Higher Education in the Information Age

The Undergraduate Experience

Peter Smith


Stanley Chodorow: Thanks Mark. I want to say that as we run through all these talks, we will have in this session quite a lot of time to kick things around. Very often when we start thinking about the introduction of information technology, we say, "God! If we only had a clean slate!" Well, our next speaker, Peter Smith, essentially has a clean slate. He is starting a new university in Monterey--not a bad place I will say to start a new university--the California State University there, which is located on Fort Ord, as I remember , and where they are building a new institution and trying to take advantage of what is available to them now. Peter.

Peter Smith: Thank you very much, Stanley. I'm going to be more cursory than I would usually be, and those few of you who know me will understand that for good reason, because otherwise I would fracture the time frame of the afternoon. I want to start with a couple of comments about institutions, and then I'm going to try to describe the university as we are designing it--and we are designing it with students, so as one of my faculty members said, it's a little bit like trying to change the wheels on a bicycle while you're riding it down hill--and then finish with our perception about information technology.

First, my own view in shorthand about the role of institutions period, not just institutions of higher education, is that they don't have any value unless they add value to that which would be otherwise available. In other words, an institution, whether it is a hospital or a profession or a university, is a place that organizes information, or some other entity or quantity, and makes it available to people in ways that are useful to them that they wouldn't get otherwise. And I think what is happening is that there is this extraordinary increase of information of all kinds--good information, bad information--and we've sort of had both experiential and intellectual exposure to that already, that as information rises around an institution, it necessarily changes the relationship between whoever the consumer and the goods and services of that institution. So you see people wanting to now mediate instead of litigate. You see wellness along with illness. You see the restructuring of the medical profession, you see governments being toppled, and we always wonder why politics in America are so filled with turmoil, when in fact it's happening everywhere. So in fact I would argue that this is way bigger than any of us who are in institutions and way bigger than education. And while I can't assign a particular value to the inevitability of it, unless we're willing to imagine a future with less information less readily available, there's going to be a lot more of it before there's less.

The second observation I would make is that if we were able to drape some projected data over a Silicon Graphics visualization technique going forward into the future, I think we would see a hidden risk for established institutions. And it goes like this--I'll give you it to you in the California perspective, but I sense it's probably accurate in much of the country. Some history first. If, in fact, it is the case that in the seventies the budgets of higher educational institutions grew because of the baby boom--in other words students came and brought money and we did business on volume relatively speaking, spun off new institutions--then we had the beginning of the bust, but we continued to ride the good will that we had generated and we got a lot more money from our appropriating ,where that was parents or endowments or government, and so we rode that into the mid-eighties. And then it hit the fan, because people ran out of good will, and we still didn't have the students.

Now, in California, we have something called "Tidal Wave II". And as I understand the demographic projections, over the next 15 to 20 years in this country there will be in fact a reassuring sort of boomlet of 18 to 22 years olds. They're going to look a little different, and they're going to be a lot more diverse, but they're going to be there.

Now, what I think is the trap, if I were the manager of an established institution, the trap would be that you would take relief from that projection, and then when the tide goes out again, as it surely will in the year 2015 or 2020 or 2025, you will find that there is a whole new industry that has grown up around you and has left you in its dust. And that is the industry of life-long learning, what we now think of as workplace-based education, education for people over 25, as core business of universities. And so, if I were doing long-range planning for an established institution, I would try to look out 30 to 50 years. But I think there's a frightening amount of security for a traditional institution if you look out the next 15 to 25 years, a frightening amount, that is then going to be translating into a significant institutional weakness in the future. So much for that.

Now, I'm going to talk about CSUMB for a minute, and I need to issue a standard caveat. You've all been to a lot of meetings, and you've hard people say, "We've got it in" and then fill in the blank wherever there institution is. I'm not here to tell you we've got anything. We're a lot like Christopher Robin and Pooh. We're on the way to rabbit's house. We know where it is, we're in the woods, and we're struggling mightily to stay someplace near the path, and luckily it has snowed so we can see our tracks as we come back around on them again.

Some of our vocabulary. Outcomes. All of our curriculum is outcome based. It is not all referenced or created, the norms are not all created to a measurable level by the institution. We ask students to participate in that process.

Interdisciplinary. We are not organized by departments, and we are still looking for an appropriate organization. But we have about 100 faculty doing something that seems to be working, and right now we call them institutes and centers, and they're cross-disciplinary. We only know that that's a temporary stop on the way to someplace else.

Technology. We are technology infused. Every room, every living room, every office, every classroom is wired. And one of the advantages we have is you wouldn't see all these unsightly wires at CSUMB because we had the pleasure of laying the carpet and renovating the buildings and routing out the floor. So we have hidden junction boxes all over every room, and we wire from the outside in, and so it's essentially a matter of where you want to plug in. And it allows us to pull up and change whatever the wires are any time we want without having to go through--it's bad for the tape producers, but it's good for us. Every student has a computer, every faculty member, every employee, every member of the staff, even the president has a computer.

We are global. We believe that we are educating people not to be scholars, although we are thrilled if that's where people end up, but that we are educating people to live in a world that's very different from the world they grew up in, wherever they grew up. And we ask that they know another language when they graduate. We ask that they have significant experience in a cultural setting other than the one they grew up in before they graduate. We ask that they do community service as a graduation requirement for academic credit, two times if they are with us for four years.

Collaborative. We try very hard, and I use it as a mission statement, to not duplicate a resource that already exists in the community, to make partnerships with businesses to get our job done, or with other non-profits to get our job done. So we will collaborate with Silicon Graphics or with a local community college or with a Defense Language Institute or with the University of California at Santa Cruz and they with us to get whatever the job is done. Outcomes-based education, having learning requirements and statements of what people need to know and be able to do before they can leave, facilitates a far wider variety of pedagogies, places, settings, and times, because you become more interested in what people know and are able to show you that they know and are able to do, then you become interested in where they learned it, how they learned it, with whom they learned it, etc. So we do that.

Entrepreneurial. We are asked to generate 25% of our budget--30% of our budget--from sources other than state funds, general funds, and student fees by the end of our 5th year. So we are forced into a very different and proactive mode in terms of the production of educational goods and services--the things our students do, the things our faculty do, etc., etc.

Learner-centered. That it all begins with learners. Teaching is an important thing, of course, but that we talk about ourselves as learner-centered. What are the characteristics of the curriculum that we're putting together? It's scaleable education by design. In other words, we can create little tiny modules or great big modules, we can have students go into the community or put themselves in a variety of settings. And because of the outcome-based orientation, we can scale by volume of student or by nature of learning or by amount of learning by design.

We integrate technology with the workplace in the sense that, whether the workplace is the university or the workplace is someplace else, we are always looking for the breaching of the barriers that historically separate learning places from working places. As a result there are no perceived spatial boundaries to the learning or teaching that we sponsor, support or recognize. We assume that there will be rapid change, even with a faculty tenure system and a state-wide faculty union. And we assume they will--and are organized to sustain and respond to rapid change. We believe in and promote experiential, sponsored and non-sponsored experiential learning, as well as community-oriented learning. We believe that it is more than a nice thing for people who say that, whatever field they want to go into, for them to have significant experience in those settings with trained people as a result or as a function of their education. We are committed to having learning outcomes replace seat time, we are committed to partnerships to make this all happen, and we believe that diversity of students of workforce and of experience is in fact a tangible educational asset to which a value can be ascribed.

...our laboratories. The notion of having sufficient server capacity so that there isn't a language lab here and a writing lab here, something else lab here, but you can access anything on any desktop--in your room or in a place where there happens to be a collection of computers--in the library, in the media learning center. And we have distance learning rooms. I don't think that differentiates us very much. And we have major server power, and I don't believe that differentiates us very much either.

In terms of our overall development, as we run along side it trying to learn, reflect, and do, simultaneously, all the time--I guess that's what simultaneously means. The first stage has been to create a culture that is committed to renewal and change, that is at ease with electronic devices and information devices and electronic, multi-media technology. And our experience is that the hardware is secondary. It's a problem, the rate of change is a problem, the capitalization is a problem, all of that--they're huge problems. And you know, conversations of 16 versus 32 versus what platform have you got and what software are you driving and all the rest--that's very important stuff. But way before that is having an organizational culture where students and teachers and faculty members and staff and administrators are at ease with that thing that is represented by the box that's on their desk.

Secondly, is to create what I would call an infrastructure that is organized strategically with strategic purpose. So we are placing tremendous significance on using information technology and multi-media capacity that we have to assess student performance and to include students in the compiling, presentation, and assessment of their own work. We're not there yet. Although we have people doing it every day, what we haven't got is enough experience to stand back, look at it, and say what it has meant. So we work on a high energy, personal model to an organizational model, and one of our challenges over the next several years is to get this thing to scale and deal with the issues of scale and move to an organizational capacity as opposed to what I would call faculty heroism.

Secondly, there's an environment. The environment prepares learners for the workplace. We value people's ability to handle ambiguity, to learn how to reflect, to think analytically, to write well, to present themselves well, to check their sources, and we in fact state those as learning outcomes. And so, if you're serious, in our view, about creating people who can learn throughout life, then in fact the what they learn has more variability. I have my own biases, each of us do. But how they learn it, and how they learn how to look at the information that they're working with, becomes significantly more important.

We emphasize doing as well as knowing, with the view that you don't know until you can do most things. We emphasize multi-media presentations, Web site constructions, and in fact encourage students when they can't find a resource on the campus that they need to shop for other resources elsewhere in the world. So the courses that bedevil some universities, that students haul in and say, "I did this. What are you going to do about it?" We just say, "Come and talk to us first about it, and we'll work it into your portfolio."

We don't graduate students when they have 128 credits. We graduate students when they can show us that they know when they're able to do the things that the faculty have said that they need to know and be able to do in order to graduate. If they can do that in two years, fine. Reducing seat time to degree or time to degree is something we've said--we haven't had anybody do it in two years, but the point is we're not worried by that because we have begun to separate--this will be one of my major points--separate instruction, or the learning activity, with assessment. At the end of the day the coin of the realm is the granting of credit toward the degree and the granting of the degree. What we're beginning to do is say that there's a line between the learning side and the assessing of learning, as you work it, you can work it--we know the way to work it where the assessment is absolutely connected to the learning module. We're also saying assessment can also be separated from that particular learning module, and we are working with that.

There are four phases that we are some place in the middle of. Sometimes I think they are simultaneous. The first being to bring the outside world in, and I mean that. In other words, we believe to our core that if we hide either our warts or our successes, if we try to own all the resources, any of those symptoms which are historic university positions, I believe, that in fact we weaken ourselves, given the mission that we have. And I think we weaken ourselves given the nature of what the future is going to be.

Second, part of our entrepreneurial purpose, but it is also an educational purpose, is that we think students, faculty, administration alike, in terms of creating products, using them inside the university, and then if there's utility and wider useability, selling them. Selling them to other universities. And treating that not as a marginal, but as a core activity for everybody.

Third, you've got to make it work. Reifying. Growing the values. Sinking the values into the ground. That this is, in the end of the day, about people. It is not about machines. Machines are a tool. I had distance learning when I was at Princeton University. I was in Alexander Hall in the fourth row, and I was, I could have been a thousand miles away from that professor. That's distance learning. And so this is really, at the end of the day it's about good pedagogy in appropriate settings. But it's people that will, in the end, knit it together.

And finally our fourth phase, which we're just beginning to struggle with, is to recreate the organization continuously based on our sense from outside organizations, students, faculty, etc. as to how we're doing on the things that we think are important. That's part of a culture that we have to build in, and we're working very hard at doing it.

I've got to close, but I'll tell you why I think things are different today, beyond just the rise of information. I think there's an emerging focus and that is changing sort of a dynamic, pell mell, swirling attitude about telecommunications or information technology, and I think it's driven by four factors or four forces. First is the 1996 communications act, second is the NII, third is the global NII, and forth is the world trade organizations telecommunications act. And when you look at what that emerging body of law--by the way, I don't think those of you who represent the hundred research universities, I will lay money you won't get to do the second Internet all by yourselves, but I'm going to enjoy watching that one--but those four forces have in fact changed the context within which we make policy and operate our institutions, I think. I think irreversibly, because they have begun to or have erased the boundaries between what used to be a discreet telecommunications industry, a computer industry, a peripherals industry, electronic media, so all those boundaries are down now, and they're down because it's the law and it's international protocol.

That has extraordinary impact on us. As we look at our initiatives, we think about the anchors, and we don't think about particular industries or technologies, we think about ubiquity and the potential for ubiquity. We think about connectivity. We think about inter-operability. We think about upgradeability. We don't think about who is peddling what software because that's just the wrong place to start.

I'll close with an example. We may be the only institution that is trying to figure out how to get desktop video, have a collaborative kind of cross-platform capacity so that you can really mix and match with teaching and learning and assessment and research, and we may be the only ones. I suspect we're not. And we have all these folks beating our door down with all the wonderful things they can do for us for a lot of money, and then what we--we had a wonderful meeting about a month ago in which we said, " Your product--do we need it if and when Java script, because we're Web based, comes on-line?" There's just this incredible silence in the room. See? Now, my own view of it is that if we are going to stay beyond the basic kinds of infrastructures, we have to learn how to look beyond immediate product and look towards the capacities and the functions that that product will give us in order to stay ahead of a wave that is moving faster than any of us at one level are going to be able to surf on. With that, I'll sit down. Thanks very much again.



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Last modified: 19 January 1998