Videoconferencing in Higher Education:
Something Old, Something New
When Neil Armstrong stepped onto the moon's surface and issued his famous, "One small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind," he set an audio/visual transmission record that still hasn't been topped for sheer distance. In the realm of highly specialized applications, the use of video to transcend spatial limitations has a long history. Telemedicine and remote medical consultation goes back to the 1970s and earlier. Corporate higher-ups have been conferencing via video with regional counterparts for decades as well.
Educational uses of videoconferencing have an equally extensive track record. Top scholars from leading universities all around the world communicate through technology in cases where travel is prohibitive for one reason or another. In most cases, this is a good thing -- but it also represents only a very limited segment of the higher education universe, which is itself only one aspect of education as a whole. Top scholars. Leading universities. Perhaps that is to be expected. It is also a problem.
Never before has the demand for higher education been so great. For centuries it has been an accepted fact that the only the best and the brightest have the opportunity to earn a university degree. In the United States, this exclusivity principle first began to change, particularly in the years following World War II, when Uncle Sam financed a post-secondary education for thousands of returning military men and women who were often the first in their family to have this experience. Gradually the idea has taken root in other countries as well -- that anyone who is willing to work hard, and perhaps leave their home country for a foreign campus, should be able to attend a university.
Now, well into the Age of Globalization, higher education is seen not only as an option, but as an mandatory credential. In order to be a full participant in the new world economy, and to appreciate its rewards, one simply must have a degree. Of course there are exceptional cases, individuals who succeed by innate smarts and determination. Bill Gates himself was a Harvard drop-out, and he's done fairly well. As a general rule, however, meaningful work with a level of compensation which affords a comfortable and enjoyable standard of living requires a university degree as the price of admission.
The democratization of higher education is changing the make-up of a field which had been largely unchanged for a long long time. Market forces are driving this change. Simply stated -- the demand for higher education is rapidly exceeding the capacity of traditional suppliers. These market forces have brought about the rise of a movement sometimes called, "Transnational Education," in which degree-granting institutions located on one country begin to provide services in another country in which the supply/demand situation is especially unbalanced.
Potential university students in the most developed Asian nations, like Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and others, have been aware of transnational options on a large scale since the mid-1980s. Traditionally, the transnational approach has meant faculty travel and local stand-ins during non-travel weeks. Now, finally, sophisticated video technology is about to enter the mix.
It was acknowledged at the outset that there is nothing new about videoconferencing. What is new is nature of the participants. No longer is the technology the exclusive domain of top scholars and elite institutions. It is only through the use of instructional technologies that higher education can be fully democratized -- with video conferencing leading the way. It is only through the use of video lectures that the world's best teachers can reach all the students they need to reach. And it is only through two-way transmissions that teachers and students can truly interact to create meaningful learning experiences.
Plato's Academy, with its small group dialogues featuring the Socratic method, is a beautiful ideal, but it is unrealistic that enough citizens of our rapidly-changing, intensely interconnected world can receive an education through this approach. In the coming years, gifted professors will reach more students in one lecture than Socrates could reach in a lifetime.
Guess what? The coming years are here. They will arrive in Singapore this Fall. Utah State University, a respected public university in the western part of the United States, will provide videoconferencing as a part of its teaching model in an undergraduate degree program offered through the TMC Educational Group, a private provider with several campuses in Singapore and an expanding network around mainland China. Once again, this is not new. It is not even new to Singapore -- The National University of Singapore (NUS) and Nanyang Technological University (NTU), for example, have collaborated successfully with MIT through the use of videoconferencing for several years. Others have no doubt as well. Until now, though, undergraduates have not been the target audience. Quite appropriately, the initial participants have been graduate students. There has been much to learn, much to fine-tune. The first round of anything is best conducted on a small scale.
We have reached the point at which the doors must be opened wider. More students must begin to gain some of their learning from professors who are not there in the classroom, supplemented by local academics who are. This is an exciting time in the history of higher education. Technology is now affordable, dependable and ready for prime time. It is time to educate the world. And Singapore has the chance, once again, to be among the early leaders.