Virtual Universities: Mirror of a Virtual Society

Scientific knowledge forms an important part of society's culture. For it to be retained and further developed, it has to be transmitted from generation to generation. In the past decade, the nature of transmission has undergone an immense change, due to the availability of new information technologies. How does the rapid acceleration in spreading information influence the slow process of understanding and processing knowledge? What are the implications of an extreme scenario in which scientific knowledge is purely virtually transmitted?

It is a misleading conclusion that the accessibility of more information implies the absorption of more scientific knowledge. In fact, the increased set of information to choose from transforms a vertical processing into a horizontal processing of knowledge. Given a constrained capacity to understand scientific concepts, the horizontal selection mechanism diminishes the capacity to vertically deepen our understanding of science. In other words, the information in itself becomes more important than the conceptual idea behind it.

Furthermore, from a scientific and social point of view, the completely self-controlled selection mechanism poses a danger similar to that of cloning. Obviously, both real universities and natural evolution involve a selection mechanism. This mechanism proceeds in two steps. We first make our choice on lectures or partners. Then we start absorbing information or living in a relationship. It is important to note that the second step is less self-influenced than the first. The first choice of lectures or partners acts as a commitment device for the second step. The availability of distance learning raises the question of whether an individual in the process of learning is capable to decide at the same time which subjects of interest to study.

From a social point of view, universities, just like sport clubs and cultural or political associations, offer a place where people with overlapping interests have the opportunity to communicate, socially interact, and exchange knowledge. One important pillar of scientific exchange is a variety of opinions and personalities. It is the confrontation of different viewpoints that matures our understanding of science, as well as our character. If we now start using information technologies to completely outsource the real place of interaction, it would become possible to individually select "opinions." This selection mechanism would lead to self-created and isolated academic environments, inevitably resulting in a virtual society of socially incompetent human beings.

It is my opinion that these concerns should be emphasized much more in the discussion of virtual universities and distance learning.