Anonymous yet personal, this Blog chronicles
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Friday, February 12, 2010

The digital_university

My random thought today is about higher education.

In the United States, there is a rather diverse approach to university learning. There is pretty much something for everyone.

But a new bread of colleges have emerged that are profit-driven, and they do not hide the fact that their primary responsibility is to the stock holders. But, profit verses non-profit is often just a matter of tax-status, book-keeping, and type of incorporation. In some regard, all institutions of higher learning perceive their students as customers, and those customers are most often reliant on Title IV funding to purchase their education. Purchasing a home, car, or college education on borrowed funds has become one of the staples of the great American dream. I'm not disputing that.

But what do you get for your money, and are you buying the real deal or an illusion or dream? It's a murky area.

A few colleges seem to take the approach that their product is "theatre." Everything about their campus is designed to provide an illusion of the prototypical educational experience: clean classrooms, a library, and actors for program chairs, deans, and faculty. Merchandise, such as sweatshirts with the university logo exist to reinforce and support the brand identity. Even the graduation ceremony is part of the Disneyland-inspired illusion.

College is a booming business, and the cost of higher education has risen at an alarming rate relative to GDP. However, the tangible result of a 2 or 4 year degree in many instances is unclear, especially when the "theatre" aspect of an education outweighs the results-oriented approach of traditional learning. At some schools you can attend college without actually doing any real work to improve your mind. Student-customers are sometimes coaxed into purchasing a hefty college experience package - and in some cases it's a pretty darn good simulation for the real thing.

The fact that the public has trouble understanding what is real and what is theatre is part of the charm. Frankly, there are more than a few profit-driven, shady institutions out there. They skillfully use confusion about "what is college" to their advantage, often tout their non-traditional modes of engagement as a new wave in higher education. But in reality their product is simply a cost-effective delivery of a degree.

And if the university as theatre issue was not complex enough, higher education is going through a transformation regarding online access and the granting of degrees. Many believe that the digital_university is the future. It represents a paradigm shift in how a rapidly growing number of Americans will interact with college.

In my view, the best way to offer online studies is to simulate the real classroom setting. In other words, your teacher would have an Avatar, as would you and your fellow classmates. You'd have to raise your hand to ask a question, the the teacher would "see" your Avatar on the screen and respond accordingly. It would bring all of the social aspects of classroom learning back into the equation again. True, it's education as video game, but the paradigm has many advantages too. In reality you could be sitting at home in your pajamas on a cold and snowy day while attending class.

I believe that the Avatar is the future of online programs. The technology is already here, but it still needs to be developed and deployed.

What does this mean for teachers? Well, at some brick-and-mortar colleges teachers seem to be hired purely for their acting skills. They are required to look the part and present the aura of a stereotypical "Professor." Yet, in practice they are merely working on contract as one of many actors in the grand educational pageant show. At some business-run schools, instructors are asked to dress for the part and run through the motions of what people expect college to look like - otherwise they wouldn't have have invested in the illusion.

I guess it's time that we all sat down with our Avatars and had a long talk. The future is coming faster than we realize.

Pretty soon real-world teaching jobs (in a brick-and-mortar classrooms) will become "unreal" - like acting in a performance. On the other hand, the online classroom will become a true reality, with our Avatars leading the charge.

The digital_university is our future.

Embrace it, or become a Thespian.