Thursday, September 17, 2009

Will the Web dismember universities?

An article caught my eye the other day which claimed that, "The Web will dismember universities, just like newspapers." When I tweeted the article, I got several replies, most suggesting that would be the case, with some suggesting the sooner the better. A few suggested that they hoped that it didn't happen too soon, because they were employed at universities.

My prediction is that it will not be an either/or solution. The web will dismember the features least suitable to a modern world, namely the cattle-call lecture. My Chemistry lecture at university deserved to be dismembered. A doddering research scientist with no concern at all for the 200 or so people gathered in front of him droned on about this and that, and the work of organizing laboratory classes and exams was left to his grad student slaves. As interesting and important as chemistry probably is, this should have been a rewarding experience. Instead it was torture four days a week.

At the end of the semester I went to the administration with my opinions since those were the days before course evaluations. The prof had no business in front of a class, and he was an embarrassment to the university. They agreed, and said they knew he was a terrible teacher, but he was a brilliant researcher, so they were going to keep him on staff, and the rules said that faculty members had to teach this class periodically. There it was. The students at that university were periodically robbed, and as years went on protests about this professor increased in volume.

Best case scenario, these kinds of lectures will be offered on line, with lab classes offered at various times and days during the week at the university. This gives the university the opportunity to present stimulating experiences that benefit everyone.

As I consider my own field, language education, the Internet will have a similar effect; it will replace mundane lecture style teaching, and offer a variety of options to suit the needs of more learners, but it will not entirely replace face-to-face college learning entirely for the following reasons.

1. Students don't attend classes because they want to learn.

Learning, a language for example, may be one of learners' motivations for attending a class, online or not, but it certainly isn't the only one. Learner motivations are complex and very difficult to qualify or quantify. Students have shown repeatedly that, though they may want to learn language, they want to do it in a setting that allows them to gather with other people and enjoy the social aspects of language learning.

Sorry, but the middle-aged male prof was not the object of my 19-year-old attention as we were learning Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric." My attention was devoted to the woman in front of me and practicing, "The love of the Body of man or woman balks account." A monitor doesn't do that justice.

2.  The Internet cannot support the level of trust required in relationships that can be made at traditional universities.

Universities are an important part of building relationships of trust, and unfortuntely the Internet, though it allows people to form relationships, does not afford the same level of trust. Student/student, student/faculty relationships that will lead directly or indirectly to employment opportunities for students would be very difficult to cultivate online. These very personal relationships are especially important in the Japanese setting, and to a lesser degree in the US setting.

Relationships on a more collegial level also develop over time between faculty and students. That would be very difficult with the part-time, virtual professors. That is evident now with part time teachers at universities. They are paid to be in class, not to grade exams, not to be available to students outside of class, and certainly not for lengthy talks about their disciplines.

3. Going off to college affords young people with opportunities and an excuse to go away from their families, friends, and surroundings. Their migration also helps parents move their young adult children out of the home.

In some cases that means that people go to another country to study, an opportunity that would be very difficult without being a student. In Japan and the US at least, a visa for a long-term stay is difficult to obtain without a reason. While working on a student visa in the US is not legal, it is in Japan, which gives international students the opportunity to study and work in the country at the same time.

Some kinds of arrangements could be made and the world could change in ways that would remedy these situations, but for the near future, universities have roles to play. Higher education must evolve to better meet the needs of learners. I refer specifically to the mammoth lecture paradigm which best serves the bean counters' needs.

Remote Lectures and classes are a profitable reality in Japanese cram schools, where charismatic teachers train students to succeed in entrance exams. College should be more than that, and online learning has significant limitations which universities better learn to capitalize on.

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