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The General by Jim RinkIn a recent Forbes magazine interview, renowned management consultant and author Peter Drucker maintains:
"Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive. It's as large a change as when we first got the printed book. Do you realize that the cost of higher education has risen as fast as the cost of health care? Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable. Higher education is in deep crisis...Aready we are beginning to deliver more lectures and classes off campus via satellite or two-way video at a fraction of the cost. The college won't survive as a residential institution."

The college won't survive as a residential institution. Good God, man--a statement like that could shake the very foundation of humanThe Vanishing University civilization; and, if you're British, it's grounds for suicide. Where else but in a residential institution can one wear tweed jackets, conjugate the verb "to be" in Latin, and experience that first delicate, but delicious struggle for power, purpose and sexual identity?

The college won't survive as a residential institution. This will make dating and, more importantly--tailgating--more difficult. I suppose the new interactive university of the future could provide some of these services in cyberspace. You could have cyber dating, for instance; or cyber tailgating--computer programs that you can individualize for maximum personal enjoyment. Virtual restaurants where you can order virtual pizza and virtual beer, engaging in virtually any discussion imaginable with friends of your own choosing. Heck, in this day and age of cloning, you could have yourself for good company--or a sheep if that's what you're into (Did you ever wonder why the first mammal cloned was a ewe? Those scientists get awfully lonely).

Lindal Cedar Homes of Traverse City--Build your dream...I can hear what some of you cyber-geek, card-carrying Battlestar Galactica nerds are thinking: "I do that now! I have computer dated; I have ordered pizza by computer; I have intimate knowledge of certain farm animals!"

So what's the big deal? Who needs "relics" like living, breathing professors, a campus environment, attractive ivy-covered buildings and bell towers? Architects, that's who. Although, this whole concept could be a blessing in disguise. Architects could design "virtual" classrooms instead of the real thing; that way, no one would have to actually try to build these abominations, which always look better on paper anyway. Typical discussion between a builder and an architect:

"So, what's this thing here?"
"Oh...that's where I slipped with my pen, but I thought it added something to the overall look, so I left it in."
"Well, what's it made out of...what construction material?"
"I don't know...wood maybe, or maybe a combination of wood and glass, or linoleum."
"And what about here...there's no support beam."
"Yeah, well it just gets in the way--it looks bad. This is prettier."
"I see--so when you deliver your remarks at the closed casket funeral of some 100 office workers, you can say then, 'The building was beautiful while it lasted. And so were the people inside.'"

THE LOCAL CONNECTION When it comes to cyber learning, the future is now. At Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, the interactive classroom is alive and well at NMC University Center, where students complete four-year degrees in business, computer science, general studies, health care, applied science, science and technology and social science. There are also graduate degree programs offered by Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, Western Michigan University and Grand Valley State. All signed, sealed and delivered via two-way interactive video.

A fax machine is used to distribute quizzes and tests, as well as to collect homework.

Through a program called Project Interconnect, similar services are offered to neighboring high schools. According to an online report by NMC Information Technology Services, this project "allows the schools to access data on the Internet, share information between schools, and conduct interactive classes with NMC or other schools involved in the project." All of the interactive classes are supplied with video cameras, TV monitors, microphones, an "instructor console," and a fax machine. This program gives smaller schools the option of offering classes that would not normally be available.

SURVEY SAYS... All this talk about interactive classrooms sounds impressive, but what's the bottom line? Do students tutored by Max Headroom enjoy the same academic success as those taught by Mr. Chips? Oddly, there is substantial evidence which says, basically, there is no significant difference. A 1996 study by M. Moore & G. Kearsky called Distance Education: A Systems View, maintains: "Comparing the achievement of learners (as measured by grades, test scores, retention, job performance) who are taught at a distance and those taught in face-to-face classes is a line of research going back more than 50 years. The usual finding in these comparison studies is that there are no significant differences between learning in the two different environments, regardless of the nature of the content, the educational level of the students, or the media involved..."

The study further concludes, like several others, that "the absence of face-to-face contact is not in itself detrimental to the learning process."

THE GENERAL There is a cult TV classic from the mid-Sixties called The Prisoner, in which our protagonist [Number 6] finds himself an unwilling guest on a remote, but perfectly charming, island with an equally charming Utopian society known as the Village. One of the episodes--Episode 6, as a matter of fact--is called The General, and deals with the concept of Speedlearn. Speedlearn is a marriage of science and mass communication, using a subliminal process to transfer knowledge thousands of times faster than the boring old lecture routine.

"100 percent entry; 100 percent pass," is the promise made by the General. "A university degree in three minutes."

In reality, the General turns out to be a super computer, designed for the sole function of brainwashing the inhabitants of the Village. Clearly, the computer's creators realized that, with the introduction of an automated learning system, they could fill these captive minds with useless facts; eventually obliterating the ability to question, to be critical, to be able to think for oneself.

With the introduction of technology as a learning tool, one must not dismiss the positive advantages of human interaction. The CIA learned this the hard way during the Persian Gulf War, but that's another column. Don't we all need a mentor at some point in our lives? A respected, trusted friend to guide us in our lifelong learning? Can this be accomplished by such teachers as a 200 MHz, 16 MG, 8X CD-ROM Compaq Presario, Apple Performa or Packard Bell??

Number 6's solution to the problem of the General was simple, yet inspired. He posed a single, one-word question which the computer was unable to answer. A question so probing and full of possibilities that the General's circuitry melted in the attempt. That one-word question?


Also by Jim Rink
Time Warp
Is it just Jim, or is everything coming 'round again?
Rails to Snails
Jim solves the Rails to Trails controversy
Squishy Uterus
On the books and thoughts of pre-parenthood
Cause Celebre
Madonna moves into Leelanau County
A Condo Runs Through It
More than just rivers are running through Leelanau County
The Piano
A haunted theatre...
Christmas Memories
The finer points of gift giving
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