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The Wired Tower: Perspectives on the Impact of the Internet on Higher Education

Edited by Matthew S. Pittinsky
Financial Times Prentice Hall
2003
2564 pages
ISBN: 0-1304-2829-9
$30.00 (hardcover)

Reviewed by

Chris Street

Department of Secondary Education
California State University, Fullerton

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The focus of The Wired Tower: Perspectives on the Impact of the Internet on Higher Education revolves around this central question: Will virtual universities and other Internet-driven structural changes in higher education happen suddenly or will the changes occur quietly, building on existing conventions?

In this book, various well-known leaders from the education and business communities have written chapters examining both domestic and international trends in e-learning. For example, several authors provide examples and case studies from campuses and online service providers across the world in order to demonstrate the global reach of e-learning.

Pittinsky's book offers the kind of visionary perspective that will be needed for those who want to capitalize on rapidly evolving markets and changing educational landscapes. This is a notable point, for--as this book points out--traditional institutions of higher education may not be particularly well positioned for the rapidly evolving e-learning technologies that are impacting higher education. This book should serve as a reminder to university faculty and administrators that as our educational landscape shifts with the times we had best be prepared to evolve along with the e-learning technologies that are changing the face of higher education. In sum, Pittinsky's book provides an articulate glimpse at where we are, what is changing, and how we might prepare ourselves in advance for rapidly changing times.

Arthur Levine, the president of Teachers College, Columbia University, writes the second chapter of the book. In this insightful chapter he provides a comprehensive overview of the current e-learning environment and discusses the potential future role of educational technologies in higher education. His balanced viewpoint--which serves a steadying force for the book--suggests that traditional universities must evaluate, adapt to, and evolve if they are to both change with the times and support their unique missions as learning institutions. Levine does not just deal in the generalities of e-learning but instead exposes the specific sectors within traditional universities that would be most vulnerable to competition from for-profit institutions (e.g., large enrollment programs, such as MBA programs). Likewise, he suggests that traditional universities also support programs that will be of little interest to the for-profit arena due to their size and subject matter (e.g., physics programs, which are typically both small and expensive).

Martin Irvine's chapter, "The Emerging Global E-Education Industry," also provides a rich overview of the e-learning industry. Irvine provides ample evidence to suggest that global e-learning is a market ready to explode. His insightful chapter caused me (as a university faculty member) to pause and carefully consider whether traditional universities are the organizations best equipped to guide this global force. Irvine and others in the book hint that, as geographically rooted institutions that tend to evolve very slowly, traditional universities may not be well equipped to deal with global e-learning changes. He and others suggest that for-profit players, who tend to be less geographically rooted and more nimble, may be better equipped to deal with rapidly changing educational landscapes.

Though clearly written and an interesting read, the book suffered in two areas. First, I questioned the slightly outdated statistics used by the majority of the contributing authors. As a 2003 publication, the book reflects the results of a series of meetings dating back to 2001 where the speakers (now authors of each chapter) focused on the impact on e-learning on higher education. As Arthur Levine rightly states in his chapter, the "'half-life' of knowledge gets shorter and shorter" (p. 17). In various chapters statistics are cited from the late 1990s to provide support for the various arguments.

In one instance, Greg Cappelli, the author of Chapter Three, states that "The number of students enrolled in distance education as a percentage of total postsecondary enrollments is projected to triple to almost 15 percent in 2002 (my italics) from just 5 percent in 1998" (p. 53). This discussion of future distance education enrollments that have already come to pass was just one instance where I was reminded of how important it is for authors to maintain currency in order to preserve their credibility.

Another weakness of the book is the lack of a major thematic connection between the chapters. Though many themes are touched upon, including the evolving roles of educational institutions, teachers, and students; dissolving boundaries as e-learning goes global, and exciting possibilities for the future of higher education, the only thread that truly held the chapters together was a financial connection. In fact, I thought the book would have been more appropriately titled The Wired Tower: Perspectives on the Financial Impact of the Internet on Higher Education. Though well-known business leaders, administrators, educators, and investors did offer varying perspectives on the impact of the Internet on higher education, each chapter has a notable focus on the financial aspects of these expected changes.

However, Carol Twigg's chapter proved a refreshing look at "how Internet technologies are, or are not, changing the 'traditional' structure of a college course" (p. 112). Her chapter seems the best organized and most compelling, with superb figures to summarize her major points. Her pedagogical focus takes us in a different direction. Though her chapter also deals with the financial aspects of e-learning, she argues that there will be no single solution to every educational dilemma in the future. Instead, Twigg argues that each solution will be custom-made, based on student needs, instutional priorities, and subject matter variables. In sum, she voices the concerns of many who see the coming e-learning transformation as providing systemized approaches to teaching and learning, approaches that minimize the crucial and central role of teachers and students. Twigg takes teaching seriously in this chapter and points out that regardless of the medium being used to connect teachers with learners, the fundamental questions of reducing costs, increasing quality, and increasing access all need to revolve around the needs of students and faculty, who must remain at the heart of the educational process in any e-learning model.

Pittinsky's final chapter, titled "Five Great Promises of E-Learning," takes a visionary stance as he makes predictions as to the state of higher education in the years to come. The final chapter leaves us looking forward rather than backward, a stance we would be wise to adopt as we race forward into an educational landscape that continues to shift with the times.

Posted January 7, 2005.

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2005 by Chris Street.

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