Don Tapscott, who wrote Growing Up Digital, has an intriguing post in which he argues that the digital revolution will transform higher education to such an extent that it will lead to the demise of the university as we know it.

In Tapscott’s view, small, selective liberal arts colleges (SLACs) are the best prepared to meet the challenges of the digital era. Other types of institutions will not fare as well:

But the same cannot be said of many of the big universities that regard their prime role to be a centre for research, with teaching as an inconvenient afterthought, and class sizes so large that they only want to “teach” is through lectures.

These universities are vulnerable, especially at a time when students can watch lectures online for free by some of the world’s leading professors on sites like Academic Earth. They can even take the entire course online, for credit. According to the Sloan Consortium, a recent article in Chronicle of Higher Education tells us, “nearly 20 per cent of college students — some 3.9 million people — took an online course in 2007, and their numbers are growing by hundreds of thousands each year. The University of Phoenix enrolls over 200,000 each year.”

It’s a provocative notion, but I think that Tapscott underestimates the the importance of context (setting, peer pressure, inspirational professors) for motivating students. And, on the “demand” side – or student side, I think that Tapscott wildly overestimates the level of student motivation to learn in the absence of the context of higher education. Later in this long post, he points to the example of MIT’s Open CourseWare as an ideal type:

Some are taking bold steps to reinvent themselves, with help from the Internet. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, is offering free lecture notes, exams and videotaped lectures by MIT professors to the online world. Anyone in the world can watch the entire series of lectures for some 30 courses….

While there may be interest in online courses of ‘star’ professors, I’m skeptical about how motivated potential students might be without the incentives of grades, deadlines for assigned coursework, and the degree credential. Tapscott’s over-the-top optimism about the desire for learning among the generation he refers to as “digital natives” strikes me the perspective of someone who has never stood before a class and asked, “has anyone done the reading?” only to look out a sea of blank faces staring back.

The prediction about the demise of the university may be premature, as were the predictions a decade or more ago, about the demise of the book. Yet, like the publishing of books has been modified somewhat by the growth of e-books and digital readers like the Kindle, the university – rather than come to an end – is going to be modified in some ways by the digital revolution. At this point, no one knows what those changes will be.