Thursday, September 24, 2009

Some Experiences Can't Be eReplicated

I have befriended a creative intellectual who has recently questioned the future of higher education with a pair of online posts ...

"Am I the only person amazed that higher education model hasn't imploded? See the Washington Post article: "

... followed by ...

"Viva la revolution! College for $99/month. Google to enter soon."

And though I respect his visionary abilities and this post will paint me as an old man devoted to the way things were when I was young, I disagree with the postulation that traditional collegiate education is soon to be no more.

I'm old enough to remember back when futurists said the internet would eliminate books, kill bookstores, and antiquate libraries. Certainly, some have perished and perhaps the online revolution has changed them all -- but their widespread demise has never materialized. In truth, only the weak failed to adapt. The nimble have thrived. Such will be the way of the the undergraduate experience -- and that's a that's a saving grace, as its intangibles are too precious to be extinct.

The St. Michael's College viewbook speaks towards such speculation, saying "There is nothing virtual about life on campus, where nearly 100 percent of students make their home. Sure, you'll find high-speed internet, good cell phone reception, and all the necessary technologies that keep you plugged in. But here, you will also discover a genuine community of students where students walk, talk, study, eat, work and play together. You'll feel at home at Saint Michael's."

Meh, you say? Brochure-speak? In truth, if anything, it's an understatement.

I remember the dark night of my sophomore year at SMC, awakened in the wee hours of the pre-dawn to find the RA had let my mother into my room as she carried news that my father had died a couple hours earlier. I remember being hugged by our dorm's elderly janitor while my roommate packed me some clothes he thought I'd need ... I remember the murmur at the funeral home a couple days later when a giant purple bus rolled into little Bristol, VT, and 60 Purple Knights filed off to pay their respects to the fallen father of a classmate. I remember each of my professors helping me find creative ways to maintain my academic standing as I struggled to bounce back from devestation. I remember the Edmundites and the Financial Aid Staff stepping forward with additional scholarships to help keep me in college when the family finances essentially collapsed with the loss of the primary wage earner.

Now I'm a Dad. Two in college (GO SMC! GO NHIA!). That's two at the same time, mind you! Room, Board, and Tuition? Dang. Even with a pair of impressive academic/artistic scholarships, it's not inexpensive. And yet, for my daughters to experience -- first hand -- the kind of in-person, multi-dimensional, awe-inspiring, delicious undergraduate experience that I was blessed to have? Worth it.

Couldn't we eliminate all that brick-based overhead? Why have dorms? Why bother with classrooms? Couldn't we give the registrants a link and let them learn it online? Can't we make it sexy with a Googley-oogley Facebook-esque simulation of eCommunity for the apparent cyberlearners? Sure - it's technically possible - but so is kissing an android. As for me? I'll take a hug from a teary-eyed janitor over the taste of polycarbonate lips any day.

There. As I climb off this particular soapbox, I think I'll send another donation to SMC and my first to NHIA to help keep their doors open so they'll be there not only for my daughters, but for their nex-gens as well.