The worldwide demand for higher education and lifelong learning has never been greater. Colleges and universities around the globe need to scale up their offerings to cater to a mass influx of students, for whom a degree is their passport to the 21st-century workforce. Yet, they must do this in an environment where funding is often constrained and costs continue to spiral upward.
Given the tremendous importance of education to individual employability and global competitiveness, institutions are compelled to find creative and innovative ways to effectively reach more students than ever and deliver higher education and lifelong learning at an unprecedented scale. This week, these challenges are front and center for the education ministers, government officials, policy makers, non-governmental organization (NGO) leaders, and other stakeholders gathered in Paris for the Education Leaders Forum, hosted by Microsoft and UNESCO.
Technology can play an indispensable role in ensuring that higher education institutions are responsive to today's fast-moving global economy. Technology can also deliver the scientific know-how, research capability, and educated communities that are essential to driving sustainable international development and achieving the humanitarian goals that are articulated in the United Nations' Millennial Developments Goals, such as reducing poverty and improving global health.
Technology can also introduce disruptive transformations in the education process itself, as <b>Harvard</b> Business School professor Clayton Christiansen notes in his new book, <em>Disruptive Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.</em> But for technology to live up to its transformational potential, business as usual won't cut it: universities must emphatically embrace change and forge public-private partnerships that tap into the expertise of trusted industry partners (who themselves want to tap into a stronger, more technology-savvy pool of future graduates). Creative collaboration between institutions and the private sector has given rise to promising initiatives that harness technology to advance teaching and learning and reach underserved communities in places as far afield as Qatar, Egypt, Chile, and China.
Technology holds the key to meeting the growing demand for higher education in an affordable, cost-effective way. For example, modularized digital learning components that can be repurposed across many different courses and instructors, combined with the broad reach of the internet, change the economics of delivering learning to massive numbers of students, transforming traditional campuses into dynamic, adaptable "click-and-mortar" institutions that serve students not just on campus, but anywhere in the world.
The distance learning possibilities opened up by the internet also throw an educational lifeline to students in underserved and rural communities, or to working adults who must juggle professional and family commitments with their studies. Online services can enable new collaborative and co-learning opportunities, nurturing powerful communities of learning that collapse barriers of distance and help far-flung students learn together.
At the same time, technology enables institutions to continue offering high-quality learning for the growing and diverse mix of students now enrolling in higher education, spanning students of different socioeconomic backgrounds, including an influx of first-generation students from developing countries and underserved communities.
Universities and colleges can create richer, more engaging educational experiences that complement and transform traditional instructional tools and promote improved learning outcomes. This can include multimedia content that brings complex material to life and allows students to learn at their own pace, or individual response systems (such as "clickers" to indicate whether students understand the material) that transform traditional lectures into truly interactive experiences that offer powerful feedback loops between instructors and students.
Software also promises to put the educational process itself on a more scientific and data-driven footing through more detailed measurement of student progress and instructional effectiveness. Educators can get timely information about their students' progress that they can use directly in the classroom to powerfully amplify their instructional capabilities, and students can increasingly test their knowledge and understanding in real-time creating a fully participatory educational process more closely aligned with our developing understanding of how people learn cognitively. Efforts to harness technology toward creating a more rigorous, research-based empirical pedagogical model for education - emphasizing learning outcomes and grounded in hard data - are proceeding across the board. As example, a compelling initiative is being spearheaded at the <b>University of British Columbia</b> by Nobel laureate Carl Wieman for teaching science, in which, among other innovations, interactive technology is being integrated into lectures so instruction can be driven by instantaneous feedback from students.
In addition to tracking student progress and other key indicators, there are a number of other ways software can help education systems become more agile, efficient, and connected. Better data collection and reporting can help meet the demand for greater accountability and transparency in an affordable and efficient way, while also ensuring compliance with the reporting requirements of accreditation agencies and other stakeholders. Moreover, these kinds of data-monitoring systems are essential to international standards-based reforms, such as the Bologna Process, which seeks to harmonize academic courses Europe-wide toward advancing the mobility of students and workers across the continent.
The pervasiveness of technology in today's workplace means that technological literacy is no longer required just for explicitly technical fields - it's a foundational skill for every graduate. The ability to offer technology instruction that is aligned to students' needs will be a powerful differentiator for institutions as they compete to attract students.
Institutions also must adapt to the demands of the "net generation," now hitting the college age, who have never known a world without PCs, mobile phones or the internet, and who bring with them dramatically new learning styles and preferences. These "digital natives" are fluent in instant messaging, e-mail, social networking, wikis and blogging, and they are accustomed to inter-disciplinary thinking, multitasking and collaboration, compelling universities to engage with them in fresh ways.
Developing student-centric institutions that fully prepare graduates for the demands of the knowledge economy and information society is crucial to the mission of higher education in the 21st century. Public-private partnerships, harnessing the private sector's expertise to help institutions navigate today's dynamic fast-moving technology landscape and vested interest in promoting successful learning outcomes, are an essential mechanism for making this happen.
Our students expect - and deserve - colleges and universities that effectively clear a path to career success and intellectual fulfillment. It is through a holistic approach including partnerships, process and the right technology, that institutions can develop a world-class infrastructure that enables them to deliver on this social, economic, and moral imperative.
<em>Anoop Gupta is corporate vice president of the Unlimited Potential Group, Education Product Group, and Technology Policy and Strategy at Microsoft.</em>