Chapter 11. Who's Killing Higher Education?(Or Is It Suicide?)
When the emerging Internet began re-shaping the public consciousness during the 1990s, a strong consensus within the online community held that the new information technologies would bring an end to higher education as we have known it. I suspect this was true. Its truth, however, is not that the technologies are positively revolutionizing education. Rather, what we are watching is more like the end the final perfection and dead-end extreme of the old regime's shortcomings.
For a long while now we have slowly been reconceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another. Access to information is the universal slogan, and by "information" we demonstrate with countless phrases every day that we mean something routinely transferable between containers.
What we haven't so clearly realized is that this factshoveling model of education renders both teachers and schools superfluous. It's true that many colleges and universities have struggled mightily to convert themselves into more efficient vehicles for information delivery. But they can hardly hope to compete successfully with the computer in this game.
I recently spoke with a representative of the struggling publishing industry. He told me that, for the distinctly non-bookish young people of today, what can't be "Googled" simply doesn't exist. It's not easy to imagine how universities can reasonably adapt themselves to the coming generation of electronically trained youth.
The old institutions, however, are not the only things placed at risk by the computer's fulfillment of the reigning model of education. Eventually, we will realize that students, too, are superfluous. It's much more efficient to transfer information from one database to another than from a database to a mind.
The logic of this has already been glimpsed in the workplace, where we encounter the remarkable phrase, "just-in-time learning." The idea is that you need no longer worry about the general resources your employees bring to the job; all operations are managed by sending exactly the right information to exactly the right terminal at exactly the right time. Everything is taken care of automatically, with the employee functioning smoothly as little more than an assistive cog in the mechanisms of information transfer.
If you want a model for effective information delivery, here's where it is, not in the classroom not even in the wired classroom.
Actually, some people have been explicitly urging this model as the basis for an education of the future. Lewis Perelman, author of School's Out, lauded those businesses that have replaced "preparation-oriented education" with just-in-time learning:
They saw, correctly, that the systems they were constructing were doing to knowledge what the just-in-time delivery processes the Japanese called kanban had done to material resources and goods in manufacturing. (1997)
Inspired by the Japanese term, Perelman coined the word "kanbrain." It's the instrument for so-called hyperlearning, and amounts pretty much to an (unnecessarily biological) name for the technical networks of information exchange. The network is what gets "educated," not people.