[Viewpoint]Education, plugged in

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[Viewpoint]Education, plugged in

In 1997, the famous American scholar Peter Drucker made a bombshell declaration in an interview with Forbes. He predicted that in 30 years college campuses would become historic relics and that universities as we knew them wouldn’t survive.

Most people, however, believed that in the 21st-century knowledge-based society universities would become increasingly important, as knowledge is produced and delivered on campuses.

So why did Drucker say the opposite?

He cited development of communication technology and information technology as reasons for his declaration. The professor predicted that distance learning using the Internet would spread rapidly around the globe.

He maintained that the current format of university education in which students gather on campuses and professors deliver lectures in classrooms costs so much that it would lose its competitiveness.

His argument caused controversy among scholars around the world and many discussed the issue.

Advocates of traditional universities emphasized the importance of face-to-face meetings between teachers and pupils, flatly turning down Drucker’s argument. They underlined that social contacts and networks among colleagues were important aspects of campus life and claimed that college campuses wouldn’t die out.

Meanwhile, other scholars who valued the economic considerations and convenience of distance learning agreed with Drucker. They said that through online learning, people could sit comfortably at home and listen to renowned scholars’ lectures at their convenience.

According to Drucker’s school of thought, this new form of education would change the paradigm of education in the future. E-learning and virtual campuses would be the dominant form of higher education as they cost less and are more suitable for the concept of continuing education. They even claimed that private institutes that sell distance learning programs and issue degrees would thrive and replace conventional universities.

Ten years have since passed and what is happening now? Competition to get into prestigious universities around the world is getting fiercer and there are no signs that campuses will disappear, as Drucker maintained. An increasing number of people want to receive higher education and thus many universities in Europe have too many students.

However, some trends are just like Drucker said they would be. Open courseware allows students to watch professors give lectures on the Internet. Sitting at home in Seoul, one can listen to lectures of a professor at MIT.

The University of Phoenix, an American school established in 1989, offers online courses and degree programs. With 17,000 faculty members, the university has become one of the best in America. Prestigious institutions like Harvard and Stanford University also have started online degree programs.

The two opposite phenomena are happening probably because universities have become polarized in two opposite directions. Prestigious universities keep getting talented students, building networks and growing increasingly richer.

But other universities which don’t have the same brand value lose students to online universities and have difficulty staying afloat. In Japan, several universities have shut down recently and an education professor predicts that in the United States, around 500 universities will close down in 20 years.

Some forecast that even online courses will grow to be dominated by several elite universities. If this phenomenon really happens, that will certainly spread around the world, as globalization becomes more and more the norm. If Korean students don’t have difficulty in communicating in English and if they are free to choose any course they want to take, what would they choose between an MBA from Harvard University and the same degree program from a domestic school? What if that Harvard MBA costs less?

One wonders if Korean universities are prepared for these upcoming changes. According to the 2008 IMD World Competitiveness Yearbook, Korea’s level of university education was ranked 53rd among 55 countries in terms of how it reflects demand in society and the economy.

As the number of youths is decreasing, universities have difficulty in filling campuses with students. On top of this, if students flock to online campuses because Korean universities’ level of education isn’t good enough, times will become very tough for universities.

To survive the future challenges and hardship, Korean universities need to become specialized, while at the same time making themselves more diverse.

*The writer is the dean of the College of Natural Science at Seoul National University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Oh Se-jung

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