Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

The Future of Higher Education: Technology and the College

In 1851, the critic Ruskin wrote an introduction to an exhibit at Oxford of seascape paintings by the artist Turner. There he predicted that, "For one thing this century will in after ages be considered to have done in a suburb manner, and one thing, I think, only…it will always be said of us, with unabated reverence… They built ships of the line."

But the historian Elting Morrison, from whom I learned of this, goes on to recount that even as Ruskin wrote, the days of the great and noble sailing ships were numbered. This was immediately clear to everyone with the appearance of ironclad gunboats such as the Merrimac and the Monitor just a few years later. Indeed, the battle of the Merrimac and the Monitor during the American Civil War was celebrated as the first encounter between warships made entirely of metal and powered entirely by steam.

Nevertheless, the next half-century of naval history was filled with turmoil and confusion that looks silly in retrospect: The Navy built wooden ships of all different shapes, sizes, and purposes, then hammered metal curtains over them; they continued training sailors in how to set rigging and how to capture other ships by boarding them, and they built odd hybrid vessels with both sails and boilers, but placed strict limits on how much time captains could spend under steam. Worst of all, there were literally thousands of meetings, committees, reports, and boards set up to conduct studies and formulate recommendations.

All this floundering came to an abrupt end soon after the conceptual breakthrough achieved by Alfred Thayer Mahan in his book entitled The Influence of Sea Power on History. The goal of a modern navy, he asserted, is to command the sea. This requires a balanced fleet consisting of battleships, cruisers, destroyers, etc. Everyone who was about to be anyone, including Roosevelt and Bismark, read Mahan and got to work. The rest is history.

I believe that the current revolution in information technology has put higher education in the same kind of transitional state at the turn of the millennium that the American Navy was in during the late 1800's. Some of our high tech experiments in education, for example, are already beginning to look silly. It is still up to us to write the book -- perhaps we should call it The Influence of Computing Power on Higher Education. While a chapter by chapter description would be premature, I would like to share some personal observations about how society and colleges are changing due to the internet and the Information Age that has come along with it.

A perspective on the past that has, by now, become quite familiar identifies the overarching symbol in both business and education of the manufacturing age we are rapidly leaving behind as the assembly line. That technological process has been a powerful and organizing metaphor. To make his Model T car, Henry Ford could begin with unskilled workers and train each to do his or her particular job. Those jobs were broken down into small, repetitive, and interchangeable tasks that each needed doing in a timely fashion. Authority flowed down a pyramid from the few to the many, and was not to be challenged by those near the bottom. Architects of the American system of public education such as Horace Mann and Edward L. Thorndike, were heavily influenced by the scientific management principles of Frederick Taylor. They explicitly spoke of schools as assembly lines in which young masses could be efficiently processed and prepared for life as clock punchers by women with nothing better to do following the orders of a few enlightened curriculum designers. It must be said that the system they devised did serve the economy well, providing a literate workforce that helped America prosper relative to other countries with even more exclusionary and stilted school policies. Still, the manufacturing model seems narrow-minded, elitist, and terribly pigeonholing to most of us today.

Needless to say, the overarching symbol replacing this tired metaphor is the new vision of computer networks in general and the internet in particular. Neither centrally controlled nor task specific, the networks present unlimited potential for individual expression. Nothing goes in a straight line anymore. Rather, paths are constantly linking and relinking in highly nonlinear ways.

Let me call attention to four particular trends that everyone has noticed as associated with the change from the Manufacturing Age as represented by the assembly line to the Information Age as represented by the world wide web:

First there is a trend from authoritative and hierarchical organizational structures toward clustering and flat org charts.

Second, there is a trend from specialization, especially of factories and workers, toward integration and globalization.

Third, there is a trend away from emphasizing production quantity toward emphasizing process quality.

Fourth, there is a trend away from mass production toward mass customization.

This is all rather commonplace by now. Such trends do help explain some developments in K-12 schooling and in pedagogical practice generally. It has become quite fashionable, for example, to promote group learning, integrated and multidisciplinary approaches, attention to process, and customization for learning styles.

But what do these trends tell us about colleges and universities as institutions? I would like to claim there is rather little new here for us: colleges have never been very authoritarian places; universities do not specialize much (even if our students do); we have always cared about process and precedent; and we have never been about mass production.

In short, colleges are not becoming "knowledge organizations." We have always been knowledge organizations! We do not have to imitate industry. It is industry that is setting up corporate "campuses" to imitate us. If faculty are not knowledge workers, who is?

In fact, higher education has, in the past, specifically been a refuge from corporate culture and marketplace pressures. College serves as a temporary shelter we have gone to great lengths to construct and maintain for young people before sending them out into the world of money and competition. This is a role we have always played that the computer revolution helps us appreciate. Such realizations are typical of what happens during a technological revolution. From my reading of the history of technology and from my own work in distance education beginning almost twenty years ago, I find that people first flounder around trying to do the same old things a bit more easily and trying to replace human effort with machines. Eventually we learn not only what the machines are really good for, but, more importantly, we learn more about what cannot be offloaded, that is, what people are good for that machines are not!

A technological revolution should, ideally, make you re-examine and re-emphasize what is and is not most essential about what people have been doing all along without the machines. Before the agricultural revolution, reading, writing, and civic living in towns were all possible and were done to some extent. By automating somewhat the need to hunt and gather, the invention of the plow freed people to concentrate on civilized activities that humans can do and plows cannot. So for me, the biggest challenge of the information revolution is not to figure out what we can do on line, but rather what the internet cannot do.

Here are four distinctions that have always been important to higher education, but that we can now appreciate better and can now concentrate on better in light of the computer revolution:

First, college must be a place where you can learn about the difference between having knowledge and having information.

Second, college must be a place where you can learn about the difference between communication and data exchange.

Third, college must be about the development of social capital as opposed to just individual human capital.

Fourth, college must be about consensus building in distinction to competitive market mechanisms.

When everyone around is carrying on about information, it is worth reminding ourselves that knowledge is something different, that having wisdom and having facts are not the same. The second point, about communication vs. data exchange, perhaps deserves more comment. We tend to think we understand each other just because we send e-mail. But how many of us have had our words misinterpreted, especially by people with whom we share few experiences in common? The world does not come labeled. We need institutions, culture, and schooling to create common vocabulary. The making and, here I want to emphasize, the unmaking of categories is hard but critical work. Academics cannot dare abdicate our responsibility for this unless we wish to live in a world shaped entirely by Madison Avenue and Capitol Hill. Professors are not unlike businessmen or politicians in trying to make others believe in what we say and how we say it. What distinguishes us as educators, according to the philosopher Israel Scheffler, is that we do not rely on power, money, or suggestion to influence people, but rather that "teaching requires us to reveal our reasons to the student and, by doing so, to submit them to his evaluation and criticism."

The experience of reasoning together and developing common vocabulary helps create what I mean by social capital. There are, after all, things that are only valuable because we share them. By way of contrast, competitive market mechanisms concentrate on what individuals possess. The market system is a great way of organizing an economy based on manufactured goods, capabilities, or flows that are yours or mine, but not both. Knowledge is not such a product. That is just not how knowledge or even information works. Capitalism simply does not function well in supporting or investing in activities whose benefits, though huge, are widely and unpredictably distributed in space and time.

When it comes to parks, police, street lamps, universities, research, and other public goods, each individual citizen would rather take a free ride if he or she could. The invisible hand fails in such cases for a reason that has a name: the fallacy of composition. The error is to assume that what holds for each member of a group must hold for the group as a whole as well.

For example, each voter in a town might be a bit better off monetarily if the local school bill does not pass. Does that mean the community is better off? Or think of "the tragedy of the commons." It is in my own interest to graze my cow on the commons as much as I want. It is not in the town's interest if everyone does that and the result is overgrazing that leaves the commons barren. In other words, there instances when, because of externalities and cross-subsidies, everyone is better off if no one does what is best for him or her as an individual. To put it most simply, we are all in this together.

The entrepreneurial, market-driven, disaggregated, and decentralized spirit of the Information Age simply does not appreciate the value of public goods. My point is that this runs counter to what we hold dear in higher education.

For example, many people date the beginning of the Information Age to the break up of AT&T. Now, I am glad to have cheaper phone rates, even if it is more confusing sometimes. The demise of Ma Bell was good for each of us individually, especially if you were a shareholder. But was it good for the country? One priceless asset that got lost in a way rarely talked about was Bell Laboratories. This was a magnificent research institution that brought us the transistor, the laser, the unix operating systems and many other enabling technologies of the Information Age. It and all its Nobel laureates existed on cross-subsidies. Everyone paid a bit higher local telephone rates to support two items. One was universal access to people in remote areas where the cost per person of stringing in a phone line would be prohibitive otherwise. The other was Bell Laboratories, which no longer exists as it did and cannot be put back together.

For another example of how market thinking cannot deal with benefits that are widely and unpredictably distributed, consider the plight of research hospitals. Government used to subsidize research hospitals to do two things: care for the poor and train future physicians. With the advent of managed and for-profit care, these facilities are in desperate shape because emphasis on individual profit centers hurts the system as a whole.

Similarly, universities are, in my opinion, all about cross-subsidies. Unlike many other countries, the American system co-locates research and education at universities. Undergraduates benefit, campuses benefit, the nation benefits from discoveries made and the careers launched, etc., much like what goes on at a teaching hospital. But in the same way, research is not a profit center, at least not in the Arts and Sciences. We have been a refuge from this kind of commercial thinking up until now, as I mentioned. But higher education is becoming a universal right, like telephone service and health care. Much as I am delighted about this from an equity point of view, it also means that the rules are changing, and we have to recognize and preserve what has always been important. Just think of how quickly everything changed for doctors. We have to be careful to know and stand up for what we stand for.

The financier Michael Milken was recently quoted as saying that "higher education has low productivity and poor quality control, so therefore I see it as one big takeover opportunity." Indeed, there are now on-line and for-profit companies that offer a "degree in a box." And at a conference in Washington not long ago, I heard an internet CEO say in a speech that "all you academics are dinosaurs and don't even know it. The future is with companies like mine that will be selling information by the bit."

His words remind me that John Ericsson, famous inventor of the gunboat Monitor, predicted in the technological frenzy of the late 1800's, that he would soon be producing ironclad ships that were entirely automated with no need of a crew. I am waiting, for this and for educational TV to change the world. Instead, Ericsson's technology helped us appreciate and develop what crews are good for that machines cannot replace. We must pay attention to what it is about our campuses that does not fit through a wire if we want to avoid extinction.

Do I feel like a dinosaur? No, I feel every day that the privilege of working on the faculty of my institution is like being aboard a magnificent ship of the line. But no one should sit complacently in a wooden boat when there are ironclads headed up the river ready to blow us out of the water. Rather, like the captains of those hybrid ships of the late 1800's, we should both set our sails and proceed full steam ahead.