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Higher Ed for a Networked Age: A View From Inside NYU

Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher of AllThingsD inaugurating INC@NYU's Internet Oral History Project

Three years ago, I stood before a group of undergraduates at New York University to explain why Google was such a transformative company. For a semester, I’d been teaching The Business of Media and it was time to discuss the Web—a medium these digital natives born between 1988 and 1991 knew intimately.

I began with a question: “Did the portals miss an opportunity to dominate paid search?”

A hand shot up from a usually well-prepared student. “Excuse me, Professor Cohen. What’s a portal?

To answer the research questions that have emerged during the first two decades of digital mass media, a new academic discipline has been emerging in universities around the world. We might call it Network Studies—an interdisciplinary field that synthesizes network theory, media history, and mathematics, along with various social, cognitive, and computer sciences to research a global network culture that is morphing with increasing velocity.

Scholars often require time to interpret the historical and cultural changes that occur in a decade. Within the Network Studies community it can feel like the world has changed overnight. Globally, fewer than 30 million people were connected to the Internet in 1995. Today 2.5 billion are networked and that number should grow to half the world’s population by 2014.

The university system is no longer immune to the disruptions caused by the network revolution. The Chronicle of Higher Education covers the economic upheaval caused by digital technology with an intensity that sometimes makes Politicos election coverage seem sparse. These daily articles focus mostly on new distribution methods for education—particularly the rise of Massive Open Online Courses  (MOOCs).

Education startups like 2tor and Coursera are rapidly learning how to improve online  pedagogical methods, but they still expect professors to figure out what to teach. Faculty are responsible for creating classes and majors.

Given the ongoing restructuring of the global economy, students and parents might expect universities to adjust their curricula to teach students how to thrive in an information age. But surprisingly few universities have done comprehensive reviews of their programs since the birth of mass digital media.

This was the impetus to launch NYU’s Initiative for Internet and Network Culture (INC@NYU). NYU Steinhardt’s world-renowned Media, Culture, and Communication Department has the intellectual gravitas and culture of innovation to take up the challenge of hacking liberal arts education. We have a community of 1,000 students and 30 faculty that enable us to iterate and evolve what and how we teach so we can catalyze the growth of Network Studies at NYU and beyond.

Last week, INC@NYU began a small experiment that is emblematic of what’s possible when we synthesize the resources of NYU with those of the private sector. We invited New York-based Codecademy, an education startup that wants to teach the world to program, to launch an eight-week programming workshop co-taught with NYU professor Liel Leibowitz. These tuition-free sessions would earn students no additional credits. By design, this workshop was scheduled on Fridays at 8:30 AM when most college students are still asleep. The time and structure was designed to test students’ real interest in learning to program. How motivated were they to learn purely for self-improvement?

The first day, 60 students battled a rainy rush hour to show up. The waiting list for the next session grows every day.

NYU is surrounded by technology companies central to the city’s economic resurgence. INC@NYU faculty conduct cutting-edge research  about the extraordinary cultural changes created by the rise of digital media. Energetic and brilliant students come to NYU because they dream of becoming New Yorkers. For many, this will mean finding work in the city’s rapidly growing technology sector. The skills required to do such work are continuously evolving and so we must engage the community to hack liberal arts education.

INC@NYU was inspired by the entrepreneurial energy that has fueled the network revolution. Our efforts will require new models of partnership among entrepreneurial faculty and private sector intellectuals. The network revolution has come to NYU. We embrace the disruption.

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