You are not logged in. LOG IN NOW >

Class at the Mall? When Technology's Evolution Outpaces Cultural Prejudices

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, May 11 2009

Last year over on the Washington Monthly, Kevin Carey told the story of how Virginia Tech is attempting to address the pervasive educational problem of resources going in one direction (as in, down) while demand goes the other. (Via an Ezra Klein link) The solution for VaTech? Technology. As in a "Math Emporium" computer room housed in the atrium of a Blacksburg, Virginia shopping mall that has seen better days. To describe the space, Carey makes use of all the adjectives you might expect: gray, windowless, "used to house a five-and-dime." (The emporium's official site does a better job finding the silver lining of conducting higher education in a shopping mall, boasting of "plenty of free parking.") But the commercial space is a cheap way for a math and science based institution to use technology to train undergraduates on the basics before they're sent to real human professors for polishing.

As interesting as it is to use technology to solve the problem of an industry where financial advisors recommend that students and parents budget with the expectation that tuition will increase at twice the rate of inflation, it does raise a question: Do I really want to go to college in a mall? Or, more to the point, what do I tell a potential employer when it comes up that I took freshman calculus from a computer while seated next to a Cinnabon? What happens when our cultural expectations and, yes, biases lag behind what technology makes possible? Those sorts of questions are the kind of ones that will be facing the new U.S. CTO Aneesh Chopra as he aims to figure out how to use what we know about technology to build a better, stronger, smarter America. Thankfully, Chopra himself has already started asking those questions. As Virginia's Secretary of Technology, Chopra saw MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative as a model for the power of technology to fix the inefficiencies and inequalities of higher education. But Chopra admitted, "We don't know as a society how HR departments will value that you've taken 30 hours of MIT coursework." To be a successful CTO, Chopra will have to find answers on how society will value what technology makes possible. (Photo by ȠĬGEL)