The word “agile” isn’t usually one universities try to use to describe themselves, but in many ways it should be.

In the world of software development it refers to a process based on iterative and incremental development that encourages rapid and flexible response to change. (source)

Of all institutions universities are often among the last to respond to change, especially of the technological sort. They have had a system in place for in many cases hundreds of years, and to break with this isn’t easy. Hence, the University of Oxford still largely relies on using pigeon holes for passing work between student and tutor, where if the institution was smaller and more agile all this might be done much more efficiently through the cloud.

And the size of the institution here is an important issue, and it’s my opinion that the really exciting changes will occur when large universities successfully manage to break themselves down into smaller, more agile components.

This is exactly what the team behind the Minerva Project intend to do. The idea is to found an elite new university at which most of the tuition takes place online. Students will be able to study anywhere and will be able to form communes of fellow students in whatever city they are in, collaborating with tutors and lecturers over the cloud. And in case you hadn’t heard, this isn’t just any idea; it’s one backed by Benchmark capital to the tune of $25 million. And that’s just the seed round.

So what sort of changes could we see in such a university? Well the biggest change would be that the entire university would be built on a technological platform rather than a physical campus, which will mean it will be able to shape it’s structure according to the demands of a constantly evolving society.

With this we would start to see a wealth of information being shared, students working collaboratively from different countries in real time. We would consequently see students travel much more, now that their university is wherever they have an Internet connection.

We would no doubt also see advances in methods of engaging students. With such a technological base it would be very easy to test various engagement techniques such as gamification, while at the moment for a university it would mean developing a platform especially, which is a huge financial commitment. Imagine being able to track your academic performance over time with insights to help you build on your strengths and pinpoint your weaknesses.

If universities could be built around a virtual platform the academic world would quite literally be opened up. And their progress thereafter would depend upon them being “agile”: responding quickly to social change, continuously evaluating and evolving, and not lapsing into the sentimentality of maintaining a system just because it has always been that way.