In the recent Hong Kong Economic Summit, an annual forum organized by the Hong Kong Economic Journal, Dr. Ceng Ming, deputy chief executive of the Alibaba Group, shared his views on the future of university education in the digital era.
What he said made me reflect on the true value of higher education.
In the internet era, the traditional mass media can no longer dominate the social agenda. The amount of information and ideas and the speed in which they are being spread around the globe are simply unprecedented in human history.
Even an average individual can become a global sensation overnight without leaving their own bedroom through the internet.
As far as the academic world is concerned, the internet could turn out to be another huge game changer like the invention of the printing press almost a thousand years ago, as it opens the door through which everybody can have free access to all kinds of knowledge at their fingertips.
Many classical works and masterpieces written by prominent scholars which used to be only available in university libraries can now be downloaded from the internet for free, and even qualifications obtained through online distance courses are now widely accepted in the job market.
Previously unknown gurus are emerging from all over the world to recruit students and deliver lectures on a wide variety of subjects online.
It appears that it is only a matter of time before the computer screen or even smartphones will replace the blackboard and the lecture hall as the major platform for receiving higher education.
Even science subjects can now be taught online, perhaps except for those that still need to be taught in high-end laboratories.
The internet has also broken the monopoly of universities on advanced knowledge, and redefined the meaning of “higher education”.
It seems the reason why universities still exist today is not because they offer knowledge, but just because they issue graduation certificates which employers still require from job applicants.
The rise of the internet may not necessarily spell the end for universities, at least not for now.
However, it definitely signals the beginning of the “P2P” era, in which formal university education will no longer be hailed as a sacred cow by society. There will be more and more online alternatives to it.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 9.
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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