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A Lesson for the Growing Virtual Campus: Stay Grounded and Keep Human

May 15, 2012

In November 2011 the Japanese announced that their supercomputer “K Computer,” – the world’s fastest – achieved 10 quadrillion calculations per second. Don’t laugh. In nerdy tech-geek speak, 10 quadrillion calculations is shorthand for a petaflop or floating-point operations per second (I had to look that up). Breaking the 10-petaflop barrier was a big deal, but already US competitors are working hard to build a supercomputer with twice that speed. Such a computing behemoth could be going live later this year.

That may be all well and good. But if an operator were to ask the K Computer what its emotions concerning love are or for it to express gratitude toward its creator for being built, I can guarantee you that 10 petaflops or 100 wouldn’t make much difference. K Computer simply wouldn’t compute.

Why?

Because even with the best and brightest human minds working on the problem, artificial intelligence still has a long way to go. Try as they might, something is lost in translation – reaction time is off, responses to questions feel forced, and even the worst public speaker on the planet is liable to excite a crowd better than the tinny voice of a computer, say, like Watson, the metallic brainiac that beat its human competitors on Jeopardy last February.

And that’s exactly the same technological limitations I fear when I read about the growing virtual campus movement as more and more universities consider adding virtual classrooms and e-learning opportunities for their students. David Brooks, in a recent article in The New York Times, rightly points out that online learning is particularly good at adjusting the learning pace to individual students as well as the usefulness of assisting remedial students. But the doubts Brooks raises over online learning’s abilities seem too large to surmount. He writes:

“Will online learning diminish the face-to-face community that is the heart of the college experience? Will it elevate functional courses in business and marginalize subjects that are harder to digest in an online format, like philosophy? Will fast online browsing replace deep reading?”

My short answer to all three questions is an unfortunate, yes – for now. Take videoconferencing technologies like Skype and Facetime. As a Miami-based public relations firm, I’ve joined the 31 million Skype users to communicate with clients as well as staff. While it’s clearly an improvement over standard phones and conveys more information, (though pixilated/frozen images can be even more annoying than a dropped call) if I had the option I’d still prefer to speak to these people in person – to make eye contact and gauge body language. With Skype and Facetime, users look at cameras. And it feels that way.

And it’s that lack of human connection which spills over into Brooks’ second question. Imagine the quintessential freshman college philosophy course without that genuine real-world student-teacher give and take? The truth is I wouldn’t want to. As for Brooks’ third concern, “fast online browsing,” is already becoming an epidemic thanks in part to rapid smartphone adoption and 150-character Twitter feeds. In other words, small screen sizes and information overload are already threatening “deep reading” and its requisite offshoot, deep analysis.

Virtual vs. Real

Of course, technology is always improving and the goal of virtual and simulation software is to ultimately drop the “virtual” in their names so that what they produce is indistinguishable from the real world experience. As we approach the November 2012 presidential election you can be absolutely sure that CNN will unveil some new virtual teleconferencing equipment. Back in 2008 those efforts produced a sort-of hologram that gave viewers the impression that correspondents were in the studio with Wolf Blitzer. While impressive, the image was more about TV special effects and less about true holography – 3-dimensional reporters never occupied the CNN broadcast space. The conclusion: the “hologram” was cool but it proved more of a distraction (and a way to boost ratings) than it was a way to effectively deliver information.

As colleges and universities sign on to offer online and virtual lessons, they should take this lesson to heart: stay grounded and keep some human element to your programs. Introduce students to all the magic videoconferencing, the mobile web and social media have to offer in an educational capacity, but let those technologies be explored in the real-world by a flesh and blood professor, augmenting their lectures, not supplanting them.

That is, at least until the K Computer – or its 1,000-petaflop relative – learns how to build the L, M, N, O and P computers without any help from us.

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