Charles M. Vest: Disturbing the Educational Universe

As we continue our remembrance of former MIT president Charles M. Vest, we’d like to share his Report of the President for the Academic Year 2000-01—the year of OCW’s announcement—titled “Disturbing the Educational Universe: Universities in the Digital Age — Dinosaurs or Prometheans?

Taking the Fork in the Road

If there is one experience common to every university president in the United States during the past decade or so, it is being accused of leading institutional dinosaurs down a path to rapid extinction in a digital age. Peter Drucker has decreed it. Editorial writers have shouted about it. Alumni and trustees have stated it. Some of our own colleagues agree.

The issue is simply stated. Does the future of education, learning, and training belong to a new machine-based digital environment, or will the best learning remain a deeply human endeavor conducted person-to-person in a residential campus setting? I believe the answer is “Yes” — to both.

We are at the proverbial fork in the road where we should, and will, take both paths. There is not an ounce of doubt in my mind that the way we learn throughout our lives is and will continue to be profoundly influenced by the use of digital media, the Internet, the World Wide Web, and devices and systems yet to be developed.

We will inhabit continually evolving electronic learning communities, in which amazing new technologies will help us learn. Cognitive science, virtual environments, and new modes of interacting will all come into play in powerful ways. We will extend educational opportunities to people throughout the world in a more cost-effective manner. On-the-job, just-in-time learning will become the norm in many industries. And there will be new players in both the for-profit and non-profit educational domains.

But there is even less doubt in my mind that the residential university will remain an essential element of our society, providing the most intense, advanced, and effective education. Machines cannot replace the magic that occurs when bright, creative young people live and learn together in the company of highly dedicated faculty.

The residential research-intensive university will not only survive, it will prosper. If anything, its importance will grow as we continue to provide access to the brightest young men and women regardless of their social and economic backgrounds.

However, the residential university also will be enhanced by wise use of the new technologies. But every institution —new and old — must make some choices about the tactical and strategic role it will play in the digital age. There is not one grand solution. Indeed, I believe that it is too early to declare comprehensive positions and strategies. Rather, it is a time for substantial experimentation and calculated risks that will help us sort out opportunities and find effective paths.

I ask only two things as universities find their way in the digital age. First, our emphasis should be on one thing — the enhancement of learning. Second, from Day One we must build serious evaluation of educational effectiveness into our experiments.

As we undertake our experiments and developments, we must have some guiding visions. At MIT we have decided that one of our dominant visions is that of openness.  Read the full report.

This essay was published in Dr. Vest’s 2004 book, Pursuing the Endless Frontier.

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