Text gets downgraded in multisensory world

April 27, 2001

Higher education is facing a cultural crisis as young people grow up with increasingly multisensory systems of communication, an expert has warned.

Walter Stewart, director of global marketing, education and research for Silicon Graphics, was a keynote speaker at the Computers in Art and Design Education conference hosted by Glasgow School of Art.

Mr Stewart, former dean of communications and development at Centennial College, Ontario, Canada, where he created the Bell Centre for Creative Communications, said: "I think higher education is in for a shock. What we have is a system that is primarily organised around text as a medium for transmitting and recording understanding.

"Young people are enormously fluent and skilled in other modes of communication, and that may suggest that they will neither tolerate nor be particularly adept at these traditional methods," Mr Stewart said.

"Communication is increasingly becoming very visual and very auditory, and it is not that far away before haptic technology is such that young people are oriented to touch in a virtual environment."

Mr Stewart said text would not disappear, but it would no longer necessarily be the prime medium for disseminating information across the arts and sciences.

"The upside for art schools is that, obviously, they tend to the sensory much more than other (institutions). On the other hand, art schools tend to be the most conservative of educational establishments," he said.

Mr Stewart also predicted a substantial shift from higher education's "linear" structure, which is focused on who should be allowed to progress to the next level in the acquisition and transmission of knowledge. This had made economic and social sense in an industrial era when only a small coterie was needed to think, and large numbers were involved in repetitive manual work.

"But if we are truly in a knowledge-based economy, we cannot afford to sacrifice one iota of the intellectual capacity of the population," Mr Stewart said. "If we are truly in a knowledge-based economy, these types of linear processes are not there."

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