At Least They Didn’t Predict The End Of Libraries

The World Future Society recently released an updated and expanded list of its top ten technology forecasts for 2007 and beyond. Despite the occasional prediction that libraries will be obsolete, the futurists didn’t see our coming demise in their crystal ball this year. What did catch my attention is a prediction about education. It read:

Schools based on classrooms and a human teacher will dwindle over the next 25 years. Why sit in a classroom when you can visit virtual worlds and experience your subjects? An avatar, a personalized interactive guide, will answer all of your questions and help you pose new ones.

Perhaps virtual worlds will one day provide the ultimate in active learning by placing learners into virtual environments where they obtain real and authentic practice. What would such a learning landscape in higher education mean for academic libraries? There could certainly be a need for librarians to help students navigate what is sure to be an even more complex information environment, but we might just be doing it as avatars. Somehow I suspect that we’ll still have real, physical campuses for students who want that experience, but what if owing to cost the traditional college experience is available only to a privileged class? Perhaps we all need to start paying closer attention to what’s happening over at Second Life. If you tend to be skeptical about future predictions you might find this article to be fun reading.

And speaking of serving students whose learning isn’t dependent on a campus, take a look at Laura Rein’s article, in last Friday’s Inside Higher Ed, on serving the needs of distance learners. It’s a thoughtful look at how library buildings could be better designed and equipped to help librarians provide effective support to distance learners, a group that will rarely, if ever, use the library building.

Posted by StevenB

2 thoughts on “At Least They Didn’t Predict The End Of Libraries”

  1. I looked at the WFS piece earlier…and decided not to even include it in the “predictions and scorecards” essay in the next C&I. Look at the first prediction, and consider that most electricity costs about $0.10 per kilowatt-hour. Then look at how many of the predictions are based on “You *can* do just one thing” thinking–looking at one possibility without considering secondary impacts. I guess I’ve lost interest in big-F Futurists of this ilk.

    As to the “death of campuses” prediction–certainly not new–it ignores what for many of us was the primary reason to go away to college: Socialization and growing up. Distance learning makes more sense for graduate degrees and adult learning, where socialization is less of an issue.

  2. While it is a relief that libraries won’t become obsolete, I have a lot more questions than warm and fuzzy feelings about futuristic techno-utopias and Second Life.

    Regarding the idea of avatars guiding coursework, I have difficulty imagining such a scenario. I understand the desire to loosen the reign that human teachers have on classes, but I feel that the use of avatars would replace one “oppressive” form of teaching with another. These avatars might “know” what you need to get through a class, but the information students enter about themselves would necessarily be too superficial for real interaction. Getting into privacy issues, exactly how much information would one need to give to have a “tailor-made” course guide? I would not want an avatar to discount my complexity as a human being, or to have potentially sensitive information about my personal life. I prefer to use my own brains and tangential intellectual leaps, or to discuss things with a human (including the teacher). Avatars might be fine for “paint by number” classes, but I have doubts about its practicality for classes that require thinking.

    I guess I’m thinking about my “profile” on a number of websites. I’ll use Amazon as an example. The list of recommendations is based on very superficial information about the things I have ordered, written reviews about, and searched for under my account. However it does not understand my motivation for those actions.

    I would like to believe that things will be easy as technology becomes more advanced. Certainly, I don’t mind the ease with which one can do the busywork in everyday life. I just object to the notion that technology will be our savior, or even our “first life.”

    And what’s the big deal about Second Life, anyway? The article still doesn’t have me convinced. I don’t think defying the laws of Physics is all that great… especially if one is in Physics class. (I suppose the teacher could use it as a “teaching moment,” which could get way off topic if too many people do too many physics-defying tricks.) Anyway, we get bamboozled enough as it is in the movies.

    I suppose one can develop a sense of community and collegiality in Second Life, but we have yet to see if virtual dune buggying does such a thing. Besides, if I want to practice dance moves at a Tiki bar, I would go to one in the real world, not in a virtual classroom. I could even have a couple of Mai Tais to loosen me up, which one cannot do in Second Life. (And what’s with the “retro” stuff? I thought we were in the 21st Century!)

    I do have to wonder about the overly-optimistic predictions of these futurists. In addition to Cynthia Crossen’s article about predictions of the past, Siva Vaidhyanathan recently wrote something a column about the futility of trying to predict the future (which inspired me to write an entry in my own blog), and how doubt rarely enters the minds of grand visionaries who talk about changes that will supposedly improve things.

    I do not discount distance education. It certainly has the advantage of convenience, and it may offer the prospect of “having fun” while learning (however one defines that). Still, we have quite a bit of work to do in approximating the non-digital world. I doubt that we will reach that point in 25 years. In fact, it wouldn’t surprise me if it took much longer.

    To be continued…

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