Tuesday, September 15, 2009

The Writing on the Wall

A recent article in the Washington Post, "A Virtual Revolution Is Brewing for Colleges," which opines that universities must embrace the methods of the distance learning movement, was written by Fordham law professor Zephyr Teachout, who was once best known for Internet organizing for the Howard Dean presidential campaign and has also served as national director for the Sunlight Foundation. Like many Teachout is making the analogy between newspapers and universities, as institutions of knowledge and credible sources that must adapt to an online culture oriented around new information practices.

Despite her liberal political credentials, Teachout is making an argument for radical efficiency that assumes that students don't need the context of an academic community. She praises product-oriented community colleges and for-profit institutions as early adapters who may be best fit to survive.

Because the current college system, like the newspaper industry, has built-in redundancies, new Internet efficiencies will lead to fewer researchers and professors. Every major paper once had a bureau in, say, Sarajevo -- now, a few foreign correspondents' pieces are used in dozens of papers. Similarly, at noon on any given day, hundreds of university professors are teaching introductory Sociology 101. The Internet makes it harder to justify these redundancies. In the future, a handful of Soc. 101 lectures will be videotaped and taught across the United States.

When this happens -- be it in 10 years or 20 -- we will see a structural disintegration in the academy akin to that in newspapers now. The typical 2030 faculty will likely be a collection of adjuncts alone in their apartments, using recycled syllabuses and administering multiple-choice tests from afar.

The idea that universities don't need more than one scholarly opinion in the country or that having only three news bureaus in Iraq has improved our understanding of that country's political dynamics seems ludicrous to me, and I'm surprised that she pushes the newspaper analogy even when it strains the logic of what could be a compelling argument.

When the Chronicle of Higher Education picked up the story in "Colleges Will Be 'Torn Apart' by Internet, Law Professor Predicts," the author didn't even use Teachout's honorific and many commentators couldn't even seem to get her gender right.

Meanwhile its rival Inside Higher Ed is covering corporate software for "Online Learning, at a pace."

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

<< Home