A couple of "distance education" stories in this morning's Press-Citizen reminded me of some ideas I've been playing around with for nearly a half-century.
Is it possible to envision a day when Big "E" Education might be provided, and recognized (credentialed), without the participation of institutions like high schools and universities (and law schools) or the necessity for all of the buildings we go on constructing at a cost of millions if not billions of dollars nationally?
A half-century is a long time to be "playing" with ideas like that without ever formulating them into a (pardon the expression) "concrete proposal." But this stuff is outside my normal line of work, far from my highest priority, I've never done the solid research necessary to bring the ideas home, and they're not within my areas of expertise -- not that lack of knowledge or credentials have ever held me back before, especially in this blog.
So let's start with this morning's stories, add some others, and then step back and decide whether we're looking at a trend or merely individual, disconnected, possibly interesting, anecdotes.
"Online" courses and degrees.
A local Horace Mann Elementary teacher, Emily Dvorak, is pictured on p. A1 at her laptop with a caption explaining that she is about to get a masters in education from her efforts online. Brian Morelli, "Giving It the (Online) College Try; More Students Turning to Classes on the Web," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 31, 2007, p. A1.
The story goes on to note that the number of UI students taking online courses has increased from 280 in 2003 to 2,578 this year. The University offers a number of courses online, as well as a number of undergraduate and graduate degree programs: Nursing, Liberal Studies, and Applied Studies; Educational Administration; and certificate programs in Public Health, Entrepreneurship, and Nonprofit Management.
(For reasons not fully explained, given this trend, and his recognition of the full-bore efforts of Penn State and the University of Illinois, Associate Provost Chet Rzonca "said . . . UI's roots are in being a residential university. 'I don't think we will go into the online business.'"
Although I would have to say that his position is consistent with what I found 10 or 15 years ago when I came back from southeast Asia with a multi-billion-dollar distance education proposal for the University, or returned from Washington with an offer of a multi-million-dollar grant for a telemedicine program, and could find no local interest, let alone support, for either. A proposal for aiding Iowa's economy with "Information Age" industries got a comparable reaction from the Governor's office in the early 1980s -- following which the businesses I had in mind settled in states where they were understood and welcomed, although with no more advantages than Iowa could have provided.)
And of course there are probably thousands of examples of training and certification that are currently being done online, from the required training of IRB members and researchers in the standards for human subjects research, to Microsoft's certification programs, to the online tutorials, help screens and FAQ resources provided for most software packages.
In fact, there is now enough computer-based instructional material available that one can imagine the actual creation of something once suggested by one of my sons for a K-16 software package -- something that could be used by students both in school, and accessed from home. As a kid goes through various "When I grow up I want to be a . . ." phases, by entering "fire fighter," "astronaut," or "rock musician" the program could lay out what he or she would need to learn, year by year, through four years of college, in order to be well prepared for that career.
Although online instruction was a very small part of it, the recommendations of the National Commission on the High School Senior Year including a lot of out-of-building activity -- indeed, enough that, had the school board members been willing to read and discuss the document we could have saved much of the $40 million bond issue focused on putting more high school students in the present buildings, as well as much of the current discussion about who gets to go to which high school.
Finally, there is the related, and growing, "home schooling" movement for K-12 education.
Online and computer-based teaching and research materials.
The headline on the second story is a little misleading, Brian Morelli, "Student Group Spreads Internet; Developing Nations Receive Web Support," Iowa City Press-Citizen, October 31, 2007, p. A3. For some years now, UI School of Library and Information Science Associate Director Clifford Missen (who is not mentioned in the article) has been short-circuiting the Internet. The technological and economic costs of providing Internet connections to educational institutions in many third world countries are often prohibitive. Rather than abandon the effort, Cliff developed a work-around: put content from the Internet on a really big hard drive and provide the drive, or computers with such a drive, to the schools. This gives students access to the content as fast, or faster, than we can get it with our broadband connections.
What else is going on that I think somehow relevant to this overall story?
For those who can more easily get reasonable access to the Internet, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), one of the world's top institutions of higher education, has created an "open courseware" Web site. It explains, "OCW shares free lecture notes, exams, and other resources from more than 1700 courses spanning MIT's entire curriculum." Why are they doing this? As MIT President Susan Hockfield explains, "OCW expresses in an immediate and far-reaching way MIT's goal of advancing education around the world." MITOpenCourseware.
Increasingly, professors everywhere are doing something similar. For example, I not only post a syllabus for my classes to the Web, I "publish" student seminar papers there as well (the response to which sometimes helps in their job search). And while I still assign conventional textbooks, to the extent possible I use original source, up-to-date, Web-published material as assigned reading that saves the students money, the hassle of carrying more weight in their backpacks -- and a goodly number of trees over the years.
Online "national universities."
That research and scholarship are global is not a new phenomenon. It has often been the case that an academic's best friends and colleagues don't live down the street or work down the hall. They may be individuals who live and work in Tokyo, Moscow, or London, who only get together once a year, if that, at international conferences.
Email, listservs, Web sites and blogs have only accelerated the interactions among such colleagues.
I offer a seminar called the "Cyberspace Law Seminar." Others around the country and the world who are teaching similar or related courses regularly interact with one another by means of a "cyberprof" listserv. Of course, it's not the same as having all of us in a single building on one university's campus -- anymore than talking to someone on the phone "is the same as" talking face-to-face over coffee. But clearly the cyberprof listserv creates some of the qualities of a geographically based faculty, a kind of preliminary phase of what could grow into a "national university."
A related contribution of the Internet is something called the Social Science Research Network, and within it the "Legal Scholarship Network" which offers, among many other subject matter areas, an online publication called "LSN Cyberspace Law" -- which contains abstracts of the articles being published by, among others, the "cyberprofs."
Increasingly, publication of all kinds is done on the Internet. This has had a variety of impacts, not the least of which is economic, on publishers of everything from newspapers to academic journals.
This is not to say that all persons, for all purposes, no longer need access to any hard-copy printed material.
But for our purposes at the moment, the point is that from commercial services such as Westlaw and Lexis (and hundreds of others) to the literally billions of Web sites, such as MIT's, where very valuable material is made available for free, for most persons, most purposes, most of the time, whether teaching (or self-study), researching, or writing, the Internet can provide the bulk of what is needed -- and can often do it better than the available hard-copy materials.
Friedman's Flat World and Tapscott's Wiki-Everything.
One of Tom Friedman's catchy titles is The World is Flat. Among other things, his point is that the Internet radically reduces, by orders of magnitude, what economists call "barriers to entry." The costs of creating and displaying a Web page to the world are as nothing compared with building industrial plants or even retail stores. With a Web site, and an ability to outsource many business functions, it's possible for many individuals to create a profitable business. It costs no more to send an email from Iowa to India than from Iowa City to Independence. (Moreover, both are essentially "incremental cost free.")
We've all had the experience of making a call for technical support, or customer relations, that ended up producing a conversation with someone in Manila or Bangalore. Friedman tells of a person in India who is preparing roughly a half-million IRS tax returns for Americans each year.
The education connection? MIT's teaching materials are instantaneously accessible around the world -- as are mine. And The Gazette recently highlighted the extent to which this is really coming home. Kristina Andino, "My Tutor Lives Overseas; Outsourcing Gives Many U.S. Students the Boost They Need," The Gazette, October 22, 2007, p. A1.
The story's lead tells of a 17-year-old woman in Sioux City North High School who was able to go from Algebra II to Calculus without first earning credit for Trigonometry, who went directly to Advanced Physics without taking Introductory Physics. How does she do it? She has a tutor.
The tutor, however, lives in India. "The two connect in cyberspace through a California-based company called Growing Stars," reports Andino.
There are a number of lessons here for our purposes.
1. Just as you can get high quality surgery in Thailand for a fraction of what it would cost in the U.S., similarly a student in Iowa can also get high quality tutoring from India for a fraction of what it would cost in Sioux City -- and, unlike the operation in Bangkok, she doesn't even have to go to India. The schoolhouse, like the world, is flat.
2. Of even greater significance for our purposes, note that she received no "credit" for her efforts, in the conventional sense, either from this "school she was attending in India" nor the one in Sioux City. And yet she received a meaningful benefit from this education in the sense that matters most: she knows the material, moreover she knows how to use it, to apply it. That's the substantive benefit. But she also gets the somewhat more superficial, administrative benefit that she is able to advance to subsequent subjects the same as if she had earned the academic credit at her Iowa school.
Another consequence of a flat world is what Don Tapscott calls, by way of the title of his book, Wikinomics -- "wiki" as in "Wikipedia," the online, collaborative encyclopedia. Tapscott provides dozens of examples that go well beyond online encylopedias, including but not limited to business applications, all the product of online collaborative efforts made possible by the Internet.
There are numerous opportunities for collaborative efforts in education -- among teachers, students and professionals. There have long been tiny steps in this direction, of course, but we are only on the threshold, limited only by our own lack of imagination, with regard to what this could become.
I see all of the examples and trends set forth above as in some ways related. Where they might lead is in part up to us and in part the consequence of technological innovations over which we have little or no control -- or even the ability to imagine.
This is much bigger than "laptops in the classroom" -- as significant a first step as that might be.
I see the possibility of getting more education to more of the world's 6 or 7 billion people than is now possible -- especially women and young girls.
I see the possibility of a testing and credentialing process, or institution -- not unlike the NAEP testing program (National Assessment of Educational Progress; "The Nation's Report Card") -- that could take the place of, and come to be recognized by employers as the equivalent of, a high school diploma or B.A. degree from a reputable institution.
Because I believe that something in the nature of K-12 teachers and college professors are somewhere between useful and essential, I can imagine their providing home visits (as is now done by some school districts for home schooled K-12 students), or their availability to college students on campus for, say, a once-a-month visit, or seminar session.
Change comes slowly in Education. As someone has observed, it took us 30 years to get the overhead projector out of the bowling alley and into the classroom. I have been frustrated with my own efforts here at the UI over the past quarter century.
But, like IBM's rejection of the desktop computer, it may well be that it's not going to make a lot of difference what the UI chooses to do, or fails to do. Those businesses I wanted to bring to Iowa simply went elsewhere, as did the proposals for university-provided distance education. (The UI, years later, did finally accept money for telemedicine.) The UI's "market," its competition, is no longer just its "peer institutions," the Big Ten, or even all of American higher education. The campuses, like the schoolhouses, like the world itself, are flat. Alternatives to skyrocketing student tuition are already here, and more are coming, fast, right behind them.
My earlier objection to the approach to the "naming controversy" being debated by the Board of Regents today (as spelled out at length in earlier blog entries) was that we needed to look well beyond the naming of colleges and buildings and other things at the University to the much broader question of our conception of our mission in an increasingly corporatized society. Are we to be an oasis of learning in a sea of commerce, or are we a ship sailing upon that sea -- like all the other for-profit merchants? Until we address that question, I said, we have little to guide us with regard to the corporate naming of buildings and colleges.
Now I see that earlier suggestion as much too narrow.
It's not what we are going to name the buildings into which we proudly pour millions of federal and state taxpayers' dollars, and the contributions of corporate and private donors. What the Regents ought to be researching, thinking and talking about is where buildings, regardless of name, will continue to fit in their vision of the future of something formerly tethered to Iowa City and called "The University of Iowa."