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An iPod and headphones. (SAMI SIVA/Sami Siva for The Globe and Mail)
An iPod and headphones. (SAMI SIVA/Sami Siva for The Globe and Mail)

Teaching the iGeneration Add to ...

Tim Blackmore is one of the most popular professors at the University of Western Ontario. Students rave about his introductory Media and Society class, and they describe him as funny, helpful and interesting. On a teacher-rating website (ratemyprofessors.com), one student gushes that Dr. Blackmore is "THE GREATEST PROFESSOR THAT EVER LIVED."

But even the legendary Tim Blackmore is having trouble connecting with today's students.

"Your average 17-year-old is not going to pay attention to 50 minutes of straight talk," he says. "So I break up my lectures with film clips and audio clips." But these days, when the white overhead lights in Dr. Blackmore's classroom are dimmed to show one of his clips, what he describes as "a blue full-moon glow" rises up to re-illuminate the space. It's the light being cast from the laptop computers of the nearly 300 students in his class.

"They're downloading porn, browsing Facebook, playing solitaire and trying to listen to the lecture, all at the same time," he says. "These students have every imaginable kind of data and media available to them. Always. This isn't the MTV generation we're talking about — this is the everything, all-the-time generation. It's difficult for a professor to compete with that. It's like trying to capture the attention of a cat."

For years, Dr. Blackmore has resisted using a microphone in class. Instead, he relied upon training received from an opera teacher who coached him on the projection and control of his voice. This year though, he's finally making the switch. "I consider strapping on a mike to be a bit of a failure," he says, "but I've realized that I need more volume and presence to compete for students' attention now. It's an arms race of technology."

Technology has long been cited as a major threat to the traditional role and functioning of the university. Back in 1922, Thomas Edison forecast that motion pictures would replace textbooks within a few years. (A prediction that could only have been made by someone who never had the experience of watching a filmstrip in school.) In 1932, Benjamin Darrow, founder of the Ohio School of the Air, wrote that radio had the ability to become "the textbook of the air" and "make universally available the services of the finest teachers." Five years later, Mr. Darrow's school was out of business. In the 1950s, educational television was the new miracle technology, but it never evolved much past Sesame Street and The Joy of Painting. In the 1970s and '80s computer-based learning was supposed to be the wave of the future and now it's the Internet poised to tear down the beloved ivory towers.

In a piece in Forbes magazine in 1997 about the growing e-learning movement, management guru Peter Drucker was quoted saying that "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive." Recently, Oracle CEO Larry Ellison predicted (echoing the claims about radio 75 years ago) that in the future we will only need about 60 professors. Those great teachers are the ones whose courses will be converted for electronic transmission for consumption by all.

Give the earlier unfounded predictions, it's difficult to take seriously those who foresee the death of the university. After all, the fundamental dynamic at the heart of the university — one educated person standing in front of a group of eager young minds, asking them to question the world — has remained essentially unchanged since the time of the Academy of Plato, despite the invention of, well, everything.

If universities do wind up falling by the wayside, Clifford Stoll, a California astronomer-turned-author ( Silicon Snake Oil, High Tech Heretic), has a novel idea for what the United States could do with its surplus campuses: "Thanks to the Internet, we can convert all these old red-brick, ivy-covered buildings into prisons!"

Fortunately, Canadian universities don't seem to be at risk of being turned into prisons any time soon. Just the opposite, in fact, as Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., recently announced its plans to expand into the former site of the federal Prison for Women. According to a recent study by the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada, university enrolment is expected to continue to grow by 70,000 to 150,000 students over the next decade.

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