Last summer, my three-year old granddaughter, Berkley, took me on a tour of her CD-ROMs with the same ease that she introduced me to her menagerie of stuffed animals moments before. The mouse she used to navigate through the icons of Windows 95 is as much a part of her young life as the tattered stuffed version in her personal zoo.
She's equally at home with her well-worn copies of "Curious George" and "The Cat in the Hat," and she shows no signs of information overload. Quite the contrary. Her vocabulary and understanding have been enriched rather than frustrated by her robust environment. And the same is true for her playmates.
Even today, these children of the '90s, as fluent in technology as their grandparents were in shop and home ec, are flooding out of our best high schools only to be frustrated by archaic teaching practices in America's colleges and universities.
Likewise, growing legions of working adults worry they won't be able to hold the most basic jobs without intensive training in technology. These workers, like today's high school grads and like Berkley and her generation, need new approaches to teaching and learning. Nothing less than the economic and educational future of this country is at stake.
Quite simply, those of us in American higher education need to change the way we think about the teaching and learning experience. And we need to do it at something faster than glacial speed. Higher education has been slow to change the way it does business, in part because we believed the quality of teaching at our finest institutions was truly outstanding. At the same time, we have taken on faith the ability of technology to make broad, systemic changes in our learning systems.
But that hasn't happened. Cost, accessibility, and entrenched cultures have stepped in whenever real change threatened to occur. Now, the global infrastructure of the Internet has erased barriers, and the urgency of the challenge has galvanized many reluctant interests. It is up to America's colleges and universities to make up the difference.
Why should higher education carry the burden? Because we educate the school teachers and university professors. We train the professionals. We perform virtually all the research on knowledge transfer. Higher education sets the intellectual standards for all of education.
We have to start by competing with ourselves, and not becoming complacent with our successful track record. Several once-dominant American industries - among them steel, automobiles, and mainframe computers - have gone to the brink of extinction by mistaking market dominance with a permanent monopoly. If you're the leader, change becomes difficult, especially one that undercuts your market share. Past experience tells us, though, that in an open economy someone will inevitably introduce change - and if it's not you, then your enterprise can become history in a hurry.
One of the most promising developments is the growth of asynchronous learning, which allows students to begin and end their "classes" on their own schedules through the use of network technology. They can create their own study groups and consult with faculty members. Valuable class time once spent on administrative chores or rote learning can be redirected to more valuable interaction, since reading and lecture materials are available at any time from the class's Web site.
Last year I challenged Vanderbilt's deans to develop at least one new degree program using technology as the primary delivery mechanism. One result is a new program at the Owen Graduate School of Business. Starting this year, Vanderbilt will offer an MBA program to executives from South and Central America who will meet face to face with their faculty four days a month for two years, with network-based asynchronous learning available at all times.
This program will complement the existing executive MBA program, in which students meet in the traditional classroom format two days a week, every other week, for a two-year period. And, of course, the traditional two-year residential MBA will continue to be the foundation of Vanderbilt's business education program. The same faculty will teach all three programs, using a mix of network technology and traditional methods. As a result, we will be able to compare the performances of the three. We also have the beginnings of an economy of scale that puts us on the road to a new paradigm.
More than a passing fad
Other departments at Vanderbilt are developing similar initiatives, and many other universities are either studying, or actually using, network-based technology to enhance the higher education experience. This is not a passing fad - an educational Hula-Hoop. This is a fundamental change in the idea of teaching, learning, and training that our universities and colleges must embrace and shape to their own ends. The alternative is a generation of bright, motivated, but ultimately frustrated young people becoming part of an ill-prepared work force.
Berkley and her friends deserve nothing less.
* Joe B. Wyatt is chancellor of Vanderbilt University in Nashville.