Wednesday, January 23, 2013

The future of education and libraries

Here's a bold prediction, from Nathan Hardin in The American Interest:
In fifty years, if not much sooner, half of the roughly 4,500 colleges and universities now operating in the United States will have ceased to exist. The technology driving this change is already at work, and nothing can stop it. The future looks like this: Access to college-level education will be free for everyone; the residential college campus will become largely obsolete; tens of thousands of professors will lose their jobs; the bachelor’s degree will become increasingly irrelevant; and ten years from now Harvard will enroll ten million students.
Now, I'm not sure I'd go that far, but I think there is a great deal of truth in this. At the very least, I think universities are going to have to completely rethink their modus operandi. As it currently stands, the university system is breaking down. I live in the UK, of course, and I think our tertiary education system is more dysfunctional than the US model. As it happens, I was with a group of current undergraduates today. Their workload is astonishing. Fewer than ten contact hours per week, with more or less no checking on what they are doing outside that time. The simple truth is that they aren't working hard enough, and the days of the three year degree course will soon be over.

In a way, that's a shame. When I was an undergraduate, in the early 80s, I learned an enormous amount. Practically none of it was academic, but I still learned: I grew up, I became (sort of) an adult, I matured from a very shy, insular child into a more rounded individual. That was important for me, and I fear that the time to grow up in this way will be lost to future generations of students. But it's going to happen, so let's prepare.

In the same way, libraries must adapt and evolve. I despair of much of the crass debate going on in public library circles in the UK at present. Rose-tinted spectacle-wearing, book-fondling librarian types want to hold on to the public library network that has evolved since Victorian times, totally missing the point that the world has moved on. Libraries are not big places with books in them. They are repositories of knowledge. It seems obvious that these repositories will soon become more electronic than physical, and librarians must plan for that, not hold futile sit-ins in dead library buildings.

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