By Ali Arya, Associate Dean (Planning and Awards), Faculty of Graduate and Postdoctoral Affairs and Associate Professor, School of Information Technology

While the number of university students has increased in the last few decades, the rising cost of university education, the introduction of online methods of acquiring knowledge, and more recent trends, such as industry apprenticeships, have made most of us in academia question the role we will have in the new age of digital media and how relevant and sustainable that role can be.

Back in mid-1990s, I used a website for downloading music lyrics. The internet connections were low-speed so downloading or uploading music files was not quite imaginable yet. I remember one day there was a notice on the website saying they were sued and forced to stop operating by the record companies. The entertainment industry had a different business model back then: you had to buy a record with fixed content and that was your only way of getting music (and even the lyrics), and you couldn’t copy it either. It didn’t take long before Napster and peer-to-peer file sharing announced the beginning of the end for that business model and the inevitable extinction of giants who couldn’t adapt to the new age of digital media.

The introduction of digital media has clearly affected universities’ practices as we now have online courses and material, computer-based projects and exams, and interactive gadgets. However, with all the recent changes in the way content is generated and accessed, our practices at university are essentially the same. Despite variations and deviations, we still create a set of content for students to read, make standard exams, and use standard metrics to evaluate all students. Our online courses and fancy gadgets have not changed our educational practice much.

The computer-based changes in university practices remind me of another memory I have from the 1990s: the CD-ROM revolution. We were told that a single CD could hold as much information as tens of books or more, and that was the power of digital solutions. Soon, all that information went online, and we had websites with a massive amount of data. These brought significant convenience in accessing data but didn’t necessarily change the way we worked and studied. We had only changed the format not the process; we would read the same text but on a screen instead of paper. The introduction of Web 2.0 was a sign that digital media designers were starting to realize the difference between “digitized” systems that copied the old practices into a digital format, and “digital” systems that were designed for and based on real properties of digital media.

The real, and more significant, added value that immersive digital devices can afford shows itself when a user doesn’t experience the same thing as others. This happens when Google customizes our search results or our fitness app offers activity recommendations that match our daily routines (if they both could get it right). The key added value of digital media is “personalization,” and that is what we are missing in our educational practices.

The practice of course-based university programs with fixed content and standard tests is similar to pre-arranged music records and broadcast TV programs. They are all facing “personalized” competitive options that threaten to end their operations. A wide range of lifestyles and career paths, combined with our new understanding of special needs, demands a highly customized learning process. To stay relevant in the digital age, universities should offer a unique value that can’t be found elsewhere: personalized learning guided by mentors who are harder to find than the content. That happens if we let go of the course-based structure with generic content and tests, and instead embrace a project-based system with flexible pace and mentors who can coordinate personalized goals, observe the process, and offer personalized advice and evaluation.

Redesigning university programs with thousands of students is not easy, but it can and must be started if we hope to stay relevant, and functioning. Many issues, such as accreditation and limited resources, need to be addressed. Innovative use of technology and new evaluation and internship systems can help. Large undergraduate programs may not be the best starting point, but small graduate programs can potentially be the place to test ideas and find solutions that can later be applied to other cases. Providing advanced standing for professional experiences, customizing programs for different needs and interests, structuring the courses around personalized projects with flexible duration and format, proper use of technology to create personalized content and experiences, one-on-one electronic and in-person consulting instead of lectures, and multi-disciplinary collaborative projects with other departments, industry, and other universities (even abroad) can provide the value-added and personalized education that will continue to attract students and help universities survive the age of digital media. Otherwise, YouTube will be a better option for students who can just Google it!