Envisioning an e-university

Rui Shi

This summer, South Korea announced plans to digitize its entire elementary and secondary school curriculum by 2015. The high-tech east Asian country is making a $2-billion bet against traditional textbooks. However, with the proliferation and rising popularity of tablets and other mobile devices, this gamble is sure to pay off. Following South Korea’s lead, UT should ditch paper textbooks and make the transition to an electronic campus.

The ever falling cost of e-readers and tablets, combined with Amazon’s announcement of e-book sales surpassing paperback sales during the fourth quarter of 2010, has created the ideal environment for electronic material to thrive. Already, most of the texts that an undergraduate needs are accessible in electric form. UT should take it a step further and become the trend setter by adding the e to “university.”

By transferring all paper-based materials to electronic ones, UT would be making bold statement about the future of education. Electronic material provides a much better way of teaching and learning because it is able to integrate all course material into a single medium. For example, specific homework problems could be linked to their corresponding lecture slides to help students make the connection between main ideas and their applications. Professors would also have the freedom to scan and upload any secondary material, which would be instantly sent to students.

An electronic campus would facilitate the exchange of ideas by allowing for collaboration on a global scale. Since all materials are stored online, class discussions and course materials could be shared across the campus, the nation or the world. Professors or students from elsewhere could enhance the learning and teaching experience by contributing new ideas and insights. As these exchanges continue over time, thousands of pieces of content related to a specific subject would be linked together.

The crux of an all-digital university is the interconnectedness of ideas. Physical books would no longer confine ideas. Rather than reading a book, putting it back on the shelf and forgetting about it, a student would always have access to the information because everything would be stored online. With a digital library system, search engines such as Google and Yahoo! would become even more powerful, as students would be able to search key phrases and pull information from textbooks and other digitized resources. These tools would no longer be limited to online content.

The end goal of the digitalization of books, from the perspective of higher education, should be the creation of an open-source repository that students from all over world can access. As more and more universities digitize their libraries, the amount of information collected will increase at an exponential rate. Ultimately, a student will be able to access any book in the world with the click of a button. Such a unified pool of knowledge source will empower individuals to an unimaginable extent.

One major problem that a unified digital library system will face is intellectual property laws. Individual authors and publishers hold the intellectual rights to their work, and therefore books cannot be digitized in mass. Because everything would be laid out for the public online, authors and publishing companies would stand to lose a lot of money unless they sell the rights at high prices. There are many hurdles that will have to be crossed before such a system could be implemented.

In an ideal world, all forces would come to an agreement and gradually allow books to be introduced to the public domain so they can be used by anyone. This is probably unrealistic in the short-term.

Nevertheless, just as stone tablets gave way to papyrus, it’s time for paper to evolve into digital information.

Shi is an electrical and computer engineering junior.