Technology, Learning and the Future of Education

Technology, Learning and the Future of Education

A few weeks ago, a newly minted dot-com millionaire opined in The New York Times that higher education was hardly necessary. Why not put it all on the Internet, he asked — the great books, stirring lectures and rigorous exams? Why not let people teach themselves? Why allow higher education the role of gatekeeper? Why not make learning affordable and accessible?
Said millionaire revealed that he would commit some of his newfound funds to circumvent the reviled ivory tower. He made his proposal with enthusiasm and in the name of democracy. And I didn’t know whether to chuckle or cringe.
 To be sure, I’m paraphrasing Mr. Dot-Com Millionaire, albeit only slightly. And I’m the last one to defend the higher education status quo. Still, the notion of turning a four-year degree into a downloading experience seems to truncate the purpose of higher education considerably. And while many are right to resent the gate-keeping role that elite institutions have, it seems to me that they take the wrong approach by suggesting that a hurdle can be cleared through Internet learning.
For most students ages 18 to 25, higher education is both about learning and experience. It is about growth and development. The purpose of reading a great book or Black history classic is not only to digest information but also to learn how to hone ideas and bounce them off others.
The most technologically inclined among us may say this can be done in a chat room. I’m not sure that interaction and debate skills are best developed in cyberspace, even as technology reconfigures the ways we interact. Those who have emerged from the college pack as student leaders and speakers, radio jocks and television producers, sports enthusiasts and dedicated graduate students may credit interaction as much as anything else in helping them fine-tune their career plans. Internet learning, while not without merit, cannot duplicate these experiences.
Further, those who think that learning is a “download thing” seem myopic to the digital divide. African Americans and Whites have different access to computers and the Internet. Unless we decide that computers are such a necessity that we are willing to subsidize their presence in every household — much as we were able to do with universal service for telephones — it makes no sense to suggest that gaps be closed through the cyber university.
Indeed, with differential access, gaps are exacerbated instead of closed, both because of access to computers and because of access to the support services that some universities willingly offer, but the Internet does not.
Technology certainly can enhance the educational process. And there is nothing wrong with ‘Net learning — in context. It is important, though, to understand that higher education is a $580 billion-plus market — some say as much as $800 billion — that Internet producers will seek as aggressively as anyone else. In the past few weeks, there have been a number of initiatives that suggest that marketers want to bring the Web to class.
SHOP2gether.com, an organization that hopes to leverage the buying power of educational institutions, just formed a blue-ribbon education advisory task force to help shape its efforts. Publisher McGraw Hill is bringing its textbooks on the Internet and providing a range of supplementary materials, including tests, quizzes, slides and chapter reviews to those instructors who use its textbooks. And in Seattle, Acadio Corp. wants to be a one-stop learning shop, providing Web-based coordination for continuing education services.
To the extent that the Internet can synthesize educational information, it’s all good. But to the extent that some see the Web as a substitute for higher education, there are problems. However, the challenge of change is always redefinition. Perhaps the notion of online degrees will challenge higher education to investigate and define that which is good about the undergraduate and graduate experiences, the interaction that accompanies these experiences and the growth and development that comes from interaction. Perhaps, through this redefinition, higher education can begin to focus on the diversity that cannot necessarily be found online, but in the classroom.
Indeed, perhaps the challenge of Internet learning can focus higher education on aspects of the digital divide and ways higher education can close those access gaps. Race is on my mind throughout this debate. What happens to African American education if the Internet becomes the primary way of delivering educational services? Will a people already at the periphery of the technological revolution gain or lose by its acceleration and proliferation into higher education? And crassly, what about the Benjamins? As developers identify education as a multibillion-dollar enterprise, will African American curriculum concerns and issues be included or excluded from massive new course development?
Technology certainly will shape aspects of education service delivery. Professors post their syllabi on the Internet and cyber communicate with students instead of having face-to-face meetings. Reading lists and requirements are posted in hard copy and electronically. To the extent that the Internet increases access and information, it’s a good thing. To the extent that it is seen as a substitute for hands-on learning, it is both a mistake and yet another way to widen, not close, the gap between those who have access and those who do not.    



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