Technology, Learning and the Future of Education

By Malveaux, Julianne | Black Issues in Higher Education, April 13, 2000 | Go to article overview

Technology, Learning and the Future of Education


Malveaux, Julianne, Black Issues in Higher Education


A few weeks ago, a newly minted dot-com millionaire opined in The New York Times that higher education was hardly necessary. Why not put it all on the Internet, he asked -- the great books, stirring lectures and rigorous exams? Why not let people teach themselves? Why allow higher education the role of gatekeeper? Why not make learning affordable and accessible?

Said millionaire revealed that he would commit some of his newfound funds to circumvent the reviled ivory tower. He made his proposal with enthusiasm and in the name of democracy. And I didn't know whether to chuckle or cringe.

To be sure, I'm paraphrasing Mr. Dot-Com Millionaire, albeit only slightly. And I'm the last one to defend the higher education status quo. Still, the notion of turning a four-year degree into a downloading experience seems to truncate the purpose of higher education considerably. And while many are right to resent the gate-keeping role that elite institutions have, it seems to me that they take the wrong approach by suggesting that a hurdle can be cleared through Internet learning.

For most students ages 18 to 25, higher education is both about learning and experience. It is about growth and development. The purpose of reading a great book or Black history classic is not only to digest information but also to learn how to hone ideas and bounce them off others.

The most technologically inclined among us may say this can be done in a chat room. I'm not sure that interaction and debate skills are best developed in cyberspace, even as technology reconfigures the ways we interact. Those who have emerged from the college pack as student leaders and speakers, radio jocks and television producers, sports enthusiasts and dedicated graduate students may credit interaction as much as anything else in helping them fine-tune their career plans. Internet learning, while not without merit, cannot duplicate these experiences.

Further, those who think that learning is a "download thing" seem myopic to the digital divide. African Americans and Whites have different access to computers and the Internet. Unless we decide that computers are such a necessity that we are willing to subsidize their presence in every household -- much as we were able to do with universal service for telephones -- it makes no sense to suggest that gaps be closed through the cyber university.

Indeed, with differential access, gaps are exacerbated instead of closed, both because of access to computers and because of access to the support services that some universities willingly offer, but the Internet does not.

Technology certainly can enhance the educational process. And there is nothing wrong with 'Net learning -- in context. It is important, though, to understand that higher education is a $580 billion-plus market -- some say as much as $800 billion -- that Internet producers will seek as aggressively as anyone else. …

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