When I was growing up and especially when I was in high school considering college options, the thought of attending a top-tier school like Stanford, Harvard, or Princeton certainly crossed my mind. Although I had been encouraged by several to pursue an engineering college track (because of the flexible preparation it would provide in equipping me to solve problems and be ready to meet a host of different challenges in a dynamic world) I never really wanted to follow that path. For that reason most likely, going to a school like MIT wasn’t high on my “dream sheet,” although the work of many at the Media Lab I’ve learned about since makes me wonder about those past perceptions a bit. My dream was to attend and graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy, and go on to serve as an officer and pilot in our nation’s Air Force. I ended up taking a LOT of engineering courses at USAFA, since they were required for everyone, but I always took the “fuzzy” rather than the “techie” options for those required “core” classes.

Later in life, when I considered graduate school options, the idea of attending a top-tier university and earning a Masters degree again occurred to me, but practical considerations of cost and location made that prospect seem unrealistic. Later when I become a doctoral student, the natural limitations which come with the responsibility of having a family intervened and encouraged me to seek a degree from a local university rather than “venturing out” into the wider world as a full-time graduate student at a “top tier” school.

The opportunity to spend several days at the University of Virginia in 2002 with PT3 grant travel funds was a big eye opener for me. That was about the time I first started seriously considering entry into a doctoral program in education. At that point I had taught for six years as a K-12 teacher and was entering my second year of work as a technology integration support staff member (officially the “Director of Distance Learning”) for the College of Education at Texas Tech University and was becoming fairly well steeped in the culture of academe in higher education. I was able to spend a week living and learning on the campus of Stanford in 2004 when I attended the Digital Media Academy’s “Digital Filmmaking Bootcamp – Storytelling and Movie Production” workshop as an adult student. What an amazing and fantastic experience that was! (Those were the days before I started using Flickr, so if photos of that trip are available online, I’m not quite sure where they are!) During that period of my life, when I had started my own doctoral studies and began considering the possibility of becoming a university professor some day, I again opened my mind to the possibility of maybe living, teaching and working at a “major” university.

How many people have dreamed of attending a school like Stanford, Harvard, MIT, or another “top tier” school only to have that aspiration dashed or put aside by the realities and limitations of life? Virtually attending classes at one of these institutions is certainly a far cry from the full experience it must be to attend in person– certainly my brief times spent at Stanford and UVA in person were FAR more powerful than the experience could ever be of watching a video or listening to an audio podcast! I find it absolutely remarkable, none-the-less, that each one of us with access to the Internet now has an open invitation to attend classes at many of these “top tier” institutions anytime we can find the time.

Dr. Tim Tyson, in his post “Be Informed As Change Is Afoot,” encourages all educators to literally “tune in” to the voices of professors at some of our top universities and stay abreast of changes we see (or should see) taking place all around us in our culture, our economy, our homes, and our communities. Specifically, Dr. Tyson recommends the course “The Future of the Internet” taught by Ramesh Johari. All course lectures are available as free downloads from iTunes University.

The slogan of the MIT Open Courseware project is “Unlocking Knowledge, Empowering Minds.” It is mind boggling to confront the amazing access which those connected to the Internet can now enjoy to ideas and content which was geographically and financially inaccessible only a few years ago. Think about the history of the university itself, and how “elite” and “restricted” access to the ideas and personalities of “the academy” have been throughout all previous eras of human history. Is it not AMAZING to witness a fundamental change in the access to ideas which has historically been afforded to the people of the world?

It is one thing to be amazed and awed by the depth and breadth of content now available on the web– it is another thing to PERSONALLY and PROFESSIONALLY LEVERAGE it’s potential for learning. Dr. Tyson’s suggestion of subscribing to one or more university-offered courses (as a free podcast) is excellent. Alex Filippenko’s “Introduction to General Astronomy” course in Fall 2006 has been one of my favorite virtual courses to date. Whether you want to learn about the Internet, the universe, or something else, the range of ideas and information resources available via iTunes University (for free) is staggering.

I can guess what at least a few of you, reading this post, are thinking: I don’t have TIME to take a virtual course! It is true today that many of us feel very time-poor and information-rich. This is a challenging condition and perception, but I’m convinced as an objective situation it is only going to get WORSE as time moves on. The access to information we alternatively enjoy and loathe (when we feel overwhelmed) shows no signs of shrinking in the near or long term. Awash with information and opportunities to learn, how will be choose to live our lives?

Hopefully, contrary to the contention of John and Nana Naisbitt, along with Douglas Philips, we will NOT choose to live our lives in ways that are increasingly “distanced and distracted.” Human relationships and interactions are vital, and we should not aspire to become entirely “virtual” beings shying away from face-to-face encounters in favor of virtual ones in all circumstances. Neither should we become neo-luddites, however, rejecting technology and exuding a hostile fear of the digital information and interaction opportunities which increasingly abound around us. Instead, I think we should aspire to live blended lives, just as we should aspire to teach and learn with blended methodologies, integrating the best the face-to-face world as well as virtual worlds have to offer.

No, you don’t have time to enroll in a new, full-time course at Stanford or MIT. But you do have time to subscribe to something of personal interest that will broaden your own learning landscape and horizon of perspectives on iTunes University. If you have a portable audio device, like an iPod, you can– of course– take that content “with you” wherever you go. But an iPod is NOT required. All that is required is a computer with an Internet connection, a free copy of iTunes, and a desire to learn.

Our lives can be changed in many ways, but the ideas which enter into our minds and rub briefly against our consciousness can often be powerful catalysts for new thinking and subsequent conversations. Realize your dreams today. You won’t get any more time in the day to do this, but you can “virtually enroll” today in a course– for free– at a major university of your choice. What are you waiting for?!

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