Saturday, February 14, 2009

Are We Next?

I've read a lot of books recently that sort of-scare me. Foremost among them is the book Disrupting Class (see my review here)back in July. Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near also did a good job of keeping me up at night better than any horror film ever could. Since I read those books, I've focused a lot on our nation's economic woes and the potential impact on education. I am, to put it mildly, a bit nervous.

Disrupting Class shows the electronic competition and how it is forming into a high-powered system that may soon be able to provide many of the things we think that only schools can now do. When I took my first real online course this winter -- Roger Travis' brilliant Living Epic -- I got even more worried. The media covers the rise of online education on a regular basis -- Minnesota universities' plans to shift a large percentage of their content online; New Jersey's decision to not require online education for now. The open source content from Yale, Harvard, IIT, MIT, UCLA, UC Berkeley, etc...

Education's response has been pretty tepid. While there are some people who see the seriousness of this change (notably NAIS' Pat Basset), most of us aren't really paying attention to any of this. Most of us are mildly interested in this and see online education as a novelty. From what I've heard, newspapers and book publishers felt the same way.

But look around. The carnage of industries who dismissed the impact of the internet on their particular field is all around us. Newspapers, movies, music, publishing, magazines, photography, etc. -- all got hit and are now scrambling to survive. Are we next? Are we ready?

I think schools have a lot to offer in the internet age -- human contact, face-to-face leadership, emotional connections, social interactions, etc. -- but technology is making virtual or distance versions of all of these available. I still think we can survive and thrive in the internet age, but we've got to learn to integrate tech developments into our programs or we run the risk of becoming museums.

I used to joke that some students could learn no matter what -- "you could put a chimp in front of a classroom, give the kid a textbook, and the student would learn just fine." With so much content available in much more accessible formats, that comment becomes truer for more and more kids. Teachers still have a role to play in all this -- a crucial role -- but we need to think carefully about what that's going to look like. I don't pretend to know, but we need to start seriously thinking about this.

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