Rapidly growing demand for higher education in the decades to come means that virtual classrooms and online courses will be essential. Fortunately this is already happening.
When the classroom is online, everyone can get a seat
Over the next decade, it is estimated by the World Economic Forum (WEF) that the global economy will need to create some 600 million new jobs to preserve social cohesion and ensure sustainable growth. In the midst of continuing economic fragility across much of the world, this poses a monumental challenge, and will thus be one of the topics discussed at WEF's annual meeting in Davos January 23-27.
Education is key to delivering this agenda. But as the global pool of education and knowledge continually expands, and demand for access to it increases, traditional means of sharing and disseminating it are under unprecedented strain. Unesco estimates that by 2025, there will be at least 80 million more people than now seeking higher education.
This would require construction, each and every week for the next 12 years, of three universities or higher education colleges capable of accommodating 40,000 students. That's simply not going to happen, especially given reduced government budgets in much of the world.
So how can this issue best be addressed?
Much of the answer lies in realising the full potential of the internet. It already provides access to vast resources of information, most of it free. But not all this data is reliable, and even credible information is only a stepping stone to real knowledge.
That's why, a decade ago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology made its educational materials available online - for free. About 300 educational institutions have followed, including Delft University in the Netherlands, where I am secretary-general. Together they created the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which now provides some 21,000 courses and has some 360 million online visits per year.
Instead of searching the Web for information, learners can now access focused courses, along with support materials such as sample tests that gather, assess, and organise information into coherent blocks of knowledge. This has played a pioneering role in what is nothing less than a global educational revolution.
Despite the major benefits of providing educational materials online, this development has not been without critics. Some, for instance, scorn online learning as exclusively "virtual", but for many (if not most) young people, digital communication - be it via Skype, Facebook or other social media means - is the new reality.
Other critics have justifiably pointed out that online programmes are often not interactive and focus too much on content. They say content cannot be equated with knowledge and that learning needs interaction between students and teachers.
However, as pressure on higher education intensifies, the reality of campus-based study is that teachers often find themselves mere content providers to hundreds of students in a lecture hall, particularly at the undergraduate level. The personalised, interactive learning experience that critics of online education uphold is already endangered.
Moreover, in the last two years, major steps have been taken in online higher education that deal with exactly the questions of how to enable the learning process, provide structure and facilitate interaction on line.
At present, almost every aspect of education can be found online: content, homework, interaction among students, automated feedback, testing and certification. Good examples are Stanford University's and MIT's Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) which have attracted around 100,000 students per course.
On top of content they include structure - a starting and finishing date for everybody joining - homework, a community and a final test.
This example has been followed by many other institutions. For instance Open Study and the OpenCourseWare Consortium have provided interaction by building student communities around online materials, the largest one being maths, with 83,000 students.
Taken together, digital technology and the internet are key to tackling several of the grand global challenges in education, including circumventing the rising cost of traditional education, and accommodating the increasing number of students seeking higher education.
As with all upheavals, the full implications of this revolution are not easy to predict. However, advancements in access to education can only help ensure social cohesion and sustainable growth across the globe.
Anka Mulder is Secretary-General of Delft University and Global President of OpenCourseWare Consortium