The Digital University

BOOkCOVER (1)On the plane to Boston for spring break, I watch Back the Future Part II, a classic movie about a young man who gets a glimpse of what life holds in store for him.

About halfway through, I fall asleep and experience an incredibly vivid dream. Marty McFly’s DeLorean time machine allows me to travel twenty years into the future. I enroll in an elite university, but instead of physically attending class, I activate a chip inside my head.

In this Matrix-style environment, my consciousness exists in a digital classroom. Students from every corner of the globe surround me, and I eagerly learn about their unique experiences and insights. The best teachers are somehow digitally duplicated, allowing everybody to learn from only the most effective and caring instructors.

When I awake, I quickly make sense of my dream. I’m looking forward to speaking with Prof. Frank Bryce McCluskey, coauthor of The Idea of the Digital University: Ancient Traditions, Disruptive Technologies and the Battle for the Soul of Higher Education.

McCluskey boasts more than 35 years in higher education. He is a pioneer in online learning, and from 2005 to 2011 he served as provost of the American Public University System. He also holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy, making him the perfect weatherman to forecast the future of education in an ever-evolving digital age.

His excitement matches my own, and we strongly believe that contrary to what some believe, there is no crisis in higher education. As the digital revolution progresses, so too will the quality, accessibility and affordability of learning.

“The etymology of the term tells us that a crisis is a point where the patient lives or dies,” McCluskey writes. “The patient here is not going to die, but the python is halfway through the process of shedding its skin.”

Even in online learning’s infancy stage, McCluskey loves what it provides. He speaks with tremendous glee about improved transparency, and how the digital revolution will continue to offer even better diagnostic tools for effective teaching and learning.

American Public University relies heavily on online learning, allowing the institution to monitor a vast array of factors, such as how often and what types of posts students make, grade distribution, and how long individual users log online.

“We have to make sure we know what good and bad teaching is and what we want to accomplish, and once we do that it’s now so easy to assess all sorts of things—how students are learning, when they learn and don’t learn,” McCluskey says.

I’m glad to hear that McCluskey has also read Susain Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts. We both agree that the classroom demands a sort of public performance that is unnatural to many.

“But online, introverts and extroverts are now equalized,” McCluskey says. “These new kinds of classrooms and hybrid classrooms give more possibilities for more expression for more people. It’s not the end of the classroom—it’s the augmentation of it.”

I teach mostly juniors and seniors, and many worry about the rising cost of college. I’m disheartened about how quality education has become a luxury that fewer and fewer families can afford.

I’m also dismayed that the unemployment rate of young people remains nearly double that of the nation.

In a Jan. 31 PBS Newshour story, Why the ‘Sandwich Generation’ Pays When Young Adults Can’t Find Jobs, author Ellen Rolfes reports that “29 percent of young adults ages 25-34 [are] either living with their parents or [have] moved back in temporarily in recent years because of tough economic conditions.”

I find solace in McCluskey’s optimism over how the digital revolution will continue to make education far more affordable, especially by automating routine tasks.

“When I was a young boy there were people that I knew that were toll collectors,” he says. “They would take the dollar and give somebody back three quarters. That’s what they did for their job over and over again. The machines took over the job because there wasn’t much to that job.”

Going digital allows teachers to post lectures, podcasts and vodcasts in more creative ways, removing the need to rehash the same lecture year after year. As my article on flipped classroom pioneer Jonathan Bergmann discusses, this method provides more time for one-on-one attention and even asynchronous instruction.

McCluskey is extremely enthusiastic about the future, but he’s also deeply grounded in reality. No matter what technological advances arrive—in one fashion or other—the traditional classroom will remain an important component of the whole educational experience.

“There is always going to be great teachers,” McCluskey says. “There will not be a world without great teachers. Great teachers aren’t just people that you have a video of. It’s somebody you can sit down with and have a cup of coffee with and have a conversation with.”

Before I wrap-up our discussion, I ask McCluskey for advice to me and other young professionals looking to enter into or excel in the field of education.

“Tomorrow’s teachers will be a blend of what’s best in education, which is spending time with the students, being a caring person, understanding the classics, reading your great thinkers of government, and at the same time using new tools to break new horizons,” he says.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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