Towards a New Paradigm in Education: Role of the World University Consortium

A new paradigm in human development must be founded upon a new paradigm in education. A human-centered educational system is needed whose aim is the fullest development of the capacities of each individual. Today humanity is on the cusp of a major transition in education, our most powerful instrument for conscious social evolution. Quality education can now be made universally accessible and affordable. Equally important, future education must be made relevant to the rapidly changing needs of society, the increasingly sophisticated demands of the labor market, the growing shortage of attitudes and skills need to promote entrepreneurship and full employment, the values needed for social harmony and problem solving, and the individuality needed for leadership, independent thinking and creativity. The coming revolution in education spurred by the breakthrough in online learning has made all of these goals achievable. New technology can facilitate a shift from the drudgery of passive knowledge transfer and memorization to the exhilaration of active learning that fosters curiosity, discovery and original thinking. It can also help break down the intellectual boundaries between disciplines, making possible a more comprehensive, transdisciplinary, integrated approach to knowledge. A revolution in higher education is upon us.

Education is the most sophisticated instrument yet fashioned by society for its own conscious social evolution. Yet, ironically, evolution of the instrument itself lags far behind the evolution of the society it strives to promote. This lag is a natural result of the fact that human progress is largely a subconscious process occurring by trial and error. Conscious knowledge of the process usually dawns only after many repetitions of the actual accomplishment, just as great athletes acquire skills for proficiency long before they acquire the capacity to consciously transfer their knowledge to others. However, social change has now become so rapid that it is imposing severe pressure which the existing social fabric is unable to effectively absorb and assimilate, leading to fissures and fractures that retard smooth social transitions and threaten to undermine the stability of the existing structure. The multiple crises now confronting humanity during a period of rapid globalization are symptomatic of this widening gap. Therefore, there is greater need than ever before for conscious evolution of the instruments of education required to support the general evolution of society as a whole.

Analogies are inadequate, but it may not be inappropriate to say that the current system of higher education is akin to driving 1914 Model T Fords down modern superhighways. The Model T was the first mass produced automobile in the world. Until then cars were assembled one at a time in workshops the same way horse-drawn coaches were made in earlier centuries. Ford was the first to automate the process on moving assembly lines to produce a million a year instead of a few thousand produced by the old method. But the capabilities and quality of the Model T remained largely the same as its hand-crafted, custom-assembled predecessors.

The massification of education like the mass production of automobiles a century ago will transform global society in ways that are difficult to even conceive today. The democratization of motorized transport activated and energized all aspects of society, ushering in the rise of the Middle Class and the century of the common man. The democratization of education is having equally dramatic impact now. As the right to vote became the symbol of democratic freedoms in earlier times, the right to education has become a symbol of the right of all to a life of opportunity and prosperity.

Since 1914 the dirt and gravel roads for which the Model T was designed have been gradually replaced by four and eight lane motorways connecting major cities and production centers around the world. In parallel, the automobile has gradually been transformed from a functional horse carriage driven by an internal combustion engine into a highly sophisticated, computerized, electronic vehicle providing a range of capabilities and a level of quality inconceivable during the early days of the automobile. In contrast, both the methodology and content of higher education remain largely unchanged since the 19th century. Granted that the range of specialized subjects has increased enormously and the range of information available to instructors and students has grown exponentially, the basic conception of education and pedagogy still closely resembles what it was in the universities of old. Today we have lightning fast superhighways for transmission of information and dissemination of knowledge, but we are plying these highways of cyberspace with pedagogical methods and concepts suited to a bygone age. Open access to lecture notes, audio and video on the web, and the production of highly fragmented, capsulized massive open online courses represent the Model Ts of future education. They are welcome pioneering initiatives and an indication of the vast opportunity that has emerged, but they are only rudimentary first steps in the remarkable journey of education that we have yet to clearly envision and have only just begun to traverse.

1. Challenge to Higher Education
Scientific knowledge and the technology for processing and transmitting information are not the only things that have changed during the last hundred years. Radical changes have occurred in all aspects of human life – the aspirations, knowledge, values, skills and the practical organization of society for production, commerce, finance, employment, healthcare, governance, law, entertainment and recreation have evolved commensurately in range, variety, quality, interconnectedness, richness and depth. Each of these changes imposes new demands on higher education, if it is to continue to serve as an effective instrument for rapid, harmonious evolution of global society.

While it is relatively easy to imagine the next incremental steps that can be immediately taken to improve on what prevails today, envisioning the future of higher education is itself a great challenge and a great adventure with limitless boundaries and potentials. Indeed, the pace and range of innovation based on existing models are so rapid and varied that it is very difficult to even monitor all that is happening and likely to unfold in the coming days. It is easy to forget that the first really successful MOOCs are just two years old, and since then the number of universities offering on-line education as well as the number of courses available and students enrolled have grown exponentially. Disseminating information on these initia­tives and facilitating multiplication of institutions, courses and students involved are valuable services to the field of global higher education. This was one of the objectives with which the World University Consortium’s website ( was conceived.

But this is not the only challenge that needs to be addressed, nor perhaps the most vital and important for the World University Consortium (WUC). Regardless of what organi­zations such as WUC may do to support it, the movement of rapid change in global higher education is already underway and it is unstoppable. A more fundamental question concerns whether the present direction of the movement is the very best course for the future development of this field or whether present circumstances present both the need and the opportunity for a more radical change based on a new, wider and more insightful perspective regarding the potential contribution of education to the future evolution of human society.

For this reason, it is worthwhile pausing to reflect on the essential nature of education as a human activity and the fundamental role it plays in human development. A discussion of first principles may appear to be an unnecessary distraction or indulgence in intellectual speculation at a time when there are so many practical steps that can be taken to improve on the status quo. However, it may turn out that pausing to reflect on more fundamental issues at this stage may reveal the potential for catalytic actions that can radically accelerate and alter the trajec­tory of future progress to arrive in a few years at a point which may otherwise be reached only after many decades. Such critical tipping points are all too familiar. In retrospect it is evident that the end of the Second World War provided an opportunity for founding institutions for global governance of a more far-sighted nature than the UN system that emerged, which lacks the power needed to further the evolution of global society. Another great missed opportunity occurred in the early 1940s when US President Franklin D. Roosevelt laid plans to introduce immediately after the war a second Bill of Economic Rights in America, which included the right of every American citizen to remunerative employment; but he died before he could realize that goal. So too, at the time of the founding of the Bretton Woods institutions in 1945, a proposal was tabled by Keynes and seriously considered by both the USA and UK, before being eventually rejected, for introduction of a world currency as a common reserve fund for global development. Farsighted action then could have saved decades of global financial instability and dramatically accelerated world economic progress. Similarly, we can now look back a quarter century and see that a great opportunity was missed at the end of the Cold War to completely eradicate nuclear weapons from the face of the earth. Instead, we have seen the proliferation of nuclear powers and the extension of nuclear doctrines to re-legitimatize possession and possible use of these weapons for the foreseeable future. Therefore, in our eagerness to focus on the imminently doable, let us not overlook the possibilities of a quantum leap forward for a new paradigm in global education.

* Discussion paper prepared for the first meeting of the charter members of the World University Consortium at Library of Alexandria, February 12-14, 2014.
Garry Jacobs: CEO, World Academy of Art & Science; Vice President, The Mother’s Service Society

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