Thursday, January 13, 2011

Zoom in, zoom out

the following was published by Global Study Magazine (Sept. 2009) and appears on the web here, but is backed up on this site for my convenience. -TL

Thomas Leverett on how modern technology has shaped the world we live in today

Sometimes I look at the trends of the modern world, and wonder what is likely to happen to the world of international education. It used to be such a hard thing to go abroad to study, to pack enough to last a few years, and especially, to know that one would be unable to see one's family for so long. This last thing was such a huge burden that it prevented huge numbers of people from even trying it, or even going somewhere for a summer.

As oil and gasoline become scarce, it is entirely possible that traveling to other continents will become harder, not easier, as time goes by. But the options for staying in touch with one's family have definitely made staying abroad easier. Less than twenty years ago, one had to call on the phone, and it cost hundreds of dollars to discuss important personal issues with, for example, one's mother or father on the other side of the world. This burden has, incredibly, lifted entirely for those who have access to computers with videocams, and most modern labs have this; for students, the issue is making sure that the parents have the same, and making sure one has time that they can arrange to talk. For almost nothing, students can now talk to their parents, and see them while they talk; it is common to hold a nephew up the videocam, or bring stuffed toys to the experience, to make sure that on both sides everyone feels like they are in the same room. My students were, understandably, a little nervous about talking about this experience at first, as if by actually seeing their families, virtually free, they were getting away with something. And they were, I guess. But the whole videocam experience has become worldwide reality in just a few short years, and now the world has to adjust. The price of phone calls has to come down. The expectation of seeing the person at the other end is something that everyone gets used to, then becomes surprised, if, for some reason, they are denied access.

In the same way people have become used to using Google Earth, a system of satellite photos with navigation, as a way of lifting oneself out of one's town, maneuvering around and descending into another place. The satellite photos are still not entirely complete, or constantly updated, but one can definitely get the sense that if one is tired of one's city, for any reason, one needs only to learn to master Google Earth, to go experience another. Maneuver around, find the town, descend into it, and walk the streets; it's definitely easier than, say, flying there by airplane.

Second Life technology has added a new dimension; we can now find and use an avatar, or a virtual body, and set out walking in a new virtual environment, whether that be the virtual streets of Second Life itself, or the well-photographed streets of, say, New York. Again, not every village has been photographed as thoroughly, or as recently, as New York. But that's just a matter of time. We can see where the trends are going. If we, with only our mouses and our videocam-computers in front of us, can get right out of our seats, and go over to visit our parents, we will. I think they will adjust to the fact that our avatars, like most, have purple hair. If they can't, we'll adjust by choosing a more conservative avatar, or changing our hair, or our clothes, in a closet near them. We'll walk over, knock on their door, and sit down for a cup of virtual tea; then, we'll come back, settle in to study for whatever exam is next; being in this college, thousands of miles away, will thus be not so different from being in high school. We can get their support and their advice, and say hello to younger brothers, sisters, nephews and nieces anytime we want.

This scenario is very realistic, except for one factor. There may be less incentive for us to leave home in the first place, since we can experience so much without ever doing so, and even go to various schools around the world, without ever leaving our couch. These schools are getting so good at bringing the experience of the classroom to our couch, with realistic view of teacher lecturing, chat with teacher, electronic transfer of papers, etc.; as the price of gasoline rises, online education gains wider acceptance even within cities where it's difficult driving across town for classes. Time will ease the difference, in the world's view, between an online degree and a "brick-and-mortar" degree, since, in practical terms, there is very little one can offer that the other can't. Whether this will spell the doom of international education, I shudder to speculate. It seemed like, for years, college was actually the opportunity for a young person to get out of the house, see the world. It's hard to imagine what would happen, if that were really to change.

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