The future of GW in the Information Age

When a university is doing as well as GW has been doing in recent years, all kinds of temptations arise. There is the temptation to take success for granted and to relax rather than seek out new levels of accomplishment. There is the temptation to take the present shape of the University as its final shape, never to be questioned, because who wants to trifle with a system that works? And as alumni watch the value of their degrees go up with no additional academic labor, there is the temptation to assume GW is no longer in need of help from its graduates.

In the face of temptations like these, I myself would like to see something altogether different happen. I’d like to see GW’s future become an active subject for discussion by students, faculty, alumni and University staff. And I’d like to see that happen because the future of GW is a lot more open, and a lot more undetermined, than most of us care to admit.

In part that’s because of our national debate on the subject of higher education. No, it’s not a debate authorized by the president of the United States or his secretary of education. It’s not a debate being conducted on television or in the other media. Rather, it’s the kind of debate that comes up at you from the American grassroots, where ideas are generated by the interactions millions people have with each other at work and at home. I’d like to discuss just a few of the possibilities this debate already has produced.

Most dramatic of all is the notion that campus-based colleges and universities are on their way out. Soon, a lot of Americans seem to believe, students will receive their higher education while seated in their bedrooms or offices.

The arrival of e-mail and the Internet has led some Americans to reach an “obvious” conclusion: Since education consists largely of words and pictures, it can be performed in cyberspace just as effectively as in classroom space, laboratory space and studio space. Therefore, why pull on your clothes and travel hundreds or thousands of miles to spend several years on what used to be called a “campus”? Pull on your bathrobe instead, sit down in front of your computer and register for “classes” by just punching a few details onto your keyboard.

The notion that campuses are obsolete has been accepted by some qualified business and technology analysts. Meanwhile, a small but vocal crowd of teachers and students keeps insisting that the vision of education behind such ideas is completely flawed. Much of what goes on at a school of higher education, they insist, takes place in settings other than the classroom – in cafeterias, in students’ residences and even in campus elevators.

One student meets another, they share a few words about “this morning’s class” and the second student mentions a book she has found in the library that solves a lot of the problems cited by the instructor. Is that a moment that could take place in quite the same way if one student were sitting in front of a computer monitor in Saskatchewan, while the other was pounding a keyboard in Miami?

Or take the notion that an Internet “chat room” is just like a face-to-face discussion. It sounds good until you recall all of the moments, in a real conversation, that consist of pauses rather than pronouncements, and body language, rather than spoken paragraphs. The way someone tips his or her head, that someone chooses this precise moment to take a gulp of water – gestures like that often add up to ways of “saying” what you’re not quite ready to say in words. Can we erase all such subtleties from our conversation and still be having a recognizable conversation?

When we think about GW’s future, therefore, one of the things we are thinking about is GW’s relationship to cyberspace and information technology. We will have to make decisions on this subject in the future, as we already have. As we all know, GW has made a year-after-year effort to improve student and faculty access to the Internet.

But all of this effort pales next to the one that would be involved in abolishing GW’s campuses and “going electronic” instead. Gone forever would be the notion of finding something out by walking from one campus location to another. You would be “tied to your screen” in a way suggestive of physical imprisonment. And gone forever, it goes without saying, would be the idea that one part of “growing up” consists of “moving away.”

Cyberspace and its proper use is just one of the subjects that are currently “cooking” where GW’s future is concerned. Others crowd in on an average day, and range from the physical design of our various campuses to the details of the GW curriculum. Organizing a discussion of such matters is a less than obvious process. The discussion needs to be free and untrammeled, and escape any suggestion of unjust limitation. What’s the best forum we can put together?

-The writer is president and professor of public administration at The George Washington University.

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