Future classrooms will be both online and in class

In 1901 a frustrated Wilbur Wright said to his brother, “Man will not fly for 50 years.” Two years later, Wilbur took off in a plane at Kitty Hawk. We keep Wilbur in mind whenever we think we know where technology will take us as there is always the chance our predictions will be off by 50 years.

Technology has made great strides in education, but too often its advocates approach technology as a religion, something to be swallowed whole or not at all. We should treat it more like philosophy, where one might say I stand with Kant on X, but agree with Spinoza on Y.

We are advocates for online courses and wired classrooms as part of a college education. In the 1990s, as leaders at the Gwinnett University Center in Atlanta, an early bricks-and-clicks institution, we wanted students to have the flexibility to take courses at home at the hours that worked best for them, while still having the opportunity to meet in a group with their professors. We asked faculty to decide which parts of their courses work best in the classroom and which would be more effective if students used interactive computer simulations, blogs and other online approaches.

But the most important thing a liberal arts education offers students is training in how to think, how to analyze facts and situations and come to strong, defendable conclusions. And the best training for this is still the give-and-take in a room full of students and faculty.

Some readers will remember the many confident predictions that TV would drive movie theatres out of business. Why go out for a movie when you can watch one at home? But we are social creatures who like to leave our homes and be with other people. Except in a few situations, earning a degree exclusively through online courses is limiting and unappealing, as if life is best lived in a fallout shelter with a strong wireless connection.

Close to 3 million students live on college campuses. Living on campus is seen by millions of young men and women — and their parents — as the ideal way to spend one’s college years as students have more opportunities to develop the social skills they will need for a lifetime.

But those who say students should spend less time on campus are right. They should spend more time in internships in laboratories, law firms, museums, theaters, archaeological digs, as well as studying at colleges overseas. Such experiences will drive home the value of collaboration and the need to think quickly on one’s feet, and also lead to classrooms full of more experienced students.

In the future our campuses will still be alive with students who take technology for granted and enjoy talking face-to-face with classmates and faculty. An education that includes classroom instruction, the best technology and more internships is one that will still be flying 50 years from now.

James Muyskens is president of Queens College, City University of New York. Sue Henderson is its vice president.