Universities will be 'irrelevant' by 2020, Y. professor says

Published: Tuesday, April 21 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

PROVO — Last fall, David Wiley stood in front of a room full of professors and university administrators and delivered a prediction that made them squirm: "Your institutions will be irrelevant by 2020."

Wiley is one part Nostradamus and nine parts revolutionary, an educational evangelist who preaches about a world where students listen to lectures on iPods, and those lectures are also available online to everyone anywhere for free. Course materials are shared between universities, science labs are virtual, and digital textbooks are free.

Institutions that don't adapt, he says, risk losing students to institutions that do. The warning applies to community colleges and ivy-covered universities, says Wiley, who is a professor of psychology and instructional technology at Brigham Young University.

America's colleges and universities, says Wiley, have been acting as if what they offer — access to educational materials, a venue for socializing, the awarding of a credential — can't be obtained anywhere else. By and large, campus-based universities haven't been innovative, he says, because they've been a monopoly.

But Google, Facebook, free online access to university lectures, after-hours institutions such as the University of Phoenix, and virtual institutions such as Western Governors University have changed that. Many of today's students, he says, aren't satisfied with the old model that expects them to go to a lecture hall at a prescribed time and sit still while a professor talks for an hour.

Higher education doesn't reflect the life that students are living, he says. In that life, information is available on demand, files are shared, and the world is mobile and connected. Today's colleges, on the other hand, are typically "tethered, isolated, generic, and closed," he says.

To those who would argue that today's students are spoiled — the "by gum, I wrote my dissertation on a manual typewriter" argument — Wiley points to a YouTube video called "What if." The video quotes educators from years gone by who were alarmed that chalk, pencils, ballpoint pens and calculators would make students lazy and stupid.

Wiley is an amiable firebrand who helped launch the nation's "open content" movement a decade ago while he was getting his Ph.D. at BYU. Like the "open source" software movement that preceded it, open content makes it easy for authors, teachers and others to sign licensing agreements to freely share their copyrighted materials.

At its core, the open education movement and the larger open content, copyleft movement has "a fundamental belief that knowledge is a public good and should be fully shared," explains Catherine Casserly, senior partner with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Wiley, she says, is viewed in the open education realm as an imaginative innovator who is always thinking of new applications for disseminating knowledge to the many instead of keeping it "locked up" for the benefit of the few.

In the world according to Wiley, universities would still make money, though, because they have a marketable commodity: to get college credits and a diploma, you'd have to be a paying customer.

But Wiley sees a future where textbooks could always be downloaded for free, easily edited to meet the needs of the teacher and students. The average college textbook today costs between $100 and $150, he notes, so there's a kind of "arms race" constantly going on in which students figure out how to share textbooks or buy used ones, and publishers try to make the books obsolete every 18 months.

Wiley helped start Flat World Knowledge, which creates peer-reviewed textbooks that can be downloaded for free, or bought as paperbacks for $30. He also is the founder of the Utah Open High School, which debuts next fall. It, too, will use open content materials, and will provide an online education for 125 students.

When he taught at Utah State University, Wiley became famous in higher-ed circles for letting anyone sign up for his class. Unlike typical online classes, this one required no tuition and no password, and Wiley interacted with all his students, even the ones in Italy. A similar class this semester at BYU has attracted non-paying students from Brazil to Indonesia. In this class, students do their homework on blogs that anyone in the world can read (and in fact some of the blogs were picked up by an international educational newsletter.) When education is digital and open, the circle keeps getting wider.

Utah is, in some ways, on the cutting edge of educational reform. It's the only state in the country, for example, that has a statewide initiative to fund open courseware. On the other hand, the 2009 Legislature did not renew funding for the project.

As at most higher education institutions across America, educational innovation in Utah is hit and miss. At many Utah universities, Wiley says, there are professors who record their lectures and download them onto iTunes, and there are professors who have been delivering the exact same lecture for the past 20 years.

Every college and university needs to adapt, he says, or they won't survive. But BYU, he notes, might be a special case. Students will likely still flock there for the two extra benefits the school offers: a religious education and the chance to meet and marry an LDS Church member.

E-MAIL: jarvik@desnews.com

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