Education is a constantly changing field. Regardless of what the US News and World Report rankings would have you believe, the places where you can get a quality education are constantly shifting as academic institutions adapt to new technologies, trends and pressures.
This phenomenon is not just true of the United States. According to the Economist, just a few decades ago, children in Afghanistan were taught basic arithmetic with problems like this one: “One group of mujahideen attack 50 Russian soldiers. In that attack 20 Russians were killed. How many Russians fled”? Today, some Afghan classrooms are equipped with computers and internet access. But you probably couldn’t Google the answer to the above word problem; just subtract.
Historical anecdotes aside, the dynamic nature of the modern world is forcing schools to offer fresh, innovative services at a competitive price. This is a good thing – students should demand more bang for their buck and pressuring schools to provide materials that complement their lessons.
In many respects, the University of Wisconsin has been able to keep pace with these changes. It has updated its websites, offered a variety of online educational opportunities and expanded the amount and variety of technological resources that students can check out at the library. On the second floor of Helen C. White, for example, you can check out a MacBook, a digital camera or a video camera.
Although these services are useful, they are but the tip of the iceberg in terms of potential. For example, here at the UW, the Department of Family Medicine is rethinking the way it teaches hands-on concepts, like avoiding hazards in a home visit by simulating the experience via computer. According to a recent press release, students will be able to “learn at their pace and repeat the experience until comfortable with the material and to identify all the 45 hazards, such as rug trip hazard, expired food and medicine. In the future, it can be rolled out to teach firefighters, social workers, emergency responders and even parents who want to child-proof their home.”
But smarter infrastructure does not just mean flashy computer programs or nifty gadgets. While these things are often useful, there may be even more cost-effective ways to provide learning opportunities. Online education, something as simple as watching a lecture from your couch, is becoming easier to create and access.
George Mason University economics professors Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen recently launched a new website that seeks to provide a basic education in development economics to thousands of people that cannot afford today’s tuition prices. Their website provides lectures, quizzes and user-submitted content that add up to around 45-hours of educational material. Although the website is hardly a substitute for a diverse college curriculum, it is a fantastic supplement to anyone learning about the developing world, economic history or public policy.
On a campus as liberal as this one, I doubt anyone will contest the argument that infrastructure development is important. It is essential both to recruit new students and to reassure current students that the administration is taking note of dilapidated equipment and facilities. Buildings as large and glamorous as 333 East Campus Mall and the new Chazen Art Museum overwhelm us with their sheer scale and architectural magnificence. They can even get the university quality press in lauded publications such as the New York Times.
But there are other arguably more important forms of infrastructure development that tend to be overshadowed – literally and figuratively – by this university’s never-ending construction projects. Yes, new buildings are often both big and beautiful, but they don’t contribute to efficient, cost-effective learning in the same way a program designed to teach students basic math or foreign language skills does.
I’m afraid some of the ways that this university spends its money are overly cosmetic – they are the educational equivalent of putting new rims on a car. Let’s replace the engine instead and give our students more MPG. Then they might have money left over for non-metaphorical fuel.
Nathaniel Olson (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a senior majoring in political science, history and psychology.