The Internet and the Future of University Education

Based on a Speech given by Professor Peter Such, York University, Toronto, Canada

North American Studies Conference in Tampere, Finland, April 17-19,1997

Education has developed from a form of translating pictures, in ancient Greece, to today’s standard of the printed word as we are accustomed to in text books. Traditionally, the place to get an education was through a sequential sequence of events related to the students by professors or thoughts of higher knowledge through the library of books in their custody. Prior to the printing press, it was common for there to be only one copy of a book, and therefore, the students relied on the interpretation of these books by their professors.

Today, we collect our knowledge by reading books and watching television, more of an independent study activity. Books still tend to require that we read them from front to back in a sequential manner, however, television tends to convey a certain departure from this by giving us the ability to jump from program to program, and collect a wealth of information from commercial advertising clips and news stories.

Universities have continued to convey information basically in the same way since the middle ages by producing lectures, and by holding on to the knowledge they have in their books and faculty. So, how will the information revolution change this aspect of education? Will universities continue to be the custodians of information, or will they simply be left with only a monopoly on accreditation? Will universities be able to compete with the new information technology as for example the internet?

The internet is a departure from traditional print in that it has the current possibility to display pictures, icons, sound, motion pictures and other unique audio-visual technique that are difficult or impossible to display in a book or in a classroom. Moreover, the information distributed on the internet may be randomly accessed from anywhere, thus creating an environment of uncontrolled random learning.

“According to a study done by OECD, access to the internet in Canada is clearly the cheapest of any country in the industrial world. At the same time, it is only second in the world for its number of internet connections, next to Finland.” (Toronto Star Electronic Publishing Ltd., 970320.)

Things Change Alfred Tennyson in his poem Nothing Will Die, says “The wind will blow; the stream will flow; nothing will be born; nothing will die; yet, all things will change.” I think that there is a connection here with education. “Similar undercurrents are omnipresent in the evolution of ‘education.’ The wind will roar, the stream will rage, not always wilfully nor overtly; and the educational system will change.” (from Håkansson, Håkan, Industrial Networks and Technological Innovation, paper.)

Now the Political Side of the Argument Just try to convince the faculty of York University that this change is good. The faculty has decided to strike in order to preserve the institution they are familiar with, rather than adapt to the changes on the horizon. They are asking for increased salary and retirement benefits from an institution they expect will have an eternal life of its own. What if education changes? What if there is no further need of the teaching faculty in order to deliver the educational system? Then what?

Already, York University offers a selection of courses on the internet. The administration’s position is, why not join the stream, rather than get left on the bank somewhere? In fact, it may be construed that York is ready to make the internet a substantial part of its teaching delivery. As Peter Such stated, “there is company in Hamilton Ontario which has broken a record for the longest industrial strike in Canada. The linotype workers left their jobs 55 years ago.” I guess they sought to teach their company a lesson, not realising the consequences of challenging an evolving industry forced to make changes due to technological changes in their field. Is it possible that York University’s faculty will fall prey to the same trap? It is not by their actions that they will be left behind in the technology, but it is by their inability to see the future of education. It seems that while the faculty are fighting for better job compensation and security, the administration have chosen to pursue another “stream,” one that is on the leading edge of technology.

It is not a question of who is right and who is wrong, but how they can pull together to provide for the future. After all, it is not easy to assess at this point if the York administration have chosen the correct path. If the university will no longer have a monopoly on knowledge, (having lost their exclusive custody of the books of knowledge years ago,) then how long might it take for them to also loose their monopoly on accreditation? Is the accreditation linked to the professors, conveyors of the information, or can it be simply an administrative task? Is it possible that in the future we will be able to learn from pictures and icons and therefore no longer rely on printed material for our knowledge?

It is true that the internet is playing a larger and more significant part in education today, however, there is no reason to believe that it is ready to take over the role of educator. Someone still needs to establish standards of performance, to co-ordinate sources of information and to decipher what is relevant and most important. Those who are seeking education will continue to rely on mentors or learned people who have guided education since the beginning of time. Although teachers can no longer be the holders of knowledge, they serve to interpret or deliver the relevant information whether it is in books or on the internet. The internet itself doesn’t challenge one to learn any specific discipline and there is still a need for scholars to specialise.

I can remember being told in school that the community college system in Ontario was there to teach students ‘what to think’ so that they would be well prepared to enter the work force. We were told that universities provided a platform for learning ‘how to think.’ Just reading pages from the internet will not suffice to do either, they still need some concrete platform for study. “Studies have shown that comprehension and retention from reading a video screen is about 50% of the printed page.” (Peter Such) Does this mean that students will have to spend twice as long to learn the same amount from the internet? Or, will the variety of learning offered through the internet compensate for this?

What about the aspect of easier world-wide access to information? Wouldn’t it be great if all scholars would copy their research to the internet in order to provide access to even more intellectual material? As a resource library, the internet provides excellent searching tools and programs for locating relevant indexes of material.

Through the internet, it will be possible for York University to offer courses to students in all parts of the world, and possibly beyond. In this case, York may appear to become even more powerful as a knowledge bank, distributing its wealth of information to all corners of the earth. An immediate example of this will be the distance education program offered at University of Tampere in the Fall 1997. Through the internet, York University will offer several history courses to Tampere, supervised by Professor Peter Such of Atkinson College. This innovation can be considered to be part of the post-modern idea of ‘collapsing distance.’ No longer is it necessary for students to attend classes in any particular place or time in order to benefit from structured university lessons.

This is only the edge of something even greater that hasn’t yet been thought of, at least from this optimist’s point of view. “Nothing will die; All things will change Thro’ eternity.” (Tennyson, Alfred)

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Written by Brian Wick, who is actually an optimist.

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