The Golden Age of universities may be dead. And while much of the commentary around the online disruption of education ranges from cost-benefit analyses to assessing ideology of what drives MOOCs (massively open online courses), the real question becomes — what is the point of the university in this landscape?
It’s clear that universities will have to figure out the balance between commercial relevance and basic research, as well as how to prove their value beyond being vehicles for delivering content. But lost in the shuffle of commentary here is something arguably more important than and yet containing all of these factors: culture.
Online courses can be part of, and have, their own culture, but university culture cannot be replicated in an online environment (at least not easily). Once this cultural difference is acknowledged, we can revisit the cost-benefit analysis: Is cheaper tuition worth it if it pays for education that isn’t optimized for innovation? Will university culture further stratify the socioeconomic difference MOOCs may level? And so on…
While innovation is a buzzword that’s bandied about a bit too loosely, we think this is the lens we need to use in judging the relevance of universities. It’s the only thing that prevents us from programming students as robots, a workforce whose jobs can be automated away. In fact, universities that excel at preparing students for such a creative economy prioritize the same three things that drive successful startup cultures: density, shared resources, and community.