Higher education is undergoing revolutionary changes not seen since the invention of the printing press, and technology is playing a role.

Yet thinkers and educators on the cutting edge of these changes brought together at Suffolk University by WGBH radio’s Innovation Hub are divided on what the focus should be: engaging students in new ways or improving the quality of instruction and instructors.

They do agree that change is in the air.

Stuck in the Middle Ages

“I don't think it takes much to innovate an institution that’s still stuck in the Middle Ages, said Eric Mazur, dean of Applied Physics at Harvard University who as an educator is known for his work on Peer Instruction.

He said that robots have replaced the need for people on assembly lines, and “any job that requires memorization or rote procedures will be eliminated. The realities of society are what will force universities to change because the types of skills we need are changing.”

Peter Hopkins, president of the e-leaning company Big Think, projects that changes in higher education will eventually see some students attending college for four years, some for six months.

“Others who would be at the top of their classes today won't go to college at all but will pass competency tests and go right into careers,” said Hopkins.

Suffolk University partnered with Innovation Hub, hosted by Kara Miller, to present College 2.0: The New Face of College Education at the Modern Theatre on June 4. The program was recorded live and will be broadcast on WGBH radio on June 22.

Turning technology to advantage

“Technology is driving changes in the way that instruction is delivered, with concerns about the high cost of education serving as an incentive to harness technology for cost savings,” said Suffolk University President James McCarthy in introductory remarks.

“Our task is to turn technology to our students’ advantage,” he said. Massive Online Open courses, or MOOCs “are gaining a great deal of attention for their power to bring insights and perspectives typically available only to students in college and university classrooms to hundreds of thousands of people around the globe. But MOOCs are a small subset of the technological revolution in education.

Future of education

Richard Miller, president of Olin College of Engineering, which is focused on active learning and courses built around hands-on projects, said that education is the transfer of information from one person to another, and MOOCs are a way of reaching a large number of people.

However, he foresees a time when it what a person knows will be less important than it has been in the past.

“It’s about engaging people. The pedagogy we have twenty years from now will be more engaging than sitting in a lecture and listening,” he said. “Knowing something isn't going to be as important as whether you know how to get things done.”

Meanwhile, Anant Agarwal, president of edX, a Harvard-MIT online undertaking that claims to offer the “best classes from the best professors and universities,” predicts that soon students will “lie in bed at midnight and explore educational material online. Our data show that most edX materials are downloaded between midnight and 2 a.m.”

He said that online instruction is a boon in blended, or hybrid, courses that combine face-to-face with online learning and offer benefits such as being able to easily review material.

“What kind of lectures can you stop, rewind and listen to again. You can't do that in the lecture hall.”

Hopkins’ firm has worked with novel approaches such as having “superstar professors” distill their fields into one-hour sessions, then bringing students together to discuss what these fields have in common. He showed sound bites from these leading academics.

“There are many tools for teaching, and the people who put them together best will be the educators,” he said.

Learning vs. teaching

The evening included a statistics lesson that engaged the entire audience in a demonstration of active learning.

The mini-lesson began with an anecdote from Mazur, who said that he began his teaching career with no training, but, because his student evaluations were good, he became confident about his method of teaching.

“That illusion crashed” after he decided to administer a test using simple word problems. “A gorilla at a keyboard could have done better than some of my students,” said Mazur.

That led to his concept of a “flipped classroom” that provides information outside the lecture hall and then has the students make sense of it together in class.

Audience members discuss statistics problem in a demonstration of how we help each other learn.Mazur showed a slide of a statistics problem involving dice and asked for oral response before moving on to a slightly more complex problem. Audience members responded by using a clicker they had received when entering the theater. They then were instructed to find someone who had given a different answer and discuss.

A hubbub ensued before the clickers again came into play.

“The problem with lectures is that there is no opportunity to think,” Mazur told audience members before revealing the correct answer. “You got excited about statistics because you had a chance to think.”

Seventy-four percent of audience members answered the statistics question correctly the second time around, and Mazur said that that was an improvement over the first round of answers. “You taught each other.”

Richard Miller also focused more on how to learn than how to teach as he explored the concept of intrinsic motivation in learning.

“We need to find out what people care about, but now we tell people what they need to know,” he said. “It’s a pathway.”

He suggested that, rather than assign three problems, a professor could allow students to select three problems that interest them. Instead of telling students what projects to do, instructors should have students develop their ideas.

“And research shows that learners who work with someone else do better. We say: Find a friend.”

Cost effects

In his introduction, McCarthy said that “technology has the potential to provide relief from the “cost disease” -- that seemingly inevitable escalation of costs that noted Princeton economists William Baumol and William Bowen, first wrote about decades ago.”

Host Kara Miller asked panelists what to expect in terms of the cost of higher education in an era when student loan debt has surpassed credit card debt in America.

Mazur, who emphasized that education is a social activity, said that making it massively available through may not bring costs down.

“The cost 15 years from now may not be much different than today” due to the production and distribution expenses of MOOCs and their short shelf life.

While Agarwal agreed that the cost of education might not be significantly reduced, he argued that technology will improve quality.

He pointed to an analysis of a San Jose State University course on Circuits and Electronics that traditionally had a 60 percent pass rate. EdX licensed material to the university that was used in a blended class on the topic, and the pass rate went up to 91 percent. The control classes that retained the traditional teaching model remained at 60 percent.

WGBH radio 89.7 broadcasts Innovation Hub at 10 a.m. Saturdays, with an encore at 9 p.m. Thursdays. College 2.0: The New Face of College Education will have its initial broadcast on June 22. The hashtag for the program is #InnovationU.

The Modern Theatre at Suffolk University also hosted Kara Miller and Innovation Hub in September 2012 when the topic was The New Economy: How Automation is Changing the Game.