But the rise of the Internet threatens such advantages as distribution of the world’s information approaches a liminal point of democratization.
Let there be no doubt: We are experiencing a revolution in the way that society transmits knowledge, and it is occurring at the margins of our education system — far, far away from ivory towers and college greens. And yet, despite all the reasons to prepare for coming winds of change, Princeton and other institutions face an inevitable paradigm shift with stunning indifference.
Paradigm, meet Sebastian Thrun. Until recently, Thrun was a tenured professor at Stanford — that is until Thrun realized that he could teach well beyond the scale of a classroom by moving his courses online. After 160,000 students enrolled in his digital version of Stanford’s CS 221: Introduction to Artificial Intelligence, Thrun decided to leave his tenured post at Stanford to found a new online university called Udacity. With good reason, Thrun says he believes that the platform of the web has become more powerful and more effective than any podium that Stanford could provide. The example Thrun sets is clear: Instructors with stature — even those without it — no longer need universities as a means of distribution. The web provides all that is necessary to educate at scale.
Imagine what would happen if even some of the nation’s top educators in the sciences — the subjective nature of the liberal arts do not seem at all scalable — should turn away from their classrooms and move to an online platform as Thrun has done. A student in the sciences could conceivably achieve an education of similar quality to one offered by Princeton, Stanford and MIT for a fraction of the cost.
So in an evolving landscape where traditional brick-and-mortar institutions are no longer unique for distributing technical education universities will have to figure out how to get better or risk some varying degree of irrelevance. The truth is the quality of instruction hasn’t really changed over the past 50 years. There have been only negligible improvements because the organization of information and mode in which it is transmitted has barely changed.
So I’m calling for an overhaul for the University’s software solutions (which is the modern mode of organizing information).
Let’s start by replacing Blackboard with something less ancient and clumsy. I suggest CourseKit, an elegant course management solution that can facilitate class discussions and store class resources seamlessly.
But we have to think bigger than just improving communication inside of classes.
The revolution at the margins underscores what scales and what doesn’t. Information transmission scales. Community doesn’t. No online campus seems capable of building a dedicated and vibrant community of scholars. That is our greatest strength, and our embrace of technology will be best implemented when we leverage it. In that regard, I suggest the creation of a collective project that organizes in one place the intellectual output of this University.
Imagine one destination where every Princetonian’s research was accessible. Imagine a news feed for the published work of Princetonians. Imagine every syllabus, every document of lecture notes for all of our classes accessible in one place, with links to their resources available to everyone in the University community. And beyond that, a place where students can publish class work that is deemed exemplary. It would be an intranet for our collective scholarly products.
As a senior, I’m tempted by the deflating thoughts that 32 classes weren’t enough — the bitter regret of an academic career in its twilight. A system like the one I’ve described would have given me — and could continue to do so for those who have graduated — Wikipedia-type access to the University’s resources despite the practical constraints of course registration.
I bemoan the state of technology in the University not because I want Princeton or other institutions to become the democratic platform that Thrun is making on Udacity. Rather, I’m frustrated by the sorry state of our information resources — poorly organized and face-palmingly constricted. The organization of information matters and is crucial, even tautological, to the evolving paradigm of the modern university — one that looks, even from far away, more like Thrun than us.
Peter Zakin is a Philosophy major from New York, N. Y. He can be reached at email@example.com.