September 3, 2012
The conveyance of knowledge from one wise man to a gathering of eager young people has been the model for education since Ancient Greece, and it has survived largely unchanged in the face of every kind of technology — from the printing press to the personal computer.
But education — college education — may have met its match in the Internet, a force for change that television, movies, music, book publishing and newspapers could not resist.
What will happen when my alma mater becomes myalmamater.com?
This came to our attention when the University of Virginia nearly tore itself apart because the board of visitors perceived believed the president was moving too slowly in joining other top universities that are putting their product online.
Add to this the fact that parents and students are questioning the enormous amount of money colleges require to bestow degrees that do not appear to have the market value they once did. In addition, colleges and universities are up against more nimble business models that offer specific instruction for specific credentials.
Will the college campus soon become a virtual campus?
The Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project, working with Elon University, asked more than 1,000 stakeholders in online education for their thoughts on what college will look like in 2020, and 39 percent thought colleges and universities would still require on-campus attendance in courses featuring the traditional lecture and test model.
Everybody else, however, thinks that by 2020 there will be "mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning and graduation requirements would be tailored to the individual student."
This will happen, one responder said, because classroom instruction will be just too expensive. And besides, said another, that lecture-and-test model doesn't produce the kinds of innovators who could imagine Google.
In addition, said a respondent, education in the future will be more like re-education, helping workers move from job to job in a rapidly changing global economy. And there will be more conversations between the corporate world and the ivory tower, another commented, so that industry can let schools know exactly what skills they need in a prospective employee.
An anonymous respondent said that education would still be in the Socratic model "of a single sage to a self-selecting student group, but instead of the Acropolis, the site will be the Internet and the students will be from everywhere."
The key, many seemed to agree, is getting the baby boomer professors — so resistant to change — and the textbook companies out of the way so the innovators can get to work.
In Maryland, the Johns Hopkins University has thrown its lot in with Coursera, the company that is packaging lectures for the likes of Stanford, MIT and, now, the University of Virginia. And the University of Maryland is about ready to sign up.
But there is one institution of higher learning in Maryland that will not be logging on any time soon: St. John's College in Annapolis.
"We are likely to take the position for many years to come that the best distance for learning is about five to 10 feet," said President Christopher Nelson, himself a graduate.
St. John's is known for its Socratic method of learning. A tutor and a small group of students take apart one of the Great Books, learning subjects like geometry from the original writings of Descartes, for example. The students are not lectured. They discuss. The school talks of "conversing with the authors," all of whom are long dead.
"If one is trying to learn," said Mr. Nelson, "to make something one's own, to free oneself from the tyranny of information for information's sake, we believe that requires small classes and one-on-one conversation."
Lee Rainie, author of the Pew study, sounds like he agrees. "Something magic happens in these classrooms. Distance learning, the digital experience, can't possibly replicate the magic of the classrooms. And the best teachers teach to their environment."
But, he said, the Internet will not be denied. "Technology started this process. If there hadn't been a digital disruption in every other industry, no one would be talking about this in higher education.
"But the evidence is that the university is going to go through the same tortures as newspapers and other industries. It won't be pretty, and it will be enormously disruptive."
It is a comfort to think that a place like St. John's will ride out the coming storm.
"We don't teach skills for a task," said Mr. Nelson. "We teach skills to live a good life, a way to understand the basic human questions. Who am I? And what am I here for?
"It is hard to see how the Internet would be anything more than an interesting tool for that journey."
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