Leading Article: A distant prospect of bookless colleges

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THESE DAYS, the guru who stands up and enthuses about how new technology will change our lives is an endangered species. So it was charming to observe Peter Cochrane, BT's chief visionary, arguing yesterday that universities as we know them are moribund - and asking whether their books, libraries and laboratories will be made redundant before the end of the decade by computers, databases and video-telephones.

If Professor Cochrane really believes they will, he is making what the English philosopher Gilbert Ryle called a 'category mistake'. A university education does not consist of a certain number of books read, lectures attended, experiments performed. Rather, it is a matter of belonging to a community of one's peers and of acquiring self-knowledge and independence. No right- minded 18-year-old would consider staying at home with Mum and Dad and doing the coursework upstairs on a bedroom computer.

New technologies can certainly open parts of university life to people currently denied them - such as parents at home, or those who want to study after work. Video conferences and computer databases can update the old Open University formula of essay-marking by post and lecturing on television, and can make distance learning cheaper and more enjoyable. Technology can also eliminate repetitive lectures and make study materials cheaper and easier to distribute.

But scientists, of all people, should be the first to realise that gadgets should follow meekly behind human creativity - not strut in front. The grinding detail of Gray's Anatomy may be ripe for computerisation; after all, knowing which muscle is which is really information, not education. But the idea of going much further is absurd. If the Petri dish had existed only in Alexander Fleming's virtual-reality headset, would he have discovered penicillin? If Isaac Newton had been in front of his video- telephone, instead of lazing under an apple tree, might he not have taken it for granted that things fall to the ground? For all their faults, old-fashioned universities will be around long after today's hottest gadgets have been forgotten.