The admonition, "You never know who's listening," which we typically associate with characters in spy thrillers, also applies to university professors, especially if they're the sort who like to record podcasts of their lectures. History professor David Christian found this out when a rather notable supernumerary student of his revealed himself. This student? None other than Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
"Bill Gates apparently listens to lecture podcasts while on the treadmill," reports an article appearing in the March 3, 2010 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education. "That’s what David Christian, then a history professor at San Diego State University, learned one day when Mr. Gates called him in his university office, explaining that he heard his recorded lecture and wanted to meet."
The meeting between Gates and Professor Christian appears to have gone swimmingly, persuading Gates "to support a free online syllabus of Mr. Christian’s unusual course, called 'Big History,' that gives a sweeping multidisciplinary overview of world history from the Big Bang to the Industrial Revolution," the article continues.
The peculiar virtue of Professor Christian's course, which sold Gates on the idea of supporting it, is that it "provides a unifying narrative that today’s students are hungry for," the article reports.
A course like Professor Christian's, which consolidates otherwise disparate subject matter under a single theme, does do students a great service. All too commonly, university graduates come away from their educational experience with the belief that it was all a muddle. The à la carte nature of the typical liberal arts curriculum, coupled with the often myopic focus of university courses generally ("The Art of Flea Circuses in Nineteenth-Century New Zealand," "Hair Combing in the Late Middle Ages"), promise a matriculation that is at best fragmentary -- if not altogether incoherent. And as wireless technology and social media continue to develop at a breathtaking pace, this sense of incoherence threatens only to become all the greater.
Of course, as hungry as today's students are for a unifying narrative, they still show themselves digital natives enough to prefer ultra-contemporary over traditional methods of instruction. "According to the Sloan Consortium Survey, which offers statistics and reports annually on the progress of online education, the number of students taking online courses is increasing more than any other year," reports an article appearing in the March 2, 2011 edition of The Parthenon, the student newspaper of Marshall University. "The report claims that 5.6 million students in the U.S were enrolled in at least one online course during the fall 2009 term. This number has increased by one million compared to 2008. Thirty percent of students in the U.S are involved in some type of online course."
These numbers, as staggering as they already are, represent only a inkling of trends to come. One techno-revolutionary, writing in an article appearing in the March 2, 2011 edition of The Huffington Post, predicts "a disruption of the education market." "Education, a very top-down industry," writes Meredith Ely (the techno-revolutionary in question), "has been dominated by legacy providers that have been able to make it through administrative bottlenecks to teachers and students."
The weapon in the resistance to this domination Ely believes to be the second-generation Apple iPad, which when put "into the hands of families is an incredibly powerful tool in shifting the education market to a more bottom-up industry."
The very technology of the device exerts a reforming influence. "The iPad is inherently demanding in nature; it calls on developers to create games and apps to meet the demands of families, but it also gives these developers an incredibly convenient distribution mechanism," Ely continues.
This means that educational apps (highly demanded) are delivered right to the hands of eager families at low cost. The ultimate significance: Traditional academic publishers, student information system providers and educational toy/game companies that have been making enormous profits by selling to school districts since the beginning of time will have to compete with innovative, agile competitors who enter the space via the cloud -- and are accessible on devices like the iPad 2.
Whether Apple's iPad 2 or some other gizmo becomes the tip of the spear in the education revolution remains to be seen. What's certain, however, is that the times are indeed a-changin' for institutions of higher learning. Lofty learning and high technology need not come to daggers drawn, however. They can be made to forge a lasting -- and fruitful -- alliance