information, analyze, synthesize, contextualize, critically evaluate it, to apply research to solving problems, to collaborate and communicate. This is, by the way, what you get out of a liberal arts undergraduate education, no matter what discipline you choose.
Another fixture of old-style learning is the assumption that students should learn on their own. Sharing notes in an exam hall or collaborating on some of the essays and homework assignments was often forbidden. Yet the individual learning model is foreign territory for most young people, who have grown up collaborating, sharing and creating together online. Progressive educators are recognizing this. Students start internalizing what they've learned in class only once they start talking to each other.
Of course, universities play an important role in the sorting of individuals in society, through the admissions process and the awarding of degrees. They screen human capital for future employers and more broadly stratify society. Those who graduate have the credential to get the most desirable jobs or entrance to graduate programs. They have proven they have a degree of discipline and that they're prepared to play by the rules.
But a credential and even the prestige of a university is rooted in its effectiveness as a learning institution. If campuses are seen as places where learning is inferior to other models, or worse, places where learning is restricted and stifled, the role of the campus experience will be undermined as well. The university is too costly to be simply an extended summer camp.
Campuses that embrace the new models become more effective learning environments and more desirable places. Computer-based learning for instance, can free up intellectual capital -- on the part of both professors and students -- to spend their on-campus time thinking and inquiring and challenging each other, rather than just absorbing information.
The current model of university education raises many other questions: Why should a university student be restricted to learning from the professors at the university he or she is attending? True, students can obviously learn from intellectuals around the world through books or the Internet. Yet in a digital world, why shouldn't a student be able to take a course from a professor at another university?
Why are universities judged by the number of students they exclude or by how much they spend? Why aren't they judged by how well they teach and at what price?
The digital world is challenging the very notion of a walled-in institution that excludes large numbers of people. Yet the Industrial Age model of education is hard to change. Vested interests fight change. And leaders of old paradigms are often the last to embrace the new.
Back in 1997, I presented my views to a group of about 100 university presidents at a dinner hosted by Ameritech in Chicago. After the talk I sat down at my table and asked the smaller group what they thought about my remarks. They responded positively. So I asked them, "why is this taking so long?" One president commented that we're still stuck in a "Gutenberg approach to learning."
A very thoughtful man named Jeffery Bannister, then president of Butler College, was seated next to me. "We've got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards and the students are writing down what they say," he said. "This is a not a Gutenberg model. It's a pre-Gutenberg approach -- the printing press is not even an important part of the learning paradigm. Wait till these students who are 14 and have grown up learning on the Net hit the (college) classrooms -- sparks are going to fly."
Bannister was right. A powerful force to change the university is the students. And sparks are flying today. There is a huge generational clash emerging in these institutions.
Changing the model of pedagogy for this generation is crucial for the survival of the university. If students turn away from a traditional university education, this will erode the value of the credentials universities award, their position as centres of learning and research and as campuses where young people get a chance to grow up.
Don Tapscott and his son Alex Tapscott are authors of the Globe and Mail bestselling book Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin is Changing Money, Business and the World. This piece originally appeared in The Toronto Star.