The 2015 International Consumer Electronics Show is going on right now, and the “hot new trend” is called the Internet of Things. From “wearables” like the FitBit and other fitness monitoring devices, to cars and ovens that consumers can access over the Internet, moving online is not just for people anymore. At an increasing rate, the Internet is collapsing the distance between you and your home, your work, your kids, your school. “Distance” is going away.
Gone are the days when colleges and universities can count on “distance” students to take “special” classes separate from the “regular” students on campus. Distance is collapsing in every arena of our lives. Colleges can no longer assume that online students live far from the physical campus any more than they can assume that students who do live far away are fundamentally distinct from any other student.
At the start of fall term, I had the opportunity to attend our university’s convocation, and as I looked out over a sea of excited students gathered in a single physical space for a specific event, I noticed that fully a quarter of them were actively interacting with their phones even as the program unfolded before them. In one way, they were physically present, but in an equally real way, they were experiencing life “virtually” through their devices.
Smart program planners are aware of this phenomenon, and are making it easy for physical event attendees to Tweet or post to Instagram in a way that amplifies the physical event into cyberspace. But we need to be better at having information flow the other way: from cyberspace to the physical space. I don’t know how we are going to get to a fully-integrated space where the division between the physical and the virtual goes away. But I know that is what the future will look like.
Accreditation bodies call for “parity” between the experience a physically-present and a virtually-present student has at their school, but in some ways the very idea of parity is problematic. Parity assumes the populations are different but should be treated the same. But “separate but equal” is a flawed policy: separate is inherently unequal. It’s time for those of us who are engaged in educating people for a living begin thinking about how we can fit the academic experience into the modern world. Our students live an integrated life, and it’s time for us to do the same.