Universities and the Internet

What are the implications of globalization for the organization and administration of governments, businesses and other organizations like the military, universities, religions and NGOs. Obviously this is an enormous topic. Here I suggest how universities may have to and are already responding to these pressures. They did not occur all at once but have evolved over time and lead to organizational experimentation.

Friedman’s three stages of globalization in The Earth is Flat are at the levels of the country, the organization and the individual. The world is now supposedly at the third level. In the postwar period, the discussion was about economic interdependence (Richard Cooper and others) between groups of states and regions – the USA, Europe, Latin America, Asia and Africa – with particular attention to the industrialized OECD countries and their relationship with the developing world. Examination then focused on trade and investment with emphasis on governments, multinational enterprises and aid organizations. More recently the declining costs of communication, travel and transportation have lead to an increasing crossborder flow of messages (the Internet, Facebook, LinkedIn,Twitter and the use of cellphones) and of persons with a focus on immigration (legal and illegal), refugees, tourists and the movement of students and temporary foreign workers.

The world it seems has morphed from an aquarium into fish soup with little likelihood of a reversal of the process. This is the case for trade, investment , the movement of persons, beliefs and ideas. Living in North America means that one is daily aware of events in Iraq, Afghanistan, China, Norway, the UK and North Africa (written in August 2011 when these countries and regions were in the headlines). Everyone knows immediately what is happening elsewhere in the world, discuss it with friends and adjust their beliefs and economic circumstances because of it. This was not the case in the past. Before the laying of underwater cables in the 1860’s a message took 10 days to go from the UK to the USA by boat and 10 days for a reply to reach the UK. After the cable was laid three words a minute could be sent. Today communication via the telephone or internet is immediate and cheap via wireless and satellites.

Knowledge in the West of China and Islam are two examples of how the third stage of globalization has changed our understanding of international relations and awareness of events anywhere in the world. How has this affected higher education?
Universities deliver teaching and research. They provide people with skills which will assist them in becoming active members of the labour force and with knowledge which will allow them to lead a fuller life, which means different things to different people. Research is undertaken to develop new products and processes and to further our understanding of both scientific and non-scientific aspects of the world.

Traditionally this has involved students qualifying for entry, attendance at lectures, seminars and laboratories and the taking of exams. At the graduate level, research and preparation of a thesis may be required. Typically this has taken place in a bricks and mortar setting with classrooms, laboratories, libraries and land in the case of agricultural sciences. The university has been a place where students go and interact with faculty and staff and worry over things like parking and accommodation. The model is one of the student or customer coming to the service provider. Now the service can come to the student.

That model began to change in the 1970s with the introduction of television and computers at first desktop and then laptop. While it had always been possible to take correspondence courses in some subjects and not physically attend a university, it was the introduction of television and computers which made attendance at a university location less necessary. Some courses were given on television with the tapes available for later student use. This required either attending the university or borrowing the tape similar to borrowing a book from the library. With computers and the internet, students no longer needed to attend a university location. They could and do stay at home and receive instruction online. Interaction with teachers can be done online as well and office hours eliminated. Passage through the halls of faculty offices is often now a lonely experience. Full time faculty demand office space but spend more time working at home. Teaching and conducting office hours online can and does occur.

While new universities were built in the 1960s to cope with the expanded enrollment, recently there has been much less construction of new campuses although existing campuses have seen new buildings constructed. I wonder how long this will continue as the model for universities changes from the student coming to the campus to receive instruction to the instruction being delivered to the student electronically. The latter is already happening with the expansion of distant education learning.

The economic attraction of distance learning is enormous to governments which fund institutions and will now no longer have to provide funding for the bricks and mortar, and to students who can live at home and receive their education while having a job if they so wish. Two of the main costs of education to the student are the income lost from not working and living away from home. For disciplines which require laboratory work and seminars distance education may not be possible, but for many others it will. A glance at advertisements at the back of the Economist indicates where distance learning is already being offered in some subjects.

Part of the benefit of an on campus experience are the personal, educational and athletic interaction with other students. Some will want this experience and many including myself have benefited from it, but it is a more expensive way to deliver higher education. Those who partake in continuing education at a later age will have difficulty in attending an institution and will take advantage of distant education.
In an age of government cutbacks, I would expect that there will be a variety of delivery mechanisms used from the total on campus experience to the total online experience and mixtures in between. They will have different cost structures and be priced differently to the students.

Technology has affected the organization of other industries such as newspapers, book publishing, music, movies, and television. Higher education will be affected. I would argue that it already has been and a look inside university buildings reveals this. The main floor of the library is filled with computer terminals and the material accessed is increasingly available online not just in the library but from any site with an internet connection. While lecture halls are filled, faculty offices are often underutilized. Secretarial services are reduced as faculty and staff do their own word processing. The challenge to universities will be to decide where in the range of delivery mechanisms they will operate.


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