Technology in Education: The Fight for the Future

By David Noble, Ben Shneiderman, Richard Herman, Phil Agre and Peter J. Denning
Sequence: Volume 33, Number 3
Release Date: May/June 1998

We thought we would call your attention to a widely circulated essay written by David P. Noble, a professor at York University in Toronto and currently Hixon-Riggs Professor at Harvey Mudd College. Called "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education," the piece is scornful of what the author sees as the commercialization of higher education, and, indeed, singles Educom out for special blame. Following is our attempt to summarize, as faithfully as possible, the main themes of Dr. Noble's argument, using his own words but cutting the length of his essay by more than half. Please see to read the article in its entirety. In addition to the summary of the Noble article, we are providing some comments by a few individuals who have a rather more sanguine view of the use of information technology in higher education.

Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education
by David Noble

[A summary prepared by the editors of Educom Review]

At the very outset of this new age of higher education, the lines have already been drawn in the struggle which will ultimately determine its shape. On the one side university administrators and their myriad commercial partners, on the other those who constitute the core relation of education: students and teachers. It is no accident, then, that the high-tech transformation of higher education is being initiated and implemented from the top down, either without any student and faculty involvement in the decision-making or despite it-and without any compelling evidence of pedagogical value or economic advantage.

What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology with so little regard for deliberation of the pedagogical and economic costs and at the risk of student and faculty alienation and opposition? A short answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures of "progress." But there is more to it. For the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise.

The major change to befall the universities over the last two decades has been the identification of the campus as a significant site of capital accumulation, a change in social perception which has resulted in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property. There have been two general phases of this transformation. The first, which began 20 years ago and is still underway, entailed the commoditization of the research function of the university, transforming scientific and engineering knowledge into commercially viable proprietary products that could be owned and bought and sold in the market. The second, which we are now witnessing, entails the commoditization of the educational function of the university, transforming courses into courseware, the activity of instruction itself into commercially viable proprietary products that can be owned and bought and sold in the market.

The first phase began in the mid-1970s when, in the wake of the oil crisis and intensifying international competition, corporate and political leaders of the major industrialized countries of the world recognized that they were losing their monopoly over the world's heavy industries and that, in the future, their supremacy would depend upon their monopoly over the knowledge which had become the lifeblood of the new so-called "knowledge-based" industries (space, electronics, computers, materials, telecommunications and bioengineering). The result of this first phase of university commoditization was a wholesale reallocation of university resources toward its research function at the expense of its educational function.

Class sizes swelled, teaching staffs and instructional resources were reduced, salaries were frozen, and curricular offerings were cut to the bone. At the same time, tuition soared to subsidize the creation and maintenance of the commercial infrastructure (and correspondingly bloated administration) that has never really paid off. In the end students were paying more for their education and getting less, and the campuses were in crisis.

The second phase of the commercialization of academia, the commoditization of instruction, is touted as the solution to the crisis engendered by the first. For students, this raises serious questions of cost, coercion, equity, privacy, access, control over their work, and the quality of education. Ignoring the true sources of the financial debacle - an expensive and low-yielding commercial infrastructure and greatly expanded administrative costs - the champions of computer-based instruction focus their attention rather upon increasing the efficiencies of already overextended teachers. And they ignore as well the fact that their high-tech remedies are bound only to compound the problem, increasing further, rather then reducing, the costs of higher education.

But this second transformation of higher education is not the work of teachers or students, the presumed beneficiaries of improved education, because it is not really about education at all. That's just the name of the market. The foremost promoters of this transformation are rather the vendors of the network hardware, software and "content" - Apple, IBM, Bell, the cable companies, Microsoft, and the edutainment and publishing companies Disney, Simon & Schuster, Prentice-Hall, et al., who view education as a market for their wares.

In addition to the vendors, corporate training advocates view online education as yet another way of bringing their problem-solving, information-processing, "just-in-time" educated employees up to profit-making speed. Beyond their ambitious in-house training programs, which have incorporated computer-based instructional methods pioneered by the military, they envision the transformation of the delivery of higher education as a means of supplying their properly prepared personnel at public expense.

The third major promoters of this transformation are the university administrators, who see it as a way of giving their institutions a fashionably forward-looking image. More importantly, they view computer-based instruction as a means of reducing their direct labor and plant maintenance costs - fewer teachers and classrooms - while at the same time undermining the autonomy and independence of faculty. At the same time, they are hoping to get a piece of the commercial action for their institutions or themselves, as vendors in their own right of software and content. University administrators are supported in this enterprise by a number of private foundations, trade associations and academic-corporate consortia which are promoting the use of the new technologies with increasing intensity. Among these are the Sloan, Mellon, Pew and Culpeper Foundations, the American Council on Education, and, above all, Educom, a consortium representing the management of 600 colleges and universities and a hundred private corporations.

The implications of the commoditization of university instruction are two-fold in nature, those relating to the university as a site of the production of the commodities and those relating to the university as a market for them. The first raises for the faculty traditional labor issues about the introduction of new technologies of production. The second raises for students major questions about costs, coercion, privacy, equity and the quality of education.

With the commoditization of instruction, teachers as labor are drawn into a production process designed for the efficient creation of instructional commodities, and hence become subject to all the pressures that have befallen production workers in other industries undergoing rapid technological transformation from above. In this context faculty have much more in common with the historic plight of other skilled workers than they care to acknowledge. Like these others, their activity is being restructured, via the technology, in order to reduce their autonomy, independence and control over their work, and to place workplace knowledge and control as much as possible into the hands of the administration. As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, deskill and displace labor.

Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities and responsiveness.

Once faculty put their course material online, moreover, the knowledge and course design skill embodied in that material is taken out of their possession, transferred to the machinery and placed in the hands of the administration. The administration is now in a position to hire less skilled, and hence cheaper, workers to deliver the technologically prepackaged course. It also allows the administration, which claims ownership of this commodity, to peddle the course elsewhere without the original designer's involvement or even knowledge, much less financial interest. The buyers of this packaged commodity, meanwhile-other academic institutions-are able thereby to contract out, and hence outsource, the work of their own employees and thus reduce their reliance upon their in-house teaching staff.

Most important, once the faculty convert their courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Player Piano, the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation.

Some skeptical faculty insist that what they do cannot possibly be automated, and they are right. But it will be automated anyway, whatever the loss in educational quality. Because education, again, is not what all this is about; it's about making money. In short, the new technology of education, like the automation of other industries, robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control over their working lives, the product of their labor, and, ultimately, their means of livelihood.

Toward this end, university administrators are coercing or enticing faculty into compliance, placing the greatest pressures on the most vulnerable - untenured and part-time faculty, and entry-level and prospective employees. They are using the academic incentive and promotion structure to reward cooperation and discourage dissent. At the same time they are mounting an intensifying propaganda campaign to portray faculty as incompetent, hidebound, recalcitrant, inefficient, ineffective and expensive - in short, in need of improvement or replacement through instructional technologies.

Faculty are portrayed above all as obstructionist, as standing in the way of progress and forestalling the panacea of virtual education allegedly demanded by students, their parents and the public.

The second set of implications stemming from the commoditization of instruction involve the transformation of the university into a market for the commodities being produced. Administrative propaganda routinely alludes to an alleged student demand for the new instructional products. At UCLA officials are betting that their high-tech agenda will be "student-driven", as students insist that faculty make fuller use of the Web site technology in their courses.

To date, however, there has been no such demand on the part of students, no serious study of it, and no evidence for it. Indeed, the few times students have been given a voice, they have rejected the initiatives hands down, especially when they were required to pay for it (the definition of effective demand, i.e., a market).

In his classic 1959 study of diploma mills for the American Council on Education, Robert Reid described the typical diploma mill as having the following characteristics: "no classrooms," "faculties are often untrained or nonexistent," and "the officers are unethical self-seekers whose qualifications are no better than their offerings." It is an apt description of the digital diploma mills now in the making.

Quality higher education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive preserve of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has dawned. In 10 years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen.

Whipping the Boogie-Monster

While there are many reasons to be cautious about distance learning and Internet-supported education, David Noble is unhelpful in guiding us. His fear-filled rhetoric and whipping of the boogie-monster of entrepreneurial corruption of education is misleading, shallow and even counterproductive. We should all be aware of undue corporate influences or insensitive university administrators, but the case Noble presents seems unreasonable to me. Does he think professors publishing books and universities requiring texts from commercial publishers are also examples of "commoditization"? Is the university requirement to publish in journals (run by companies or professional societies) an example of "monopolistic" practices? Does he fear that purchases of chairs and desks results from "interlocking directorates"? Does he object if a corporate donation results in a plaque being placed on a building?

I think an entrepreneurial attitude about education can be helpful to bring out the best among institutions, and appropriate corporate contributions can be enriching. But let's get on with the important issue of figuring out how to improve education by taking advantage of network technologies while preserving the guiding role of teachers, the mentoring role of advisors, and the lively interactions among students. Let's

  • motivate faculty to make appropriate use of technology,
  • build the necessary infrastructure and support,
  • reward faculty for their innovations,
  • integrate corporate donations and vision,
  • create participatory design processes that include faculty and students and
  • evaluate educational approaches regularly.

I like the idea of every course getting a Web site and e-mail lists from the first day. Then it should be up to each faculty member what to do with it. I think it is a wonderful idea to have students put their projects on the Web for each other to read and as a public resource - recent examples are empirical studies on Human-Computer Interaction from my undergraduate course: Students HCI Online Research Experiments (SHORE) and an On-line Library of Information Visualization Environments (OLIVE) from a grad course:

My educational philosophy is Relate-Create-Donate, in which teams of students create ambitious projects that they could not accomplish on their own, for the benefit of someone outside the classroom (

I find this collaborative approach, which couples networking technology with authentic service-learning projects, is highly motivating and effective.

Ben Shneiderman
University of Maryland

Private Sector Partnerships

Have universities really sold out to corporate boardrooms in the past and are we about to do it again? David Noble, in his recent essay, "Digital Diploma Mills," suggests the answer is yes!

Against this background, he raises a number of significant issues about the effectiveness of technology in learning and believes that computer-based instruction is leading to the "commercialization of academia."

Many of the present uses of technology in education today are facilitative in nature, but there are others where technology has been truly effective in improving student learning. And to one of Noble's points where he suggests that technology is being used as a time-saving device, the cases with which I am familiar do not "save" faculty time.

Rather, they have required increased time and are healthy and effective extensions of the usual place-centered education. Just to indicate my own predilections, I do not believe in Peter Drucker's vision of the virtual university supplanting the present place-centered activity. There is too much to learning that can only be accomplished through traditional modes.

My general reaction to Noble's article is that he has painted a one-sided picture, based on a premise which envisions universities as isolated from society. Rather than seeing universities as a place of "capital accumulation," for which he clearly faults industrial partnerships, I suggest that private sector-university partnerships have more often than not brought great benefit (some financial) to students and faculty alike; that these relationships have been a considerable source of interesting research problems; that the work has entered the educational mainstream (e.g., there are degrees now in software engineering, telecommunications and materials science).

In a less technical vein, the subject of urban studies resulted from universities trying to address significant social problems. As Noble suggests, much of this has been encouraged by the federal (and I would add state) government. A relevant quote, perhaps anticipating his famous report, comes from the young Vannevar Bush who was at Tufts at the time: "We have learned that no science worthy of the name is so pure as to be entirely devoid of possibilities of service to the needs of a complex civilization."

Speaking from the public university point of view, I see these activities as a perfectly appropriate extension of the land-grant tradition. Government-industry-university partnerships bring with them the very real issues of intellectual property rights, conflict of interest and conflict of commitment, as Noble points out.

These issues deserve to be debated at the universities and resolved by faculty - in concert with the administration. In this there are several things to be remembered. We are first of all educational institutions and where research universities are concerned, that research significantly affects the nature of our educational product. Moreover, this integration of research and education is a unique benefit of America's research universities and continues to serve society well. Regarding conflicts, Donald Kennedy in *Academic Duty" states: "the university quite properly has first claim on the primary scholarly and teaching activity of its faculty."

I would agree that universities have not always provided sufficient emphasis on the education of undergraduates, but I believe this decade has seen the restoration of an appropriate balance. I do not accept that there was ever a "wholesale reallocation of university resources toward research" (and, by implication, away from education).

I am puzzled a bit by some of the particulars cited by Professor Noble. While the UCLA action has the potential for some of the difficulties cited, it could just as well be motivated by the desire to increase access to education. What are the larger university responsibilities in the area of continuing or distance education?

The University of Maryland, along with a number of other universities, belongs to (and was one of the founding members of) the National Technological University. NTU offers distance education at the Masters level via satellite and by all accounts is very successful in terms of the quality of its students and - importantly - in meeting the educational needs of that populace with quality education of a part-time nature. Rather than being "overtaken by commercialization" - we are not trying to compete with the University of Phoenix-we at Maryland are intent on addressing educational needs where our product fits. Yes, this is a source of income.

However, that fact need not stand in conflict with addressing enormous educational needs which must occur outside of our traditional delivery mechanisms. As long as there is faculty quality control, as for example there is with NTU, and our involvement does not diminish our traditional research and educational mission, I believe we should be engaged in distance and continuing education. Otherwise, we automatically cede to others our responsibility in shaping a large part of the future of higher education.

Professor Noble's voice is a necessary one in that he suggests great caution as we venture into the uses of technology in education. I am more optimistic than he is about possible future benefits and certainly differ with his overall assessment of the past.

Richard Herman
University of Maryland

Meet Me at the Crux

The most obvious interpretations of Noble's essay are the least productive. If we focus exclusively on technology, for example, then Noble seems easily refuted by describing the enormous variety of ways - some destructive, to be sure, but others more constructive - in which universities might employ computer equipment. If we focus exclusively on economics, then Noble seems just as easily refuted by suggesting that increases in efficiency will lower the price of higher education, thus increasing the demand for it.

Neither of these rebuttals is satisfactory. Because they focus on a single dimension of the problem, their predictions are undermined. Technological imagination is fertile indeed, but it cannot tell us which technologies will actually be employed. Economic analysis describes a commodity called "education" that can be produced in greater amounts, but only under the implausible assumption that the commodity itself will not change in a qualitative way.

We must therefore analyze the matter on an institutional level through the interactions among technology, economics, legal regimes and organizational forms that define our university system. Noble discerns a historical pattern to these institutional shifts-a pattern in which machinery, markets, rules and relationships are transformed together as a package. The crux of this pattern is that machinery is used to restrict workers' bargaining power by capturing their skills in a form that can be replicated easily, thereby enabling a shift in the rules and relationships of work. He believes that this ancient pattern has arrived in the university system, and he calls on his fellow professors to stop it. The alternative he prescribes is not a rejection of machinery but rules that ensure that the machinery develops compatibly with the continued autonomy of the faculty.

True or false, Noble's argument challenges us to develop a sophisticated institutional understanding of higher education. How do colleges and universities build social networks, and what do those networks contribute to social equity and economic well-being? What exactly does the independence of the professoriat consist of, how is it produced and reproduced, and what does it contribute to the health of a democratic society? What functions are served by the current forms of linkage among undergraduate education, graduate education and research? What purpose does group discussion serve, and under what conditions does it best serve that purpose? In my opinion, serious investigation of these questions will demonstrate that the American university system is in fact highly functional. The point is not that we should leave everything as it is. The point, rather, is that tremendous damage can result if we transform our institutions without understanding them.

Noble's argument likens higher education to factory work, an analysis that some may find offensive. But we should consider the analogy carefully, for several reasons. The metaphor of education as industrial distribution is already present in much of the speculative literature on distance education, "hyperlearning," and so on. This language of "just-in-time education" is a far cry from traditional understandings of the university as a learning community in which people can become educated citizens through dialogue, and the contrast should unsettle us.

Beneath the fashionable language, moreover, the conflict has deeper roots. My undergraduate students' most common complaint is that the liberal arts program they signed up for, clearly described as such in the catalog, is not providing them with job skills. I have discussed the matter with them at length. These students inherit a conception of education that is closer to vocational training than anything they will encounter at a research university. My understanding of education owes more to Vico than to Taylor. Who is right? Given the rapid pace of technological change in the industries they want to work in, I explain that any specific job skill I can teach them today will be worthless in a few years. I emphasize the skills that don't go out of date: reading, writing, analytical thinking, talking to people, and navigating in a social network. Technology that would help me connect these skills to concrete experience of the real world would be valuable; technology that would only help me teach job skills would not.

In the past, many institutional choices have been made for us automatically by the limitations of our technologies. New technologies create a wider range of institutional possibilities, but precisely for that reason they also force us to articulate more deeply the nature and purpose of our work. We have a tremendous opportunity to design institutions that more fully express the values of a democratic society. We can also destroy everything that is valuable about higher education in the name of a superficial metaphor. The future is not foretold, but we will not invent good institutions without a decent respect for the past. Noble provides us with one way of drawing lessons from history; let us fill out the picture by seeking others as well.

Phil Agre
University of California at San Diego

Skewer the Stereotype

It was in 1964, I think, when I first saw the now-famous New Yorker cartoon of a classroom of the future. The picture shows a tape recorder on each student's desk and a tape player on the teacher's table. The machines whir quietly - and no one is in the room. Thus did the cartoonist skewer the stereotype of the classroom as a venue for transmitting information from teacher's store of knowledge to student's notebook. Today, with TV classrooms holding the stereotype for distance education, the cartoonist might render the scene as a virtual classroom populated with a camcorder and VCRs. In five years, the same cartoonist might add a new machine, a tester that certifies when a student machine has learned its lessons from the teacher machine. As in the original, the machines whir, and no one is present.

These scenes provide images for David Noble's concern: that at some point computers and networks will automate all the jobs now typical of school-lecturing, note-taking, testing and record-keeping. Noble is not alone in this concern. Many faculty find the scenarios plausible and worry that their personal futures will be as barren as this picture. Although Noble is almost exclusively concerned with how such a future might leave faculty without jobs, you don't have to be a faculty member to appreciate that something is profoundly unsatisfactory with this scene. It seems to be the logical conclusion of current trends, and yet it makes no sense. What is wrong with this picture?

Noble describes the world behind this picture with a complex set of claims and assumptions supported by facts that make them plausible. He embeds his picture into a conspiratorial tapestry: predatory university administrators (and their profit-hungry corporate partners) on the one side, the student and faculty as prey on the other. Because the tapestry as a whole has a visceral resonance to many faculty, it needs to be taken seriously. It cannot be ignored, but it can be refuted. An examination of each major strand of the weave leads to serious doubts about its veracity. As the tapestry unravels, it reveals what is wrong with the cartoonist's picture.

In the paragraphs following, I grouped Noble's seven main claims into two main categories, and I preserved some of his phraseology to illustrate the conspiracy theory he advances as part of his hypothesis.

The first category concerns actions and motivations of university administrators. In the name of cost effectiveness, administrators aim to reduce faculty autonomy and independence, to deprive them of control over their own work, to monitor their work through electronic surveillance, and to appropriate their intellectual property (course content).

The process by which administrators have engaged these aims has been going on quietly since the 1970s. At the beginning, they focused on commercialization of research products, mostly through patents and licenses. (The revised patent law in the early 1980s accelerated the process, sparking a major reallocation of resources to research and marking the relentless rise in tuition.) Recently administrators gradually shifted to commercializing educational content, mostly through copyrights, intellectual property claims, videos, CD-ROMS and Web sites. Administrators have had important allies in the project to commoditize educational content: commercial vendors (hardware, software, content providers), corporate human resource people (who see opportunities to exploit public funds to satisfy their training needs), and techno-zealots (who love technology for its own sake).

Universities are, as you can see, already far along in their plans to automate professors' work; the process has happened slowly without giving the faculty much to say about it. It is time for faculty to be seriously concerned about this situation, for automation poses a severe threat to the values of higher education, notably faculty control of the curriculum and processes of learning, academic freedom, faculty autonomy, and quality of research, faculty and students.

Noble's second category of claims concerns the workload associated with using computing technologies in education. By requiring programming and processing of digital content, and by opening up e-mail 24 hours a day, computer-based instruction places limitless demands on instructor time. It distances the faculty from the students, who want genuine face-to-face classes, not cyber-counterfeits.

These claims seem to be organized around the notion that the world of education is being driven by technology, which must be stopped (or controlled tightly) before it undermines quality and shortchanges students. I think that a better question is the time-honored quest for curricula that help students become effective citizens and persons, taking advantage of technology to assist in this objective.

There is too little space here to enumerate the claims and refute them individually. I will recall current realities that cast doubt on them.

Consider first the notion that university administrators are the driving force behind the movement toward more technology in education. In fact, the number of people involved is enormous. It includes politicians of all stripes (from the President, through the Executive Branches, the Congress, state and local governments); faculty from university and public school systems; business leaders from myriad companies; and parents everywhere. The agendas and interests of these groups vary widely and often conflict. To suggest that they are engaged in conspiracies or monopolistic practices stretches the meanings of these terms beyond recognition.

Behind this broad interest is the pervasive and ubiquitous Internet and personal computer. Internet users number 60 million, doubling every 18 months in accordance with Moore's Law. E-mail and Web addresses are routine parts of business cards, stationery and advertising. Commerce by Internet is burgeoning. The government is redoubling its research budgets in security technologies to protect the telecommunications infrastructure. The world, not university administrators, is the source of the pressure for "Internet literacy."

Legislators have had, in many ways, a larger influence than university administrators. In 1994 and 1995, well over half the states froze or cut their higher education budgets (over strong objections of university administrators, it should be noted). Some legislatures permitted or required tuition increases to offset some of the losses. All the while, assisted by editorial writers in the press, legislators spoke frequently about their dissatisfaction with the responsiveness of modern universities to societal needs, especially those relating to workforce, economic development, and technology transfer from research to industry. Since 1995, the states have begun to restore higher education funding, but with strings attached: engage with high-technology, workforce and technology-transfer initiatives. Many have actively promoted "technology literacy" and hands-on training as aspects of modern curricula.

Consider next the notion that university administrators are seeking new revenue by commoditizing the research results of the faculty. Federal research budgets, especially for basic research, have been under siege for most of the 1990s, despite intensive lobbying from university and research groups. Politicians have openly expressed their dissatisfaction with return on investment for federal dollars in university research. They have strongly encouraged universities to form alliances with businesses as a way to pursue research agendas and have rechanneled research funds into mission-oriented programs. To the extent that universities are successful in selling licenses or receiving royalties from patents, they have plowed the revenues back into supporting the university research program.

In fact, the very notion that university administrators have an animus against faculty is itself hard to accept. Most university administrators, especially the key decision-makers such as presidents, vice presidents, provosts, deans and department chairs, are faculty. They have home departments, they teach courses and they advise students. It's hard to believe that these people don't appreciate, respect and look out for the interests of faculty and students-that they would switch from being friends of their colleagues to enemies on taking their administrative posts.

The notion that the faculty are feeling forced to use digital technologies for teaching is likewise hard to accept. In my experience, it is often the other way around. Many faculty are annoyed that their administrations have not moved fast enough to support technology in education - with their students, they complain about too few dial-in lines, inadequate bandwidth, inadequate server capacity, too little technical support, too little Web page design support, inadequate reward systems, too little training in use of the technologies, and the like. Resource-strapped administrators have found it hard to respond at the pace the faculty would like. A widening group of faculty are engaged in experiments to find the effective mixes of technology, practice and plain old tender loving care of their students.

Despite operational difficulties, large numbers of faculty routinely use e-mail to increase the number of hours they are available to answer student questions; they use Web pages as distribution centers for class policies, handouts, homework assignments, and other course materials; they provide software packages for their students to use as tools. This has happened without coercion by their department chairs and deans and without modification of the "reward system."

Should the faculty just sit back, as Noble suggests, and take their time sorting out all the issues brought to the fore by digital technology? I think not. There are some significant changes taking place in the world that no faculty can ignore. In his best-selling book, School's Out (Avon, 1992), Lewis Perelman gives a vision of how people will learn in a world dominated by information technologies, where work and learning are intimately connected. Many aspects of that vision-certification, learning-on-demand, self-pacing, access to recorded lectures, simulations, virtual realities, chat rooms, project groups, location-independent access, richly hyperlinked resources - are already realities. For those who don't want classrooms, there are a growing number of commercial "virtual universities" available via Internet. For those who want their skills certified, there are numerous companies offering training and certification programs. For those who want the best presentations, there are companies that scout out the best teachers and sell their recorded lectures on audio and video tapes. Perelman believes that many universities lack the inclination or institutional ability to compete in the new markets for education. He says that the "virtual university" is like the "iron horse" - not a new kind of university, but a replacement.

This vision is supported by changing demographics. At many universities, large majorities of graduate students are employed and take classes part time. Significant minorities of undergraduates are also part-time and employed. These people welcome the use of technology that would relieve their commutes to campus and reduce time off work.

Finally, there is growing evidence that the Internet is shattering the old notion that technology increases the control of the institution over the individual. More than a few historians and economists have wondered openly whether the nation-state and other institutions can survive in a world where information, money and transactions can flow across boundaries almost without impediment. The Internet is weakening the power of large organizations and governments. The U.S. federal government, wanting the Internet to be a "tax-free zone," finds itself pitted against the individual states. Law enforcers are stymied by crimes committed remotely from outside their jurisdictions. Individualism and entrepreneurship are on the rise in the U.S. Many futurists expect these trends to sweep the rest of the world in the backwash of the Internet.

These trends and new realities paint a picture of expectations on public universities that differ markedly from those of a generation ago. We live in an age of the individual, an entrepreneurial age powered by the Internet. There are broad public expectations that universities should prepare their graduates for employment and help them maintain professional currency after graduation. There is a broad sense that a well-educated workforce is economically competitive in world markets. The horizon of education does not end at age 25, but continues through a person's career into retirement.

These broad trends have created a rich set of new opportunities for universities in research, professional education and teaching. I will only summarize here what I have said at length elsewhere (Educom Review, November 1996).

In research, faculty are beginning to realize that there are at least two other approaches to innovation besides generation of ideas. These are teaching innovative practices and creating products that enable new practices. A university's portfolio of research can now be broadened to include research that assists companies that develop products. Broadened research portfolios will expand the ways in which faculty's creative energies can be harnessed and will enrich the range of experiences available to students. They will give access to the new federal research programs and to corporate research moneys.

In professional education, many faculty now agree with the notion that people don't stop their formal learning by age 25, the age by which universities are designed to release them. A rich new world of graduate programs is opening up, including professional certifications, professional updating, and teaching of higher levels of competence such as expert, virtuoso and even master in selected domains. Even in the unlikely case that significant automation is achieved in many undergraduate courses, there will be plenty of work for faculty in professional and continuing education.

Teaching is perhaps the area of greatest stress for faculty. It is true that digital recordings, online assessment, and databases are taking over the familiar faculty roles of presenting, testing and record-keeping. But no machine can automate the teacher's roles of inspiring, motivating, guiding, coaching and managing students. By automating these routine parts of teaching, the technology is enabling the faculty to spend more time on the human side of their roles, and to reach more students without losing the quality of interaction. But many faculty feel disoriented because they have not been trained as coaches and managers and their institutions offer no significant development programs to help them learn; and yet at some point they will be evaluated more on the results produced by their students than on the opinions of their faculty peers.

In spite of the stress, the good news for students and teachers is that learning is more than information transfer, that automation can affect at most the information-transfer part of learning, and that the teacher is indispensable.

Peter J. Denning
George Mason University