By Harry Keller
Editor, Science Education
Consider that the board of trustees of a university must be conservative or else that university will not endure. They’re supposed to take the long view and to continue to do things as they have been done for decades or even centuries. Contrast that attitude with corporate America’s narrow focus on next quarter’s results much to our national detriment. Ordinarily, I’d say that the university is making the better decision.
However, these are not ordinary times. For hundreds of years, higher education has, at its root, remained fairly constant. Students live at a university, attend classes given by sages, take tests, and have a social life that they’re unlikely to repeat later in life. The university was intended to be a place apart designed to imbue young adults with certain ideas without the distractions of living in society.
The Internet now threatens that ages-old constant in a manner not previously seen even with the impact of highways, automobiles, radio, and television. Most of us would agree that the hope exists for a better education world based on broadband communication. We are seeing some experimentation with these ideas in universities now but not too much. There’s been lots of paper saving and some bureaucracy trimming. Some institutions now deliver online courses. For example, Troy University located in an out-of-the-way area of Alabama makes most of its income from online courses including a contract with eArmyU.
The online courses are taught by adjunct professors, a nice way to say that they were unappreciated and underpaid. The regular faculty, at least those with which I had contact, obstructed efforts to expand the online program. They were not interested in having that online sideshow invade their hallowed halls. As John Adsit suggests, they are very much wedded to the status quo.
Unless they’d like to end up like the music industry, universities had better make plans and investments today. Higher education is a very large industry with lots of money up for grabs. If established universities drop the ball, there are plenty of organizations ready to pick it up. Jim’s bias toward “electronic infrastructure,” etc. is exactly right. Furthermore, universities should be thinking like some planners in Detroit who are considering demolishing entire neighborhoods outside of the city and converting them back to farmland. As lecture halls and classrooms become disused, how should that space best be utilized? What will higher education look like in twenty years? That’s a short time in the history of many universities.
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