Thursday, June 17, 2010

Academic Internet: Threatening the Existence of Institutions

By John Glaser

From the Chronical Review:
[Clay Shirky] argues that as Web sites become more social, they will threaten the existence of all kinds of businesses and organizations, which might find themselves unnecessary once people can organize on their own with free online tools. Who needs an academic association, for instance, if a Facebook page, blog, and Internet mailing list can enable professionals to stay connected without paying dues? Who needs a record label, when musicians can distribute songs and reach out to fans on their own? And so on.
At a time when internet technology is transforming the way we attain information and fulfill intellectual inquiry, I think we should pay heed to statements like Shirky's. There has been much talk about a higher education bubble and the decreasing real value of college degrees, and the internet is a remarkable ingredient in this institutional academic transformation. It's clear even in this early stage that the internet will have serious consequences on how we think about academic achievement.

Here's the long view: educational attainment which has long been correlated with economic progress, has been on an amazingly consistent world-wide trend upwards for at least three quarters of a century. The Internet has already begun to revolutionize the way we think about education, with its ease of use, widespread accessibility, and almost bewildering ability to disperse available information. This has implications for the declining costs of education as well. Entire course lectures from the world's most prestigious universities are already widely available for free on the web through sites like Academic Earth, YouTube EDU, iTunesU, Open Culture, and others, not to mention free periodicals from all over the world, NGOs and the free information they provide, freely accessible daily blogs from some of the most intelligent people on earth, Wikipedia has been shown to be as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica, on and on and on. Couple that with the always evolving, always innovating technological sector of the economy (iPad, replacing textbooks?) which is relatively cheap considering its place at the very forefront of human civilization, which is helping to 1) make every daily task more efficient and more convenient and 2) allowing us to use that extra time to focus on our increasingly free education. Furthermore, the environment of constant innovation and evolution creates very high levels of competition, which keeps prices declining and availability increasingly widespread. These trends, and others, could all contribute to a new paradigm of economic and academic norms for the next generation, and for the better.

It's simply not clear why we as a society would continue to be committed to a rigid, unimaginative system instead of fully embracing the innovative world of web-education, which is cheaper, cutting-edge, and more efficient. It's also not clear exactly what kind of system might replace the one we have; perhaps it's a hybrid of this dichotomy. But we should at least be more open to dropping the aspects of our current system that don't work, in favor of what is obviously the future.

This revolution seems to be happening at the same time that traditional university education teeters on the edge of sustainability, with less and less people being able to afford higher education, but these forces can truly disrupt longstanding institutions.

1 comment:

cpascal said...

I agree. It doesn't make sense to take out thousands of dollars in debt for a college education, when the same education is available online for free.