Monday, April 9, 2012

Education in the future

There is an article in this month's Wired magazine about two Standford University professors who offered an artificial intelligence course they teach on line to anyone for free.  They were shocked when 160,000 students enrolled, two-thirds of whom live outside the United States.  Over 100 volunteers worked to translate the lectures into 44 languages.  The university offered no credit for this course, but that did not deter the many who were not interested in college credits; they only were interested in the learning they would receive from this course.  Students had to take the same exams and tests that traditional students took and submit weekly assignments.  137,000 students dropped out before completing the course, but that is still a huge number of students who completed this difficult course.  This success has led to additional courses at Standford being offered in a similar format, and MIT planned to offer their own program to compete with Standford's this year.  The person who developed this course, Sebastian Thrun, predicts that within 50 years there will be only ten institutions offering higher education, and he is hopeful that a digital university he is developing will be one of those ten.

When I read that I thought there is no way there will be only 10 institutions of higher education in 50 years, but as rapidly as things are changing today I guess it's a possibility.  With technology growing as it is it's dangerous to make too many predictions.  Only 44 years ago, in 1968, a writer for Business Week magazine predicted it was unlikely that Japanese cars would find a market in the United States.  It was just 35 years ago, 1977, that the founder of Digital Equipment Corporation said there was no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.  I guess time will tell whether Thrun is right or not.

His prediction did cause me to wonder what theological education would look like if he is correct.  Which of the 10 institutions would be training future ministers, and what would be included in that education?  Assuming denominations are still around 50 years from now, how would a seminary education offered by such few schools impact them?  What current seminaries, if any, would survive such a monumental change in higher education, or would future ministers receive their theological and ministerial training through schools that do not currently exist?  Would future seminarians receive traditional degrees such as are now offered, would there be different degree programs, or would students simply take the courses they feel they need to be effective in ministry and be content with receiving an education without seeking specific degrees?  If the latter is true, how will that impact the ordination and placement polities of some denominations, again assuming they still exist 50 years from now?  How would such changes in education impact the training bivocational ministers could receive?

I have no predictions for any of these questions nor do I have any answers.  I am not an educator, and I am certainly not a prophet, but I do find such questions interesting.  When I think of the changes that have occurred in my 63 years I wouldn't rule out any possibility of what might change in the next 50 years.  The only thing that is certain is that changes will occur, and. most likely, on a scale we have never seen before.    

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