President Myers in The Washington Post

The Washington Post

The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 21 (page A25)

CyberU: What's Missing

The scramble is on to respond to the easy access to knowledge and financial opportunities that computers can provide. Earlier this year the U.S. Department of Education reported that distance education programs had almost doubled in the past three years. Every week another college, university or private individual seeks to establish online education whether for-profit like Michael Milken's online University, Unext, or Michael Saylor's new non-profit on-line University whose motto is “free education for everyone on earth, forever.”

If education were only as simple as reading, then libraries would have replaced schools long ago. We educators are in the business of forming minds-not just filling them.

Guttenberg's invention of printing in the15th century essentially ended up removing priests as the only gatekeepers of information and knowledge. In the same way, the computer and the Web are allowing larger and larger numbers of people direct access to more information and may well take the more traditional middlemen and gatekeepers (our teachers and educators) out of the system. Readily available technology is good for society and good for education because it will bring ever more information from the wider world to everyone. Every academic institution will clearly want to embrace this new technology to enhance the learning experience in the classroom and to reach those who do not have the money or time to attend school.

The principal role of a university or college is not, however, to transmit information. If it were, then our goal would be the most "productive" way of passing on information. Logically, the larger the auditorium, the better, with one teacher lecturing hundreds of students. Distance learning and virtual education are clearly even better vehicles for transmitting information, with the computer screen delivering a prepackaged syllabus to thousands, possibly millions at a time. It makes great economic sense, and predictions may be right that classrooms will go the way of the hand-scribed text.

But higher education in the 21st century is in a different business--a business made even more imperative precisely because of the ubiquity of information technology. More than ever, we need to teach our young people to learn how to learn, to sort and evaluate information, to make judgments about evidence and sources. They must learn how to separate the important from the trivial, and most important, they must learn to think analytically and creatively, to have ideas, to write and speak intelligently about ideas, and to know how to go from ideas to actions. It is not enough for our students to know, rather, they should know what to know and have the capacity to imagine.

There is no better way to form good minds than in one-on-one interactions. Research tells us that the two most significant factors that contribute positively to learning among college students are their interaction with each other and their interaction with teachers. Is there is any doubt that for children and adolescents, face-to-face time is important? Parenting and teaching both require human physical contact and creative individual responses to a singular individual to be most effective.

More than ever then, we are going to need liberal arts preparation at the undergraduate level, the kind of education liberal arts colleges are best positioned to offer. This kind of education may not be the most efficient, but it is clearly the most effective. A liberal arts college offers the most contact time between teachers and students. It offers time for students to actually practice writing, speaking, arguing, evaluating and researching in small classes with real professors who care about them as individuals and care about their work, who will critique them and hold them accountable. It is here that students hone their skills to communicate effectively--the number one quality that corporations seek when they are interviewing candidates. No computer can sharpen the mind as well as a cross-fire discussion among students with their teacher. In human affairs, there is ultimately no substitute for real human contact.

The emergence of computers challenges us to know what our business is. We must respond that we are in the business of ideas, not information, of forming minds, not filling them.

Michele Tolela Myers
Sarah Lawrence College