Online College Classes, Mobile Apps and the Digital World We Live In

Everything is going digital. From the music and books we download on our iPads and Kindles to recent films being shot and projected digitally and even to our medical records. For many people, education has also gone digital, as they can now study in online colleges. In effect, the relationship between student and instructor is gradually and irrevocably being altered — some would say severed.  

So how far do we want to take this new paradigm in which a student can receive a bachelor’s in, say, psychology with little to no human interaction? What’s the next step, the logical conclusion? Will we see the day when we can simply download a course’s curriculum directly into our brains, Matrix-style?

It’s not as sci-fi as it sounds. Futurists like Ray Kurzweil and Nayef R.F. Al-Rodhan have written widely on what’s known as the singularity, which, according to the Singularity Institute, “is the technological creation of smarter-than-human intelligence,” either through artificial intelligence, human-computer interface or other methods. Already, scientists from Boston University and ATR Computational Neuroscience Laboratories in Kyotoin have successfully managed to zap new knowledge into human brains using a method called decoded fMRI neurofeedback. Dr. Roi Cohen Kadosh, of the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford, says of a brain-enhancement treatment called transcranial direct current stimulation: “I can see a time when people plug a simple device into an iPad so that their brain is stimulated when they are doing their homework, learning French or taking up the piano.”

Or mastering jiu-jitsu in a matter of seconds, as Neo does in the 1999 film The Matrix. Sure, the idea sounds attractive. Instead of attending a semester’s worth of stuffy history lectures, just plug your brain into your iMac through a USB port and instantly download the entire Encyclopedia Britannica. Pulling an all-nighter to cram for tomorrow’s physics exam will become a cultural relic, like foot binding or the Atkins diet.

There are drawbacks, however — the first one being that the student may not appreciate the knowledge as much since he didn’t have to work to gain it. And what about downloading literary works for an online English course? Having received my M.A. in English, I would hate for students to lose the thrill of reading a novel or play sequentially, reaching each surprising twist or plot point unawares. Where’s the joy in knowing the fateful ending of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World the second you commit the novel to your memory cache? And what would the professor’s role be in such a scenario?

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