Archive forInternet

The End of the University

 Middle of March 2008

When Plato founded the Academy in 385 B.C., he had no idea that the concept of the university would permeate the civilized world. Until the nineteenth century universities were religious-based European institutions that catered only to the elite, and taught a narrow range of disciplines ill-suited to people who might have to learn a trade. By the twentieth century, the secular German model had propagated to other countries and now nearly half of the population of industrialized countries experience tertiary education. 

American universities are victims of their own success. Serious and high level career employment is almost impossible without a university degree; it’s become the high school diploma of the twenty first century. Research universities have become bloated and bureaucratic and the quaint tradition of tenure means that the professoriate is almost immune from market forces. As a result, students and their families can be gouged by tuition that’s rising at twice the rate of inflation. This is justified by the extra earning power that a college education still conveys. However, the bang for the buck declines when students find themselves in huge lecture classes that use old Germanic teaching methods, and when so few classrooms are informed by the latest research on pedagogy. 

The gravy days are nearly over. Parents and government regulators are starting to draw lines in the sand on further tuition increases. Regents and university administrators are demanding that their highly paid research faculty pay more attention to teaching, and to the undergraduates who pay most of the bills. Students are demanding that universities be responsive to the changing workplace; forty years ago a graduate would have typically a single job, today the number is six or seven. The largest high school graduating class will be on 2010. Thereafter, enrollments will decline and the landscape will transition into a buyer’s market. 

I teach at a large Land Grant university with 40,000 undergraduates and thousands of different classes. It’s primarily a residential campus, and the first year away from home, that time of roiling hormones and excess and experimentation, is still a rite of passage for many 18-year-olds. However, the percentage of adults or non-traditional learners in U.S. colleges has grown steadily, from 15% of students in 1990 to over 50% in 2004. The 18-year-old freshman fresh away from home is now a minority. 

The informal sector of higher education is the only one that will grow in the next decade. The graying of American and the spryness of all those retired people means that lifelong education will be more than a catchphrase. Over 100 million people, 50% of all adults, now enroll in a college course in any 12-month period, an increase of 35% since 1991. Another 40 million adults participate in courses occasionally for personal interest. The older students have a lot of disposable income so their preferences and their spending patterns matter. 

Technology is also transforming the landscape of the university. You might not know it to visit a campus like mine, where most large classes are still taught in the old-fashioned way, by lecturing, and where the use of computers and classroom responders and other learner-centered tools is still rare. At its worst, this is a pitiful mode of transmission of information, little better than babysitting. Even at its best, it is inefficient and poorly suited to the way students actually learn.

The biggest change wrought by technology is the erosion of the sense of place. Distance learning began with the growth of the postal service and correspondence courses in the nineteenth century. Britain’s Open University was established in 1969; with very little fanfare it has grown to 180,000 students enrolled worldwide. The rapidly growing, for-profit University of Phoenix in the U.S. has 250,000 students spread over 79 campuses. These universities cater to vocational needs and they offer classes when working people need them, or they offer online learning anytime, anyplace. 

The wired and wireless Internet, and the growth of bandwidth sufficient to deliver video, are creating a situation where the classroom experience can be simulated online. Add to that immersive technologies like Second Life and game-play learning, and the need to sit in a classroom will dissipate. Adult learners will use video on demand to view lectures, tools like Wikipedia instead of a library, and discussion boards and wikis to discuss and collaborate with their fellow students. It sounds detached and austere but it’s already the way most teenagers learn and interact. 

Does all this presage the end of the university? Not necessarily. The jeremiads have been written before and been found to be premature. The cultural heritage that posits years at university as a rite of passage and maturation will not go away overnight. The technology that facilitates distance education will have a lurching and painful learning curve. The corps of disembodied learners will grow steadily but not dramatically. And Plato got one thing exactly right when he founded the Academy in an olive grove outside Athens. He employed the Socratic dialog, the best method ever developed for challenging ideas and homing in on the truth. The virtual university of the mid-twenty-first century will discard this at its peril.

 

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My So-Called Cyber-Life

End of February 2008

It’s a familiar lament to any parent of a modern teenager: they are so multiply connected to electronic inputs that the real world slips away and might become irrelevant. If you tell a fifteen year old that when they were eight there were no iPods and when they were born there was no Internet, they’ll look at you either blankly or aghast, as if you had said there was no food.

Many newspaper inches and web electrons have been spent dissecting the onrush of digital media and their effect on young people, but the biggest mine of real data is the web site of the Pew Internet and American Life Project. This charitable organization has had its finger on the pulse of the Internet and its impact on the popular culture for nearly a decade. Their reports cover everything from education and privacy issues to the effect of the Internet on the political discourse of the nation.

There’s a YouTube video currently posted with a message that scrolls up, Star Wars style, saying “For years, parents could not text message. They could not figure out how to record a voice mail. They could not even connect to the Internet without using AOL.” After a warning that parents are adapting to new technologies, there’s a clip of a man figuring out how to the video capabilities of his cell phone. “Watch with caution,” the video closes, “and pray that your parents do not gain these powers.” The teen mind may recall the opening scene of an earlier science fiction classic, 2001: A Space Odyssey, when apes confront the enigmatic monolith that will change them forever.

I have relatives in their eighties who have iPods and know how to text their nieces and nephews, but young people are ascending the rapid curve of technology much faster than their parents. Teenagers now spend six and a half hours a day with video input. That total is not much longer than a decade ago, but the mix has changed; TV watching is down and playing video games and watching video clips is way up. It’s axiomatic that all teenagers multiplex on a computer, doing their homework in parallel with text-messaging, watching online videos, checking out MySpace or Facebook, and surfing the Internet.

The most recent Pew report notes the emergence of “super-communicators,” the quarter of all teens who use all the major communication channels—texting, cell phones, social network web sites, and instant messaging—to connect to their friends. A sub-theme of this blog is projecting the future of IT usage. What is the end point of this extraordinarily rapid assimilation of technology? Will it saturate at some point due to limitations of the brain or the finite number of hours in the day? Will the distancing aspect outweigh the ease of making new connections? Will these technologies be used to sustain a froth of popular and often trivial culture or will they be used to promote learning?

One hopeful sign from the Pew study is the fact that teenagers are not passive users of these new technologies. Two thirds have created some kind of online content, compared to only 15% of adults. A third have shared artistic creations or songs, or have created or worked on blogs and web pages for school or groups they belong to. A quarter of them have created their own web page or online journal. And a quarter of them have remixed online content into their own creations, creating what is known as a mash-up. Blogging is hot, nearly doubling among teens between 2004 and 2006. There are interesting gender effects too. Girls are twice as likely to blog as boys while boys are twice as likely to post videos. The new modes of content creation and posting facilitate further communications: 90% of teens report feedback from others or online conversation as a result of posting a photo or video.

At the pinnacle of young people harnessing these new capabilities are some amazing success stories. Catherine Cook founded MyYearbook.com while she was in high school as a way of keeping in touch with friends after she graduated; it has 2 million members and has attracted $4 million of venture capital. Ashley Qualls was 14 when she created a web site to help teens “express themselves” with art and graphics. Her site now gets 60 million page views a month. Ben Cathers was only 12 when he started his first business on the Internet. By age 19 he had his own syndicate radio show and had founded a search engine technology company. For each of these teenage titans they are many mini-moguls.

Internet use is saturating for the simple reason that 93% of teens are online, versus 73% eight years ago. Their use is intensifying; a third go online multiple times a day. However technology has not been able to use Special Relativity to create more hours in the day, so we can anticipate that the new technologies will become like “wallpaper,” unremarkable parts of the everyday flow of life. And despite the fear voiced up front, teens still value face-to-face contact. As for parents, you’re on your own. But it’s a comfort to know that almost any average eight year old could help you program your web phone.

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The Wonderful World of Wikipedia

Middle of February 2008

To 99% of the population, Wikipedia has become wallpaper, a free source of information so useful and ubiquitous that it’s uninteresting. To academicians, however, the idea of an encyclopedia that anyone can edit is anathema. It sounds like a recipe for misinformation and opinion dressed as facts. They worry about the blind leading the blind.

This criticism was always overdone. Head to head comparisons show that Wikipedia is marginally less accurate and reliable than Microsoft’s Encarta and Britannica Online but the difference is unlikely to be noticeable to the average user. Occasionally a journalist has “salted” Wikipedia with errors or falsehoods and complained that they persist. But that’s only true if the problems are in rarely-visited byways; on average a deliberate error lasts just a day. The truth is that several thousand dedicated Wikipedians and hundreds of thousands of occasional editors keep the resource remarkably free of major problems.

The worst hotspots occur where you might imagine, in articles that deal with politics or contentious social issues like abortion. A more subtle and insidious form of bias comes from corporations or individuals editing articles out of self-interest, financial or personal. To deal with this, the architects can lock down articles on contentious issues or require the editors to reveal themselves and disclose conflict of interest. In many technical and esoteric fields, the quality is very high. I’ve found only a few minor errors in the hundred or so astronomy articles that I’ve read. After all who would vandalize an article on stellar nucleosynthesis, even if they knew how? Another complaint concerns the proportionality and balance of a resource where the article on Brittany Spears is two-thirds of the length of the article on Albert Einstein. So what? If the information on Einstein is correct, why should we cavil at inclusion of the numbing details of Brittany’s life, as long as they’re also accurate.

Wikipedia has become so ubiquitous as a one-stop shop for information that it’s turned the 800-pound gorilla called Google into its tame poodle. I entered 100 words or phrases that a student might use in their studies, ranging from “Napoleon” to “subjunctive” to “magnetic field,” and Wikipedia was only outside the top three results 10% of the time. This extraordinary result means that the giant search engines have largely become proxy search tools for the Wikipedia web site. It also points to Wikipedia’s Achilles heel: the lack of any consistent hierarchy for the information. Articles are assigned to categories with as many as 22 levels, but a third of the articles aren’t categorized, and classifiers can’t keep up with the rapid growth of the resource.

Articles on major topics were written years ago, so time serves to hone the information and weed out the diminishing number of errors. Wikipedia is growing laterally. Most of the new articles populate a long tail of obscure topics and obscure people. The fact that few people will care about such articles is beside the point; they’re all there in one web location and nobody will every have to create that information again. The other thing Wikipedia has going for it is currency. News is updated almost instantly and journalists have become agitated at this competition from rank amateurs. Articles on major topics also get “churned” to ensure currency, a process that’s impossible in the standard model of publishing.

Wikipedia is also becoming less monotone. Foreign language articles are being added faster than articles in English, and 250 languages are represented. In addition to the 2.2 million articles, the resource has over a million images and many useful maps, charts and tables. Unknown to most users, there is an effort to create structured data tables on many topics, so that information can be retrieved by a structured query akin to natural language. This is a step in the direction of the semantic web envisaged by Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the architect of the Internet.

Nobody foresaw the spontaneous creation of such a wonderful free resource in a context where the web was being increasingly dominated by commerce. The sense of community embodied by Wikipedia is inspiring, and that alone is enough to forgive its faults. Like a living entity, Wikipedia will continue to grow and adapt and evolve in surprising ways.

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