Since the first academic lecture was delivered at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, in 975 AD, knowledge sharing has gradually taken root in universities around the world—2000 years ago in India, nearly 1000 years ago in Europe, and less than 400 years ago in the US.

For many centuries, progress in higher education was driven by political systems, religion, economic institutions, and commercialization. Today, technology, globalization, and the explosion of demand are the drivers shaping the future of education and changing the way we teach and learn.

At the Seventh Knowledge Globalization Conference held in Boston on Nov. 9-10, 2012, more than 120 academic leaders gathered to examine these changes. Representing towns across Europe, India, China, Indonesia, New England, California, Florida, and Arkansas, attendees discussed challenges to higher education, including distance learning in India and Africa; safety and emergency preparedness in the US and Turkey; stress management among teachers in Pakistan; sustainable development in Germany; and Egypt’s 2011 revolution.

Some topics transcended political borders, including online education; MOOCs—massive open online courses; hybrid courses—traditional classroom learning blended with web-based lessons; flipped classrooms—video lectures viewed at home and class time spent on discussion; and social media as a learning tool.

Shared challenges included concerns about reducing the high dropout rate of online education; rising college costs; financing higher education; inflexible online curricula; and how to educate increasing numbers of students.

In his keynote speech, Suffolk University President James McCarthy cautioned the audience against too quickly accepting the latest technological tools to solve these concerns. “I don’t think MOOCs are going to revolutionize higher education in the next 5-10 years,” he said, citing one MOOC that enrolled 120,000 students, but 95 percent of students didn’t complete the course.

“More time is needed before some of these potentially very powerful innovations can become effective,” says McCarthy. “One of the reasons only five percent complete the course is the same reason why the graduation rate for fully online undergraduate programs is very low—it’s easy to start, but not as easy to complete.”

The bright lights on the horizon, according to McCarthy, include online curricula developed by publishers that allow educators to customize content, hybrid versions of introductory classes to take advantage of online learning tools, and flipped classrooms that enable instructors to teach more students in smaller class sizes.

Such innovative thinking will be necessary in the coming years. According to conference organizer Mawdudur Rahman, professor of accounting at Suffolk University and founder and president of the Knowledge Globalization Institute, more than 90 percent of the world’s population lives in countries with poor-quality education, and the demand for higher education is increasing. By 2025, he says, eight million students will be seeking to study abroad, leaving developing countries that cannot meet the growing demands for education.

These future immigrant students will aspire to become scholars, entrepreneurs, and innovators trained to create businesses, technologies, and universities.

“Education is what allows a standard of living and society to change,” says Sawyer Business School Dean William J. O’Neill, Jr. “It is one of the most valued change agents of society.”

The Knowledge Globalization Conference is hosted jointly by the Sawyer Business School and the Knowledge Globalization Institute. “Our mission is the sharing of global knowledge for social and economic change,” says Rahman. “The knowledge gaps among individuals and societies hinder social and economic progress.”