Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Does Brick-and-Mortar Teaching Have a Future?
Location: ISTE Island
I've been wandering ISTE's (International Society for Technology in Education's) cluster of islands in Second Life. As I looked over their nicely done recreation of the Alamo, in honor of the location of last year's NCTE convention, I began to wonder why most academics and their students ever have to leave their homes any more.
Universities that are accredited have a future; our economy could not thrive without them. But how much physical plant does a school need, and how much could be moved to virtual spaces of one sort or another?
Here are some speculations:
--Some programs will go virtual. curricula that require hands-on "lab work" (fine and performing arts, neuroscience, the natural sciences, engineering) will survive in a brick-and-mortar setting. Lecture-and-discussion based coursework (humanities and business) will not. I can easily conduct a humanities class, even an advanced seminar, entirely inside SL or something like it. Work requiring community-based learning (business internships, criminal justice, social work) will continue in reality, but these programs will not require classrooms.
--The value of programs related to socializing (campus life) and marketing (sports programs) will diminish. This will accelerate in a down economy and once world oil supply peaks and begins its inexorable decline. It will be harder and harder to run the huge complex of buildings and car-dependent infrastructure that is the modern university. More and more students and their parents will find cost-effective ways to learn online, including simulations inside virtual worlds.
As much as we reminisce about our dorm-lives or collegiate sports heroes, these aspects of university education are not related to the core academic mission. Even for Millennial students who are closer to parents than are their predecessors, parents want to ship kids off, at least to socialize them before they enter the workforce, and kids want to leave the next. I am not certain that this will continue, as costs escalate and family incomes shrink. More likely, students will be forced to seek out cheaper alternatives to the traditional four-year school.
--Community Colleges have a future. Older learners are less likely to embrace virtual-world alternatives. Life-long learning, the need for a community in person for those isolated in the working world, and the low relative costs of Community Colleges (no dorms, football team, and fewer "halo" features like great gyms and posh dining halls) will help. On the other hand, the rising demographic will not see the need for commuting to a campus to get what can be had, online.
--Faculty will finally get incentives, rewards, and threats to teach with tech. A stumbling block, when I worked with The Epiphany Project in the mid-90s, was that tenure-and-review committees did not know how to assess work with technology. Does it "count" as good teaching or research? And if such language was not written into universities' policies, faculty were wise not to use technology in the classroom to its fullest extent, let alone in a way that was pedagogically effective. Finally, I think this will change for the better as virtual life and Web 2.0 applications become part of mainstream academic culture.
--Faculty will travel less but be in touch with peers more. Already, the virtual conference is a working reality in virtual worlds. I find it a pleasant alternative to the crowded and frenzied major venues (CCCC, MLA). Given the rising costs of travel and the shrinking size of budgets, faculty will be asked to do more with peer-groups online and in-world. Personally, I find that small conferences closer to home are more pleasant for me, in person. For other venues, I'd as soon log on than check in at the airline counter.
--Libraries will win and lose. The new library is more than a warehouse for books. It's a flexible place with high-speed wireless, databases of scholarly journals online, and coffe. It's a place for socializing among learned peers. How is this, except for the technology and the presence of very smart women, different from the Agora in Athens, during the time of Socrates?
Old-school book-warehouses will continue to exist, but they won't be essential to the undergraduate classroom. Grad students and faculty will always need the authority and depth that print brings, and not everything of worth will be digitized in the next decade or so.
Am I nuts? I mean about education...share your thoughts here.