The internet and higher education

I wouldn’t recognize Joel Best in any crowd anywhere. Don’t know the guy. Didn’t know he existed until today. My serendipitous introduction to Joel was through an article he’s written for the Chronicle of Higher Education that was directed my way through my Google alert subscription on the word “postmodernism.” I meet a lot of smart people through that channel.

Joel has been in academia all his life, chairing departments at three universities over the last 25 years. He’s written a new book called, Flavor of the Month: Why Smart People Fall for Fads, and my guess is this article is part of his marketing plan for the book. Joel sees fads where others see opportunity, and the article — and likely the book — is filled with interesting information.

So why am I writing about this?

He offers an extensive list of innovations in education to which he’s been exposed over the years, one of which is the internet. Each, he notes, promised to transform education.

Some of those much-heralded innovations are long forgotten. Others remain housed somewhere on the campus, but I think it is fair to say that higher education hasn’t changed all that much, that none of these ideas proved to be as transformative as their advocates predicted. Compared to their advance billing, they all turned out to be short-term enthusiasms or — more bluntly — educational fads.
So the internet is a fad that has failed to transform higher education. This, I believe, may be the most ignorant statement I’ve ever heard from an academic. The internet has already altered all education forever, because a great deal of knowledge is now accessible without memorization, contemplation, research or study. That higher education “hasn’t changed all that much” may be more a reflection of the self-serving nature of the institution than what he sees as the false promises of “fads.” Moreover, I think it’s a little early to proclaim that the internet isn’t transformative.

I’m reminded of former FCC Chairman Michael Powell’s 2004 statement that “Application separation is the most important paradigm shift in the history of communications, and it will change things forever.” Application separation is made available through the internet, and it’s whacking institutional fatted calves everywhere.

And it’s also how I found Joel’s unique knowledge in the first place.

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