Higher Education in the Information Age

The Undergraduate Experience

Mark Taylor


Stanley Chodorow: We'll start with Mark Taylor who is at present Parish Professor of Humanities and director of the Center for Technology in the Arts and Humanities at Williams College, and he's going to talk to us about educational enhancement and change in the residential college, picking up one of the themes that I mentioned. Mark.

Mark Taylor: Thank you Stan. Anyone who thinks change is not coming faster than we expect need only reflect on the session we had this morning. One of the things I found as I moved into some of these new areas is that one really must become a student of one's students, and that's liberating, but sometimes daunting. It's curious as I listen to Stan's remarks because, thinking in isolation in a very, very different institution, many of the conclusions that I've drawn resonate with comments that Stan was making, which I suspect says something about which way the winds are blowing.

The April 20th issue of the New York Times Magazine included an article by Louie Mignon entitled "Everybody's Elite College Education." Most of you probably saw it. The headline captured the thrust of the essay. The elite private schools are no longer the temples for undergraduate education. This is good news for all sorts of new students, but not for all who hope to teach them. Mignon's argument exposes some of the anxieties that increasingly haunt many of us in certain sectors of higher education. While the reasons for the seismic shift in education are many, one of the primary causes for concern among the so called "elite private schools" is, of course, the rapid spread of information technology. Nowhere are anxieties more pronounced than in residential, liberal arts colleges. It is, however, impossible to separate the problems and opportunities faced by liberal arts colleges from other institutions of higher learning, as well as from a broad range of changing social, cultural, economic, and political forces. Hence some of the resonance, I think. How are we to assess our situation in a way that makes it possible to respond effectively and proceed creatively?

First, we must become more critically aware of the historical genealogy of our institutions and practices. The roots of today's colleges and universities can, of course, be traced to medieval universities and, by extension, to certain monastic practices. Perhaps more important in this context are the ways in which our educational institutions remain wedded to the tenets of modernism and the practices of industrialism. At the end of the 18th century, Kant provided the blueprint that has become the modern university. The entire range of intellectual presuppositions and institutional practices that continue to influence everything from the structure of departments to the organization of the curriculum are outlined in Kant's essay, "The Conflict of the Faculties". Emerging information on communication technologies call into question all or most of these assumptions and practices. It is our responsibility as educators to reflect critically on educational implications of the shift from modernism and industrialism to post-modernism and post-industrialism.

Since our purpose is discussion, I will list in more or less summary fashion some of what seem to me to be the most critical issues raised by information and communication technologies for colleges and universities. I will organize my remarks around three themes: Picking up on time and space, since Kant's the one I think of here, the time and place or space of learning Stan referred to, the content of education, and faculty research and evaluation.

First the time and place of learning. It's obvious that telecommunication technologies are transforming temporal and spatial conditions of experience. Kant was right: all experience is mediated by time and space. But he was wrong: those forms of mediation are not universal. They're tied to technologies of production and reproduction. First let us consider the multiple aspects of the time of learning. And Stan's anticipated, as life-long careers as well as jobs become less common, there will be a movement away from higher education focused primarily on 18 to 22 year olds. People will need different kinds of education at different stages of life. Age diversity therefore will be added to racial and ethnic diversity, and this will impact even schools, I think, like Williams.

Second, there will be a notable shift away from synchronous and towards asynchronous education. This change will take place both on campus for residential students, as well as off campus for non-residential students. And it's important to note that this asynchronous education will not only be text based, though surely it will be that, but will also be audio and visual. Needless to say, in the setting that I teach in and many of us teach in, most of our education is synchronous education. So this shift will have an extraordinary impact on colleges.

Third, there will be a movement toward 'round the clock and 'round the year scheduling of classes. And partly this development will be related when I talk about in a minute again the globalization of education. But here as elsewhere I think it's interesting to look for models that we're going to face to changes that have taken place in the financial markets. The kind of 'round the clock use of technologies in financial markets is a precursor of changes that are going to have to take place I think in colleges and universities.

Now these transformations in the time of education are directly related to changes in the space of learning. The boundaries of educational institutions are shifting and becoming more porous.

First it's obvious the classroom is no more limited to a specific place than it is to a particular time. Distance learning and distributed learning, which have become so common, decentralize, in effect, the classroom, rendering physical presence unnecessary--no longer necessary for education. But distance learning, and this is something that as a person who teaches at a liberal arts college I want to emphasize, distance learning takes multiple forms. The most common form I think of which administrators are often enamored is the broadcast model of one to many, which in effect extends the notion of lecture hall and has certain economies of scale by virtue of that extension.

Second, and more interesting from my point of view, is the interactive use of distance learning, or the many to many, which you might understand is much more seminar-like. As opposed to the broadcast model, which can involve economies of scale, the interactive seminar, many to many type is often intensive. It requires more work, rather than less, and more expense very often, rather than less.

Now whether in broadcast or in the interactive model telecommunications technologies create the possibility of the globalization of education. What's a long time ago now in terms of the world in which we're living, back in 1991-92, a colleague in Helsinki and I mounted a semester-long seminar using telecommunications technology. It was fairly primitive at that time, but it worked extraordinarily well and has really, I think, changed the way I've thought about many things in more recent years. I'm now in the process of developing another similar such seminar--it's taken a while for us to get the infrastructure in place--with a colleague in Australia. It's out of that context that this shift in the time of education I've thought a lot about, because with Helsinki we had the problem of synchronizing time of day. With Australia we're having the problem of synchronizing seasons as well as time of day. And it complicates things. But this model, I mean the model that I had in mind back in '91 when we started thinking about this was a global classroom, which in effect we created. And what I think is important for us to think about now is how we can move from the global classroom to globalize our colleges and universities in ways that I think harbor rich potential.

In all of this, what we have is a reconfiguring of institutional boundaries. There seems to me that there will be growing consolidation within and cooperation among educational institutions. This will involve, I think, a movement away from the conception of the college or university as a self-contained whole, toward a model or a notion of the institution as connected and integrated networks of exchange. Institutions no longer will do all things locally, but will in effect out-source some of their programs and departments. New strategic alliances will emerge which will involve networks of exchange ranging from the local to the national and the international. Within these networks, new institutions will take form. And the boundaries of these institutions will not be like we have them now it seems to me. These new alliances will, and here's again a point I think about which Stan is right, involve not only associations with other educational institutions within this country and elsewhere, but will involve alliances with business and media and the like. The global programs, and even global colleges, will emerge, and these institutions, or institutions within institutions, will not necessarily be place-based.

Along with these changes in the form as it were of education, the content of education will also change. The form and content of knowledge cannot, of course, be separated. What we think is determined in no small measure by how we organize knowledge, and how we organize knowledge is in large measure a function of the technologies of production and reproduction in a given period. And again I think it's important to think critically about the way in which the current structure of knowledge is wedded to certain technologies. Not just print in any simplistic way.

As we move from industrialism to post-industrialism, the structure, and thereby the content, of knowledge change. When a curriculum is no longer departmentalized in a way that both reflects and promotes something like assembly line production, but is configured as something like a hypertextual network, the content of knowledge undergoes a significant change. And this change in the curriculum will have a significant impact on the way in which the college or university is structured. That is departments. Departments are as obsolete as the curriculum that they for the most part now reflect, it seems to me.

These new technologies will call for new literacies. In particular, we will have to develop among ourselves and with our students digital literacy, and by that I mean not simply something like learning how to use computers, but something much more complicated. I think we're in a transitional period now in which there's a great deal of experimentation with, you know, repackaging old--presenting old wine in new wine skins. If you can do a book version of a multi-media project, you probably haven't done a multi-media project. There are different logics involved with digital technologies it seems to me. Think of it this way: once you're in a digital environment, bits are your ink, and what one has to then begin to do is to learn how to think not only with words, but also with images and sounds.

I've been working with students in a media lab that the students have developed for the last several years in which they are required to create analytic considerations with philosophical implications of electronic technology in a hyper-textual, multi-media format. In addition to that, I've worked with two students in particular for almost a year and a half now to create a multi-media CD ROM on Las Vegas, or a reading of contemporary culture through Las Vegas. And it's taught me that there are different kinds of thinking involved when you're in this digital environment.

Finally, faculty research and evaluation. New technologies create the possibility for a more effective integration of research/ publication/ teaching, which can help overcome certain imbalances that have developed between scholarship and teaching. We do not yet know, as Stan suggested, how to evaluate the publication in an electronic environment. Both what is produced and how it is produced are changing. While individual research will continue, new forms of collaborative work among faculty colleagues and, and this is crucial, between faculty and students will emerge which both pose rich possibility and complex questions of evaluation. Administrators, I believe, must find ways to create inducements for people to work with these new technologies. And most important among that is finding ways to consider this kind of new production in the evaluation process for faculty.

Universities will have to consider the kind of graduate education they're providing more seriously it seems to me. In many fields today, graduate programs are producing a product for which there is no market and transmitting skills for which there is virtually no demand. If we are honest, we all know that much of what is published is not published because it needs to be published, but is published because people need to publish. Economics and electronic technology combine to change the landscape of scholarly publication in ways that are very, very difficult for us to anticipate. The changes that must be wrought on the undergraduate level will necessitate a thorough overhaul of graduate education.

Indeed, it seems to me--I do quite a bit of editing, and it seems to me that much of the most innovative and creative work that I see coming across my desk is not coming from people working in the graduate environment, but from people working at the undergraduate level. And I think the reason for that is the hyper-specialization of many graduate programs. Had I been teaching at a graduate institution, about 90% of what I've written and published in the last 15 years would have been impossible to have done.

If education can learn anything from business practices--and I think this is crucial for us to think about, because if it is the case that the university as we now know it is basically an industrial model, then one of the things we have to think about is what is the analog to changes that have taken place in the corporation on the university level as we move into a post-industrial or post-modern, in my terms, university. If education can learn anything from recent business practices, it is that two of the primary requirements for survival in an information economy are flexibility and adaptability. The rate of change requires a work force, or in our case a faculty, that can change quickly, effectively, and responsibly.

As was suggested this morning, one of the greatest impediments to this kind of flexibility and adaptability is tenure. Market conditions in the broadest sense of this term will, I believe, lead to the demise of tenure. This issue will, of course, be long and contentious. But there seems to me, at least, to be little doubt that the days of tenure are numbered. The institution that will really get a jump in the 21st century will be the institution that takes the lead by abolishing tenure. Unthinkable, but perhaps inevitable I suspect.

Though change is increasingly rapid, the changes I have been discussing will not be abrupt, but will be phased in to create layered institutions that are at different stages of development and in a state of constant flux. While the forces of resistance to these changes are very strong in many circles, nowhere will the hesitation be greater than among, and I speak as one, many faulty members. The danger for institutions that many of us represent is to think that we can continue doing business as usual. Indeed the temptation will be to reinforce a familiar world that is passing away, rather than to promote a strange new world that is already here. To meet the challenge of responsible change requires strong leaders who are dedicated not only to preserving what we do well, but also committed to finding new ways to prepare our students for the world in which they live and work. Thank you.



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Last modified: 19 January 1998