Higher Education in the Information Age



The Technological Future

Robert Lucky

 

Gregory Farrington: I have to tell you one story which I can't resist telling. I'm not even sure it's true, but good stories aren't always true. But they contain in them something that is. It's said, anyway, that at one of the Oxford colleges some time ago, the dons were meeting to contemplate the information revolution and its possible impact upon them and their institution and how they carried out their lives. They weren't certain about the new information revolution. After all, the new technology had little elegance of the old. Would people embrace it? Would it really have an impact? They made a decision, thinking about it rather carefully, that the new technology just might not catch on. And as a result that college has one of the poorer collections of early books among the Oxford colleges--because it wasn't clear in the 1400's that the book really would catch on. The scroll was so much nicer and all those wonderful illuminated manuscripts with the great capital initial letter in color. Printing didn't have any of that elegance. It took several hundred years for the rotary press and the postal system to make the distribution of cheap information--printed information--possible, and after that a revolution took place that we're the product of in a way. It's hard to imagine the world we live in without it. Universal literacy--or not universal, but at least major global literacy--wealth, economic development, democratization, a transformation of societies, if not a transformation of people.

With the computer, so many of these changes have been compressed into about 50 years. As Judy said, just last February we celebrated the birth of ENIAC. ENIAC was what the mayor of Philadelphia called "a real computer". That is, it filled a room. It was a glowing machine, tethered by thick cables. It sucked power and radiated heat. And it frequently didn't work. It did all these things wonderfully at the corner of 33rd and Walnut--one you rushed by this morning, holding your umbrella. Once here, the Times said only seven of these monsters would be needed by the world. Maybe he was right. What changed, of course, was the brilliant engineering of the chip which made everything smaller, faster, smaller, faster--everything faster. Now computers are unimaginably small and getting smaller every day. As you heard Judy mention, even greeting cards have them. One thing that hasn't changed is they still frequently don't work--but for much, much, much more creative reasons.

This conference, of course, is about what the future is going to be. Just as the beginning of the ENIAC celebration at Penn was a celebration of the past, this is a looking towards the future. How will colleges and universities change as a result of these new technologies? And why are the next 10 and 20 years going to be some of the most exciting, I think, in the history of education for many, many decades--some would argue centuries?

Now, to begin, I've got to resist making a pun. Earlier I said that Steve Heibein would begin because Bob Lucky wasn't quite here yet, but at the risk of saying we've gotten fortunate, I'd like to introduce Bob Lucky as the first speaker. He is Vice President of Applied Research at Bellcore and a three-dimensional person in his own right. His recent book, Silicon Dreams, and book of essays, Lucky Strikes Again, have positioned him not only as a creative Vice President at Bellcore, but as a person whose comments on where the telecommunications are taking society are paid attention to by many. He's won too many prizes to list. It's just a pleasure to introduce him: Robert Lucky, from Bellcore.

Robert Lucky: Well, it's nice to be here this morning, and I really mean that. I understand Woody Allen once said that 80% of life was showing up, and I feel like I've already done it for today just by getting here. It's one of those interesting phenomena. I was held up for a half hour to 40 minutes on Route 295, and the traffic was almost dead stopped for all that period. Then you get up there, and there's an accident, but it's in a lane going the other way. And this is a curious phenomenon where there's no reason for traffic to be slowed, but everybody stops to rubberneck and look. And of course now with the Internet we have the possibility of global rubbernecking. Flodge crowds is a phenomenon you get on the Net where everybody shows up in one place at one time, and it's for the first time possible to do that.

Friday my secretary was enthusiastic because she was getting married and some of her friends chipped in and gave her a "voyage to nowhere". You just go on a cruise ship and they take you away, and you don't even know where you're going. And life is often like that, actually. I think it makes a good metaphor for any talking about the Information Age and the Net. I sometimes feel--I have this image that you're on this ship, but you don't realize it's going anywhere because you're just partying down below and drinking and eating fine and all that, and one day you get this message that you're invited up to the bridge. And you go up there and you look out over the ocean for the first time, and you see the dark waters churning in front of you, and you realize that you actually are going somewhere. And you feel the vibrations from the deck. And you feel the power coming up through the deck that's pushing you to wherever, because you can't even see up ahead. And then you turn around to meet the captain, and there's nobody there--nobody running the ship at all. And you hear the noise from the party trickling up from below. And the people below don't care; they're having a good time. The engines thrust you forward, and there's nobody running it, and nobody knows where you're going. And that's just about the situation that I often think that we have in the Net today and with society. Telecommunications and technology are enabling something that--we're just a force coming up through the deck, and there may not even be anybody running it either, at all.

When I look at the wonderful things which have happened, and the other day I made a list of great things and then things that I worry about, and I'm not really going to go too much into the things that I worry about, although indirectly I will as we go ahead. But to me, I just can't get over the sense of wonder about what has happened. The fact that I can sit at the little computer up in the attic of my house and reach out to the whole world--and it's just a new kind of togetherness that was never possible before. And every day I'm thrilled that this is possible. Now my wife says, though, I'm becoming a hermit, and I say, "No, I'm connected." And there's just the two different views, and I don't know exactly who's right. But it's really curious the changing definition that we have now, when you think about it, of where is "here", when is "now", and who is "us"--all things that are changing, and all are profound questions.

One of the things that I'm particularly enthusiastic about that's happening is the large scale e-mail. Every week now I hear from some forgotten high school friend that I hadn't heard from for 30 years who's discovered the Net and has found my address. And when I see the classes from the university now going out, for the first time they're able to keep together electronically. They don't drift apart. And it's very special. When the students go home for the summer, they're all in e-mail touch, and this is a wonderful thing that we have. It's a life-long togetherness for the classes of today and hopefully a life-long togetherness with the university--that the university can reach out and stay connected to people in a new way that they have never had before.

Speaking of connectedness, I got a call a couple months ago from somebody at MIT who was doing a study on the six degrees of separation. Trying to prove it. Now you know the idea that everyone's connected to everyone else by six degrees of separation. You can find six friends, and I don't know if six is the right number, but it sounds right. But the question is: can you prove six. And he wanted to prove six by getting the telephone records and finding out who called whom and then see if he could put this all together in a giant computer and trace and see if everyone was connected to everyone else by six telephone numbers. Well, he's not going to be able to do that. He's not going to get the telephone records for one thing. They'll never give them to him. But even if he could, I don't think that would prove the togetherness thing. But I just have the sensation that the six is going down, that maybe six is becoming five, and five will become four, and what it means is a tightening up of society. The feedback loop is being shortened, and the time scales are being tightened, and it all contributes to this heating up of society that we have going on right now. I feel like a gerbil running in a cage, and it's going faster and faster, and I can't fun any faster, but it's going to speed up anyway. And I don't know where it all ends, but connectedness is part of it--of what's happening.

Another great thing that is happening is--I used to love going to libraries. I'm sure just about everybody in this room has and does. I love to wander around in libraries. I love their smell--everything about them. But as I've gotten older, and as I've gotten in this gerbil cage of running as fast as I can and going nowhere, I don't get to libraries very often. I don't have the opportunity to wander in the shelves. But now, with the Web, I have this omnipresent library that I live in. And it's the library of my dreams, where I can wander down the aisles and they're infinitely long, and I can take turns and then get lost in the labyrinth of this fantastic library. And it really is a beautiful thing. Now, unlike the library in the university--there are these signs that say "No talking", "Quiet please": it's just you and the books. On the Web there's something else: there are people there. And we haven't really put it together yet, but it shouldn't be just information. There are millions of other people wandering around that library who could exchange wisdom, and if we can put together a collective wisdom out of this, we can achieve something much greater than the sum of all those books.

Now there are the glimmers of this kind of possibility with collaborative filtering today, and these are simple things, but there's a site that many of you might know, "Firefly", that uses collaborative filtering, and basically what it does is they find other people like you. And one of the great things about the Web is that you can find your long last clone out there in cyberspace somewhere. There's somebody just like you, and you could never find them before, but now with the possibilities of the Web you can. And what Firefly does is to find other people like you for movies and restaurants and music, books--those kinds of things. They get you, for example, to rate all the movies you've ever seen or care to rate, and then they search their records for other people who rated movies in similar fashions, and then they find people like you. And then if people like you like some new movie you haven't seen, the chances that you'll like it are very good.

Now it's the same thing in information. One of the things that people worry about a lot is the information. You know, there's good information and bad information and wishy-washy information, and who qualifies it? Who judges it? Who rates it? This is happening out there in a kind of subtle way today. That is, as you wander through this infinite library, the things it seems to me that you're more likely to find are the things that other people guide you to, the things that other people have made links to. And as you get steered that way, you're being steered in some sense by a group wisdom. Now, as I said, its just sort of subtly there right now. As we go ahead, if we can put this together, the information and the people to build the wisdom in some kind of a way, I think that we really have achieved something truly great.

Now, this is an education conference, and I'm obviously not an education person, and so I'm wary of talking about how to solve education using the technology, but education's one of those things that everyone figures they know about, you know? There are a few things like that that every naive person can stand up and feel that they can talk about, and I go to a lot of meetings where people talk about the education crisis. It's a favorite subject of a lot of meetings.

I understand that at a recent conference, Ester Dyson asked the audience, "How many of you think the government should fix education?" And basically only about two people raised their hands. And she said, "All right, how many of you think you're going to fix it?" And basically almost nobody raised their hands. And she said, "Well, whose left? Who is going to fix it?" And I've heard lots of proposals. One that was debated at a meeting I was at recently by a lot of industry people is this general proposal that we should pay teachers by giving them options on their students careers. You know, you get so many options that are redeemable, they have a ten year life or something like that, and if the student prospers--well, you get a share of this. And you know there's a lot of argument about this. In some ways it sounds appealing, but then somebody said, "This will incent the production of lawyers and investment bankers. It certainly won't incent the production of teachers." And then people say, Well, really, what is the goal?" You know, what do we want of education?"

I was at a meeting where we had one session on education and we saw a demonstration of a wired classroom. And this teacher was going on at great lengths about how the students could now use Excel. And then we all had this big argument afterwards: does using Excel mean that you're educated? You know, what does it mean to be educated? And as somebody else said, if your brain surgeon learned his trade from CD ROM's, does it matter? Who qualifies this kind of thing? And the fact is that there's actually very little money spent, as most of you know, on research on education. About how to do education better. There's actually very little federal money spent on that, and as I heard one person jump up in an audience and scream, "Well, where is the vision?" Where is the vision in education?

Well, when we look at the new tool that we have in the Information Age and technology, in the Internet and the Web--and business is sort of wrestling with how they can use it. And there's a lot of talk about business models and the engineering business, but the bottom line is that what this technology is best for is enabling you to do what you do now, but doing it better. More efficiently. And a lot of the new things that have been opened up have not worked out, but the shining example everybody gives is Federal Express.

Federal Express, as you all know, tracks its packages. And you can go in there and find out where your package is. It's great. But because of that, they were able to get rid of half of their 800 number operators and save a heck of a lot of money. But not only that, they created great customer satisfaction. Because in some sense self-service is the most satisfying form of customer relationship: if you enable the customer to do it themselves. And that's what Federal express did. They empowered their customer to do their business. And this is an excellent model for business, and it's also replicated at many sites like HP and other sites where what they basically do is let the customer come in with the information that they need to do their job better--product information, software upgrades, new drivers, that kind of thing. Now, it occurs to me that maybe education can do this kind of thing. That is: a new kind of customer intimacy, empowering the customer to do it themselves.

There are sort of two lessons when I look back on my college years that I should have gotten and I didn't get, and one of them was that when--I took engineering, of course, and nobody told me that the world was going to change. And I always thought that if I learned all this stuff in these textbooks, I was going to be set for life. Now, that was it. I still have those textbooks. They're in a basement somewhere in Pittsburgh, and I have never opened them since I left school. The fact is the world changed, and it changed so fast--and there was no concept in the education of the idea that change was inevitable, that change was the constant. And so that the important thing for education, really, was to learn how to learn. And having learned how to learn was much more important than actually what you learned, because everything of what I learned was totally useless--well, practically. But the spirit of learning, the mechanisms and the processes of learning on your own, were the really important things. And I probably could have done a better job when I was in school of doing that, and I didn't.

Now some people have said that the universities don't have the same kind of customer feedback that business does. Business has the market, and when they put out a product that isn't any good, the market tells them. And basically, although you might argue that there's a slow mechanism for the universities, it certainly is much weaker. And some people have argued that universities should be more market driven. But then somebody else says the difference is when businesses face the market and the market tells them they've done something wrong, they fail, and that's a natural mechanism of the market. But education can't fail. It's not the same kind of model. So you can't allow the education to be based on the same kind of market that business is based on. But it does seem to me that there's a possibility of several things, a new kind of customer intimacy, tying together the schools. The information, the wisdom, the students, the faculty, the parents, all can be tied together in new ways. And promote this customer intimacy, empowering the customer to do it themselves, to learn on their own.

I was riding my bike a couple weeks ago, and I stopped for a hamburger at a fast food place, and ran into a president of a university in there that I happen to know. And as we were eating hamburgers, both of us ashamed to be there, so, you know, it was a little awkward, but anyway there we were. And I said, "What's your biggest problem?" And he said, "My biggest problem is by far the tenured faculty." And he used this very curious expression. It's kind of funny. He said that some of his faculty were staying beyond death. And of all the systems that's resistant to change, certainly education has got to be up there near the top.

I have kind of an image about this that I got recently. I heard this story, and I don't know whether everybody knows this story and I just happened to find it at a very late time in life, or whether it is in fact not even true. But a friend of mine, actually he's very deeply into education, claims that there's a way that they catch monkeys some place using jars. That's Malaysia or someplace like that. And he swears that this is true. But the way they catch the monkeys, they wedge a jar into the trunk of a tree, and they put a little piece of food in the jar. And then the next morning you just go out there and you collect the monkeys who, they've reached into the jar and have their hand around the food and can't get their hand out of the jar. And I said, "This can't be true." And he says, "No, it's true." He says, "You know, you just go out there and there the monkeys are." And I picture being out there in the jungle or something and waking up in the morning and "Aw jeeze, I gotta go pick up the monkeys," and you go and there are the monkeys lined up. But we all feel like that in some ways, that you won't let go of what you have for the greater good of freedom. And all of us, I guarantee we're like that in telecommunications. We're all like that. But I think people in education--any people who are part of a long-standing system with tradition are like that. You know, you're not going to let go of what you have for the new thing out there.

Now, I sort of worry in this new world about the role of various components to this system. The role of teachers, for example. I was talking to Mike Lesk about--this is Mike over here. You're going to hear from him later. But Mike asked me, he said, "Is watching a dead Feynman better than watching some kind of a--let's call it a second rate physics professor." Now, as you all know, Richard Feynman was a great teacher of physics, and I had the thrill of watching when I was a young man his lectures that were done in movies, and they were just wonderful, and they were enlightening, and I remember them to this day. And I forget even who my physics teachers were. I can't remember a single one of them.

Now with telecommunications, it's possible that everybody could be exposed to the best teachers. And does this mean that teachers are redundant, that they're not necessary? I don't think so. Every time we thing these things, we turn out to be wrong, of course, and Plutarch is supposed to have said that--although people say that he didn't really say this, but--"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." And all of us remember certain teachers as people who kindled our fires, people who enlightened us or gave us a spirit more than taught us anything. And certainly that's the way it is for me. The great teachers that I had, I don't remember anything that they taught me, but I remember their spirit and what they did. And I think teachers will always have that kind of a role.

In other things, we have thought that technology would replace whatever it was, and we were almost always wrong. For example, one of the great dreams, myths I should say, of telecommunications is that video conferencing replaces travel. And I just hear this to this day. Just a week ago I heard a program at DOE on video-conferencing and the number one justification was to lower travel budgets, and there's no history that that is the case. What happens is that maybe you replace some travel, but then the people who meet by video conferencing really are expanding their networks, and then they find more need to travel because of that. So there just isn't any evidence that that is true. And as for teaching at a distance, distance learning, you know certainly textbooks were a good example of that. A textbook is distance learning, isn't it? You can get textbooks on the best--and yet that certainly didn't reduce teachers. I really don't feel that teachers will be replaced in any degree by this. But I still would like to see Feynman's lectures, and I think there's a place for that in this world.

Now a friend of mine who is a professor at a fairly--well, at Berkeley--was telling me the other day that--he was expressing a sense of almost bitterness about the Web. And he said that his students were out there learning more on the Web than he could teach them. He didn't put it that way, but what he said basically is that students were spending too much time out on the Web and were getting bad guidance because they were out there doing it for themselves. And he said he didn't have the time to go do all the stuff that the students did. I mean, this really wasn't fair, was it? You know, the students had all this time to be out there on the Web, and he didn't have the time to do that. And obviously they were going the wrong places, because they were places that he never heard of and he knew all the good stuff in his field. So this was a very bad thing. And he thought that the students should be cut off from using the Web because of that. And I just smiled and listened to this, of course.

But I do think the FedEx model of empowering the people to do it themselves is one of the great things. And the other great thing, as we mentioned before, is: bring in Feynman! So he's dead--we bring him in anyway. In fact, many of you have read Necromancer, and you remember that the dead people sort of left their spirits on the Net and were still active in many ways? I'm not exactly proposing that but the idea that there is a spirit of learning out there that people can invoke. And the teachers still do have a role. Just as HP gives you software upgrades, I think the university can give you learning upgrades. You know, you get this thing from HP or Microsoft that tells you: "Your software is now obsolete. We've upgraded this. And if you just click on this link, we'll give you the upgrade." And I feel like I'm in continuous touch now with these vendors. And the universities are vendors of education. And you know, I think maybe my university should send me a thing and tell me that they've upgraded this material and that I get the upgrade in this particular thing. It's the same kind of thing.

Somebody asked, "What do you pay for when you send your student to Harvard?" Costs a lot of money. And you know, it's never been clear to me that the great professors are the reason that the great schools are what they are. I know you can argue this as a chain, and I don't think you can do it without great professors, but I have this very keen sense that the other students are important and that one of the reasons that Harvard or MIT is great is because of the students that are there. And that's one of the problems of the distance learning, of being remote from those other students. There's a culture there. And furthermore at a place like Harvard I think the friendships that you found with the other students serve you throughout your life and may be one of the most valuable things that you get there.

As I go around--I've talked at many different universities. I looked around the room and I see many people that I know do the same kind of thing. And I just get this very different sensation about the spirit at different schools. And it's the students that make it that. And you know, I figure sometimes you could get rid of all the buildings and all the faculty and everything if you just got those students together--that they would recreate those schools and the atmosphere and the culture of those schools. Anyway, so I think that the role of faculty continues, but is augmented by the togetherness, by the continuous learning, by the information system that is enabled by the new technology. I worry more really about the libraries.

I'm just not sure--and I think some of--you'll hear more talk about that in this conference, so I'm not going to really go on about that. And in fact Mike Lesk told me, and you can bug him about this thing, that actually libraries are used more now in universities than they have been in the past. I sort of worried about are they going out of business. But as a matter of fact, because their card catalogues are on line and the students can get the card catalogues remotely, they find out the good stuff and they tend to go there more. So that remains to be seen. Mike also tells me, though, that they're spending so much time in their door rooms that there are more fights. I don't know--you can ask him about that.

But all of this, in all this good, in the library, in the infinite library of my dreams, there are some bad things happening, and one of the things that I started to worry more and more about is the junk deluge. (Aside: Yeah, I know, I'm going to quit. Give me a couple minutes. I've got to talk about junk. This is bad stuff.) And we're getting overwhelmed with junk, as you all know. It's junk in the form of misinformation, just junk, and it's junk e-mail. You know there's an index, there's an Internet index which is the number of users divided by the number of Web pages. And it's gone to zero. The Web pages are growing faster than the number of users. So it seems to me, since there's no limit, that nobody sees anything. And what is happening, of course, is an infinite expansion of junk, because 90% of everything is junk and the rule is recursive. So it's an overwhelming amount. Now, in e-mail, people are starting to get more and more e-mail, and I'm really concerned that people are going to take this away from us. The people that are going to take it away from us are the spammers and the people creating junk--are going to make all this worthless. It's a very real danger that's happening right now. I'm starting to get overwhelmed with junk e-mail. And then the spammers are taking over the discussion groups. And there's a couple anti-spam bills in congress right now, and we'll see what happens, but I think it's a fragile thing that has been created, and junk is one of the real problems that I worry about. I have a long list of things to worry about but that'll be the only one I'll mention because I have to quit.

So let me conclude. I started out talking about my secretary and the voyage to nowhere, and she was excited about going on it. And people pay good money to do that. And I'm excited about going on this voyage to nowhere, too. There's an excitement about it. It's filled with latent possibilities. And you know that things are going to change right up ahead, and even though it's ominous, it's a great adventure. Society is being restructured by the Web. Information is omnipresent. Students and consumers are being empowered. The connectedness is palpable. And the question is what does it mean to the education system? And that's what we'll be talking about the rest of this meeting. Thank you very much.

Audience Member: To take your voyage to nowhere analogy, you can go on these things first class, or you can go at the bottom level and still get nowhere. A lot of us who are in

Lucky: steerage

Audience Member: Administrative roles are beginning to wonder just what dedication of resource we should be putting into this area, and one reason I decided to come here is to try to gather information and insight about how other people are handling this, because you made a lot of points about resistance to change, and a lot of the resources that are invested in this area in universities are in the hands of people that, you know, have a good idea about what they want to do, but it's not clear that it advances the overall mission of the university. And I wonder if you could comment a bit on how you view the development of the resources.

Lucky: Are you talking about the infrastructure for the university? You know, it's funny, but as of a few weeks ago I didn't even realize that universities had CEO's and things like that, that the university is a big business in many ways. But like one of the things that they're doing-many of you know about the Internet 2-the universities have decided to sort of build their own higher speed Internet because they didn't like the quality of the Internet that's out there now. Other people said, "Well, the real reason is that people took away their sandbox, and they want a new one. " So, but the universities pioneered the Internet in the first place, and then the rest of the people came in and sort of took this away from them. And it clogged it up, and now the universities want to create a new one. And the justifications may be pretty weak, but yeah, I'm a great believer in the field of dreams, that if we build it they will come. And if the universities pioneer a higher speed Internet, and I think Penn is-Dave, Penn is one of the hundred that are in that Internet 2, right? So-and by the way, Dave Farber here is one of the leading "Netizens" at the University of Pennsylvania. And so, the universities are not only doing their own infrastructure, they're pioneering creating new infrastructure for us, too.

But you know I've had this new sense of the university not just as professors and classrooms, but of the big information infrastructures and the money that has to be spent behind it to create the resources that are used here. And I know that in industry we're really wrestling with these kinds of problems and everybody is really unhappy about it. You know, tremendous frustration everywhere. Like last year we threw out all of our Apples. It was decreed no-one could have an Apple at Bellcore. And I had people quit over this. But they said, "The environment will be standardized." And everywhere I go people are worrying about how can we make a better private network? How much money do we have to spend? Why does software go obsolete so fast? How can we ever spend enough money to keep current? I visited a high technology high school last week, and they proudly showed me all this great new computer equipment. And all I'm thinking is: in two years all of this is going to be obsolete, and what are they going to do?

So, look, my sympathies are with you, and all I can tell you is there probably are a lot of people in this room that over the next day or so that you can get some wisdom from them. But I'll tell you, people in industry as well are grappling with these problems because there isn't an infinite amount of money. And one of the basic problems here is Moore's law that guarantees that everything you're buying is turning obsolete, and that software is becoming incompatible. So my sympathies are with you, but for general wisdom I can't--I don't have any. If I knew how to do that, I'd have your job.


 

 

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Last modified: 12 January 1998