Cyberprof: The University in the Next Millennium
by Greg Bothun
The university as "the Academy" has existed for the last five centuries, able to withstand several social and technological revolutions. In its ideal form, the Academy is a forum for the creation of new knowledge and for the open and free discussion of new ideas. It is a center for innovation with a positive and long-lasting influence on all of society. Indeed, the very advancement of civilization depends on the creation, dissemination, and evaluation of new ideas. Without such a mechanism to advance innovation, society stops moving forward and becomes mired in mediocrity, destined to wallow in a steady state of stale ideas. The Academy provides the opportunity for the acquisition of this new knowledge -- the lifeblood of the scholar. Above all, the Academy is a place where excellence is achieved on a consistent basis. Such excellence is defined by scholarly research and teaching unfettered by external pressures or conventional thinking.
But today we stand far removed from this ideal. Today many have questioned the value of the Academy and have characterized its inhabitants as esoteric individuals, disconnected from the body politic. The Academy is under increasing public pressure, often from state legislatures, to become more accountable for what it produces and for the relevance of its product to society. Various business and management plans have been proposed for colleges and universities, and the whole concept of higher education is now being reduced to a market commodity as if somehow the creation and dissemination of new knowledge can be equated with and treated like so many cans of beans at the corner grocery store. In any market economy, those vendors that offer the highest perceived quality for the lowest unit cost will win the contract. Colleges and universities are now encouraged to become more entrepreneurial in their approach to education; success in this new arena is largely based on packaged products and slick marketing strategies as opposed to intellectual content and academic rigor. We are being forced to sacrifice excellence and quality, items that require continual investiture, for a more expedient and efficient operation to produce the end product -- a degree for our customers.
And so we approach the next millennium with considerable trepidation. If unchecked, this market approach to higher education will introduce a new character, CyberProf. Simply put in a token, pull the lever, and CyberProf will spew information. To be sure, the information will be beautifully organized, fully supplemented by stunning graphics and interactive interfaces and appropriately packaged for ease of navigation. But is this how we want to wield information technology (IT) in the digital age? Do we want to use IT merely as a way to expand our markets and find new audiences or to offer course-management tools to improve efficiency? Are we feeling pressure to offer distance-learning programs in response to some perceived new market? Is the college or university with the spiffiest Web-based courseware now the institution of choice? What happened to the roots of the Academy and the revealing of knowledge via the structure of rigorous inquiry? Has all of this been usurped by market forces and the crazy notion that information and knowledge are the same thing?
These are the kinds of questions facing the Academy. In a reactive and pressured climate, each individual institution will form its own idiosyncratic strategy to resolve these issues. Yet such individual reactions will serve only to diminish the Academy. We cannot afford to stand in isolation on these issues. Our future success is facilitated by collaboration in which each institution can supply its own unique perspective, resources, and expertise to the central mission of the Academy: the creation of new knowledge. IT in this context is merely an enabling technology not too dissimilar to the development of the printing press. IT allows for new dissemination mechanisms and new ways for students to engage in inquiry-based learning. It opens up new avenues for faculty collaboration to create more robust teaching products that naturally integrate individual research into the curriculum, thereby increasing the quality of the educational product. IT is thus not about packaging, efficiency, lower unit cost, or any other accounting footnotes.
IT is only a tool. Our challenge is how to make the right investment to empower our faculty to use this tool to improve the quality of the learning environment. Lesser goals should be unacceptable. The Academy must continue to point the way toward a greater enlightenment and understanding of the natural world and our place in it. The Academy cannot become a reflection of what society thinks it wants. The Academy must remain an open forum, one bounded only by the rules of scholarship and academic honesty and one in which new ideas are formulated and expressed in different ways. Network technology and its associated high-tech tools do offer a new way in which ideas can be generated, communicated, and assessed. IT does offer new methods for students to interact with each other and with their instructors. There is even limited evidence that it increases the dialogue between professor and student as the artificial barrier of hierarchy becomes less visible. Improvement along these lines will certainly facilitate the building of a learning community in which the stakeholders are those interested in the acquisition of knowledge.
Every college and university administrator is struggling with the basic issue of how to best use network technology in the educational mission. In some sense, however, this is the wrong issue to focus on and at best represents a short-sighted goal. Instructional technologies in their current form, including those at the University of Oregon, which has been cited as being on the cutting edge, are used largely as an improved means of delivering course material to large, information-oriented classes. Though initially impressive, such a use has not significantly altered the learning dynamic, despite claims to the contrary. Furthermore, it is precisely this use that has inflamed the paranoia of faculty members and resulted in the widespread apprehension that they will be replaced by the Web-based "Course-in-a-Box" approach to teaching. Indeed, this might happen, but it will happen only at those institutions that are not interested in having a future or maintaining the roots of the Academy. The Web-based Course-in-a-Box leads to Degrees-in-a-Box, and that approach is well beneath the dignity of the Academy. The Academy cannot choose this path.
The fundamental challenge facing the Academy is to remain true to its educational mission, despite economic and market forces, and to continually reinforce the fundamental truth that the value of knowledge is priceless. Indeed, this is the principal difference between a college or university education and a can of beans: knowledge is priceless. Adherence to this truth has led to the survival of the Academy as one of the world's great institutions. We must be ever vigilant in the next millennium to keep this principle alive. To be sure, IT will allow for greater access to this knowledge as time and place constraints are removed. But such greater access must be laid on the foundation of academic excellence, integrity, and rigor. Each college or university and each individual faculty member deviating from this principle ultimately diminishes the entire Academy.
Note: This essay was written as part of a speech delivered by University of Oregon President David Frohnmayer at the "Information Resources for the 21st Century: Content, Access, and People" conference in Portland, Oregon, on May 5, 1999.