The Technological Revolution:
Reflections on the Proper Role of Technology in Higher
Jack M. Wilson
J. Erik Jonsson ’22 Distinguished Professor
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY 12180
There is little disagreement with the need for universities to change in response to the revolution in information technology. There is consensus agreement that the world has changed dramatically and that our students must be prepared differently to survive and thrive in the new environment. But how? Exactly how should universities change? What are the immutable values of the university? How will universities be able to afford the changes? How will the faculty change? How will the students change? How will the facilities change? How will the curriculum change? On these questions, there is little agreement.
The lack of agreement does not preclude a plethora of opinions. At one extreme, faculty organizations are expressing their concerns about the effects on the academy. At the other, venture capitalists are dumping hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, into new ventures that purport to be the wave of the future. “Bricks and mortar” are viewed as passe, while everyone embraces “virtual education”. The lack of agreement about just what constitutes “virtual education” is no barrier to the rapid formation of “Virtual Universities” in every state and every region.
The incompatible time scale of change for technology and for human beings simply makes the problem more intractable. The other issue that has attracted a lot of energy in higher education is diversity. While the issue of diversity is one of finally coming to grips with issues that have been with us for centuries, the issue of technology is trying to cope with issues that change faster than anyone can possibly accommodate. There is an important message there. Technology will undergo 100% change roughly every two years. People, individually or collectively, change very slowly.
The rapid pace of change depends upon the rapid pace of development of computing, communication, and content. Three laws underlie the changes. Moore’s Law tells us
that the power of computing doubles every 18 months. The bandwidth law tells us that
communication bandwidth (unit communication capacity) doubles in about 12 months. Metcalf’s law tells us that the value of a network increases with the square of the number connected. These three laws combine to change the world in dramatic ways on a time
scale that is so much faster than the usual university responses, that it is not surprising that the effects are disconcerting to everyone.
On a much slower time scale, we are learning much more about how human beings learn. The cognitive sciences and other educational research are yielding results that have serious implications for how we organize our learning communities. These principles are now being adapted into new learning environments.
There is no simple single solution for how universities will change, but there are emerging patterns and some practices that appear to be both consistent with our community’s values and with the changing world. It may be that an effect of the overall change will be to differentiate universities further as we serve a more diverse and rapidly changing world.
Future of the University
Focus, Differentiation, Mass Customization, and Globalization
In the early part of this century there was significant differentiation of American universities by mission. Institutions would focus on teacher education (normal schools), liberal arts, land grant universities, selective brand name universities, engineering schools, regional institutions, and so on. During the second half of the this century there was a convergence on a mission of a comprehensive research university that was at least partially the result of Vannevar Bush’s vision for the role of research in the university. The normal schools became universities; the liberal arts colleges began hiring and promoting faculty based upon their research; the engineering schools became technological universities. The differences have surely not been eliminated, but he direction was convergent and not divergent.
In the 80’s and 90’s institutions began to run into some of the limits for this convergence. The cost of higher education was advancing faster than the cost of health care! Parents began to look hard at their higher education expenditures. Legislators turned their attention to the cost of higher education. Perhaps the cost of having every institution be all things to all people would be just too high. In at least a few cases, institutions began to consider how to differentiate themselves from one another.
Babson College is one outstanding example of focus and differentiation. They decided that they would focus on entrepreneurship and drive that focus to national pre-eminence. Today they are recognized as the world’s leader in entrepreneurship education. The Thunderbird School of International Business is another example. It is hard to believe that a world leader in international business education could develop at an abandoned air base in Arizona, but it did. Focus and differentiation made the difference. The California Institute of Technology is a prestigious example of differentiation. Caltech decided to remain small and to remain focused upon a very small high quality undergraduate program in Science and Engineering and world class research and graduate education in a few focused science areas. The 1999 U.S. News and World Report ranking catapulted
Caltech into the number one position. Once again this was a victory for focus and differentiation.
At the other end of the higher education pecking order, the University of Phoenix has become the fastest growing university and one of the largest by focusing on providing convenient, commodity level education in high demand areas and making access easy and schedules flexible. Britain’s Open University paved this way decades earlier. It is much too early to declare the era of differentiation, but there seems to be an indication of a trend.
The trend toward differentiation appears to include a trend toward mass customization. Until recently, mass customization was an oxymoron. Today it is a central tenet of the information economy. Companies like Dell Computer have grown to be the world’s largest supplier of personal computers by building every computer to order. The young upstart has eclipsed companies that clung to the old model of mass production, channel distribution, and large specialized inventories. Amazon.com elbowed its way into the clubby book business with a brash business model that tied them far more directly and personally with every customer. Amazon.com customers often receive book recommendations based upon their past reading, buying, and browsing patterns. The new economy industries know their customers and treat each one individually. Each business experience is customized to the customer. It is done on a mass production scale.Mass customization would mean that higher education would become much more responsive to the individual students needs rather than addressing general needs and assuming that every student would fit into general programs.
Mass customization is often confused with being “student centered.” Although the student centered approach to education can indeed be a part of mass customization, it is a very different concept. A student centered learning environment, which is part of many (if not most) undergraduate innovations, refers to transferring the focus of the activity from the instructor to the student. Rather than having teachers working hard while students listen. The student-centered environment expects that it will be the students working hard while the faculty member listens!
The confusion about a student centered environment and the market forces of mass customization have caused some to fear a “customer is always right” approach to higher education. “Is a student-centered university providing a better product for its customers?” wonders Frank Furedi in the Times Education Supplement. “No it is not. The marketisation of higher education is forcing universities to be driven by concerns 1that have little pedagogic value,” he concludes.
His fear is not of the student centered environment nor even of mass customization of higher education. His fear is an unalloyed fear of pandering. A student-centered environment is designed to best provide for the needs of the student and not to pander to the desires of the students. A student-centered environment requires more of the student
and not less. Our experience with student centered learning environments has shown that this is the major objection raised by students. Some have suggested that Rensselaer is requiring more of the students in our studio courses than we required of students in the past. That is probably accurate.
Mass customization might also mean that education is delivered in multiple formats with multiple examples that meet the needs of a diverse student population. Traditional lecture approaches require that the instructor stereotype the student to some extent. There is not enough time to bring forward examples that appeal to every one’s interest and draw on everyone’s experiences. In a science lecture, the lecture has to pick a few examples illustrating each concept from the many possible options. The instructor does this based upon his or her knowledge of student interests, learning styles, experiences, mathematical abilities, and so on. In technology-based environments, one need not restrict the number of examples and need not make often-unwarranted assumptions about the characteristic of the students.
It could include the development of degree programs that draw on “best of breed” programs from several institutions. It may be that the development of the National Technological University (NTU) is a harbinger of other programs that adopt the practice of combining courses from several institutions to create new degree programs. This has also appeared in a more restricted form as schools collaborate to meet the needs of students. At General Motors, engineering employees can pick from programs that combine courses from (for example) Stanford, Rensselaer, and Purdue. In some cases the degree may come from Stanford and in others it might come from Rensselaer.As the previous example shows, higher education is being freed from geographic restrictions of the past. This globalization of education is a trend that runs counter to the trend toward differentiation. Differentiation may no longer occur on the basis of regionalization in many higher education segments. While students were once compelled to accept programs from one of the local institutions, today they may have a choice of programs provided by universities who are not local. For example, the two largest providers of on-the-job Master’s level engineering education to General Motors’ engineers are Rensselaer and Purdue. Many of General Motors’ employees are in or near Michigan, but the two state universities have a much smaller presence. At Rensselaer’s Hartford Connecticut campus, Rensselaer departments find themselves in competition with programs from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and others. Often these programs are provided by and billed through the Rensselaer Hartford campus! In industry, this has been dubbed coopetition.
Globalization has also led to the formation of global brand names in higher education. Recently, MIT concluded a cooperation agreement with Cambridge University that created a multinational brand in technological university education and research. The British government agreed to provide $109 million and to raise $26 million from private 23sources to create the new center to be based in Britain., Prior to that MIT had 4concluded a large agreement to provide Singapore with higher education services, and
received a $25 million gift from Microsoft to enable the distance-learning portion of the 5relationship.
The entry of the top ranked universities into the distance learning market has been astounding to some of the more traditional observers. Distance Learning has often been viewed as the province of “correspondence schools” or “diploma mills,” and not the business of the top Carnegie Research I universities. With MIT now entering the arena, Stanford long established as a distance-learning leader, and countless other schools vying for the market, distance learning has become mainstream. New York University has gone so far as to spin off their distance learning program as a for profit venture called “NYU On-line.” Their plan is to augment the $1.5 million investment from NYU with 6capital raised from private venture capital sources.
The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and Teachers College at Columbia University took a different tack. Rather than creating a new private venture, they teamed up with Caliber, a joint venture of MCI and Sylvan Learning systems, to offer their programs at a distance. The programs involved are all top ranked programs. Although these programs did not evolve in the way that they were expected to by their proponents they remain clear evidence that distance learning has entered the top tier mainstream.
In the rush to the distance learning markets, universities have not always been careful to take into account the lessons learned from the centuries of higher education. Many of these programs are driven by technology and not pedagogy. Technology is a powerful driving force that must be reckoned with, but centuries of history and the recent research coming out of the cognitive sciences on how human beings learn will have much to say about where this technology will take us.
The Relentless Forces of Computing, Cognition, and Communication
The advances in computing, communication, and cognition are both driving and enabling this rapid change in higher education. We have become the victims of our own success. The research of our faculty and students has created a relentless flood of new possibilities and new demands. The advances in computing and communication have been rapid, spectacular and quickly applied by society. Understanding the learning process has taken much longer and is much more slowly adapted by society. I use the term cognition to describe the research on learning, and particularly the applied research that has shown the importance of engagement, interaction, collaboration, and specific instructional strategies.
Ever since the invention of the microprocessor, the performance has been doubling every eighteen months. This is directly related to the number of components that can be fit on a chip and is thus related to the minimum size of each component. Advances in basic physics and engineering have kept this law accurate for over five decades! The basic physics is in place to keep this going for another few doubling periods at least. Moore’s Law is the simplified statement that computing power is doubling every 18 months. An
alternate perspective states that the cost of equivalent computing power halves every 18 months. Either way it creates a challenge for universities to keep up. Communications technologies are developing even faster! The bandwidth density in fiber is doubling every two years, but that is only half the story. Fiber is being laid and wireless deployed so quickly that bandwidth is doubling in less than a year! These two doubling laws tell us that we will see more change in technology in the next two years than we have seen in the last few decades.
The convergence of computing and communication has led to the development of massive networks. Metcalf’s Law tells us that the value (economic and otherwise) of a 2network scales as n where n is the number of persons connected. This helps to explain the enormous values that Wall Street assigns those companies that appear to have locked the most customers into their networks. Companies like America On-line (AOL), Amazon.com, and eBay have established networks of users that are so much larger than their competitors that the value comparison is overwhelming. The recent merger of AOL and Time Warner demonstrates graphically the value assigned by Metcalf’s law. In the resulting company AOL will have 55% of the merged company to Time Warner’s 45%. This is in spite of the fact that Time Warner has four times the revenues of AOL and has its roots in one of our oldest and largest publishing empires. The market assigns greater values to AOL’s network than it does to Time Warner’s revenues!
These three laws tell us that what is hard today is easy tomorrow. They also contribute
to the relentless nature of these technologies. They are relentless, because they will indeed change everything whether we want them to or not, whether we engage or not, and whether we like the result or not. We have no choice in this matter. We will change. The issue is: how will we change?
In the early part of this century, the automobile was the relentless technology. It changed the way we live our lives irreversibly. It changed the way we work, changed the way we live, and changed the way we court. It led to the rise of the suburbs, the creation of malls, the decline of the suburbs, the collapse of mass transit, the spread of smog, and built the greatest industry of the middle part of this century. We did not make those as choices. For the most part, it just happened. One would like to think that if the world had been more proactive about it, we would be in a better place today!
Today the convergence of computing and communication is the relentless technology. It is changing the workplace, our mode of living, and our approach to business. It has built the greatest industries of this century. Our three favorite laws tell us that it has only just begun. Universities are only just beginning to adapt to these changes, and as they do so they need to need to use the research on teaching and learning to create new learning environment for students that promise more than just the application of technology. Will we engage and lead? Or, will we let the changes take their course?
Trends in higher education
Suddenly even Wall Street thinks that education is an opportunity. Some have suggested that over $1.7 billion has been invested in new ventures in an effort to tap an education 7market estimated at over $600 billion annually.
There are those who think that higher education will indeed be displaced by other alternatives. Stephen Talbott argues that this will indeed happen and that it is the 8universities own fault. While Talbott seems disturbed (even angry!) about these 9prospects, Lewis Perelman is positively welcoming. He remarks that “I've analyzed and
forecasted trends that, I am increasingly confident, will lead eventually to the collapse of the academic system in a way and for reasons that are basically the same as those that led to the collapse of the Soviet system.” Perelman does not think that there is any hope at all for reform in higher education and he thinks that reform is a complete waste of time. In his words: “I have no interest in reform; and, when asked, I discourage others from wasting time and money on it. Education reform over a period of decades has proven to 10be either unnecessary, futile, irrelevant, or even downright harmful.”
Some take a “matter of fact” approach to the changes that may neglect some of the subtleties of the changes while recognizing the inevitability. Dewayne Matthews, from his post as director of student exchange and state relations at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), assumes that “programs can be structured 11around asynchronous learning.” As we will see, this certainly requires a much more
calibrated approach. One needs to ask: Which programs? For what audience? Under what circumstances? An asynchronous program for a motivated adult learner in a discretionary program may be the ideal solution. An asynchronous program to teach calculus to young adults with the expectation that over 90% of them will be able to use calculus in the next course is a much more difficult proposition. WICHE was a prime mover in the Western Governor’s University (WGU) and the WGU programs reflect that “matter of fact” approach. It may be that some issues accepted at face value require a deeper analysis.
Others in higher education are in denial. They hide behind platitudes of “immutable values” and “centuries of stability.” One university administrator once responded to one of my talks by asserting that the current structure of higher education was the “stable product of long evolution.” I pointed out that the dinosaur was one of the most stable products of long evolution, but that evolution does not create “stable products!” It will be important to understand the core values and practices and to see how they play out in this changed environment.
Responses of the University
Some faculty members view change with quite a bit of trepidation. I have been asked more than once “if you can put my course on a web site, then you would not need me any more?” I always answer, “If you can be replaced by a web site, then you should be replaced by a web site.” The question reveals both a lack of self-confidence and a severe misconception about the nature of the educational interaction.
If professors are viewed as purveyors of information, then they surely can be replaced by high quality web sites and CD-ROMs. A writer in Prism Magazine asked "If a student can zoom the best professors into his or her living room, then what is to happen to the rest of the countries professors?" I’ve heard this misconception in many forms. It again assumes that the role of the professor is only one of presentation of information. That is much too narrow a view of what a professor does. If the first worry were true, then professors would have been replaced long ago, first by books, then by audiotapes, and then by videotapes. If the second were true, then we would surely have been replaced by live televised courses.
Technology for the Learners’ Sake
Each of these technologies has had a time of hype followed by disillusionment (at least on the part of the proponents!). They all have their place, but they all failed to replace the professor. They all failed to do that because they cannot do what a good professor does.
A good professor interacts with the students, stimulates them to think, prods them into new insights, motivates through personal interaction, and provides a role model for intellectual inquiry.
Visiting an outstanding web site can be an illuminating and exciting experience. One can even learn from that experience. Watching a superstar give a lecture can lead to the same results. Neither of these can replace the experience of two or more minds making their way through a complex concept together. It might be students interacting with students or students interacting with professors, but working on a problem or concept collaboratively is a special learning experience. The best professors have always generated these kinds of interactions in their classes. This is not a new issue, but it is often ignored when technology enhanced learning or distance learning is discussed.This does not mean that technology cannot be used to allow and even enhance these kinds of interactions. It means instead that using technology to automate lecturing does not a professor make. Technology can be used to allow more meaningful kinds of interactions at a distance. Technology can allow simulations and group activities that stimulate these kinds of interactions. Unfortunately technology can also have the effect of damping these kinds of interactions. It all comes down to the design of the learning experience. Technology by itself neither guarantees nor inhibits quality. The design and the delivery of the educational experience is the critical factor.
Well-designed technology enhanced classrooms incorporate communication (written, electronic, peer discussion, face to face, electronic face to face.) as part of the educational experience. Well-designed courses focus on the quality of the educational experience. Focusing on the total educational experience means that one looks at more than what happens in the classroom. It includes everything from the residence, admissions process, student support, classroom experience, testing, career counseling, and other areas.
Technology for Technology’s Sake
The focus on the learner that is discussed above can lead to a misconception at the other end of the spectrum. The mantra is often phrased as “no technology for technology’s sake.” That is an appealing but misleading piece of advice. Because technology has become part and parcel of every profession, it is important for the students to focus on the technology! Ability to use technology in creative, even astounding, ways depends upon a deep knowledge of both the potential and limitations of technology. It presupposes a deep understanding of the technologies themselves.
The need can be seen to be even greater when one realizes that the rate of change of technology will continue to restructure most professions over the coming years. Graduates need to have an ability to use technology, to evaluate technology in the context of their professions, and to learn and adapt new, presently unknown, technologies to their work. It is often noted that, to the uninitiated, any new technology is essentially indistinguishable from magic. Perhaps it is this effect that causes the, often seen, bipolar reactions to technology of either uncritical acceptance or visceral rejection. These are both inappropriate responses that need to be replaced by critical evaluation.Technology needs to be included both for its own sake and to enhance the learning experience. Both are valid goals and both should be assessed in any innovation. Residential Education
12 Will the University The effect on residential education is of serious concern to many.
of Phoenix (or one of its many competitors) put the local colleges and universities out of business? There is no easy answer to this question. The differentiation of mission that is likely to occur implies that there will be many different kinds of institutions vying for student’s attention.
If we once again return to our understanding of education and values, we would expect that the residential university would continue to have a place in the spectrum of higher education. When it comes to the education of young adults prior to their entry into the workforce, residential higher education has much to recommend it. Technology will improve both the quality of residential undergraduate education and the chance for survival.
Technology can break down the barriers of distance and allow cross-cultural collaboration in spite of geographic isolation. Many of the traditional liberal arts colleges are found in rural or small town settings. In an earlier era, the cloistered environments were thought to be conducive to focussing on learning and allowing opportunity for reflection. The other side of that coin is the risk of provincialism, lack of diversity, and inaccessibility of urban and global experiences. These smaller undergraduate colleges also find it difficult to offer the student the broad range of courses and experiences that are available at the large research universities. Technology can help demolish those obstacles.
Technology is allowing institutions to share courses, research experiences, and cross cultural experiences without regard to geography. One such example at Rensselaer had students at Hong Kong’s City University and Rensselaer sharing a weekly graduate class in “Survival Skill for Astrophysicists.” A large portion of the class was devoted to student presentations. Using Video-Conferencing and Live Internet based data collaboration; these students saw each other present and could view the materials in real time at high resolution. The professor could poll the class periodically for feedback with an Internet question and answer tool that immediately displayed student responses. The hardest part of class organization was picking a time suitable for both groups. We finally settled on breakfast for the Rensselaer students and dinner for the Hong Kong students.Even the smallest liberal arts college in the central United States can now link itself with nearly any major institution in the world. The dramatic advances described earlier in the bandwidth law, means that this kind of collaboration will get better, cheaper, and more ubiquitous. It works now, and it will only get better.
Can Technology Enhance Learning
Technology has also made possible pedagogical innovations that were not driven by technology but that are indeed enabled by technology. Research in the cognitive sciences has reinforced and extended what has long been known. Students learn more from doing than from watching. Students learn better when engaged in group activities instead of solo activities. Students learn as much from one another as from the professor. Students learn more when more is expected of them. Students have a diversity of learning styles, interests and experiences. None of these insights has anything to do with technology. Most have been known in one form or another for decades.
Steve Ehrmann of AAHE looked at the application of Arthur Chickering’s “Seven 13Principles for Good Practice” to technology-enhanced learning. These principles come
from an understanding of human beings learn and not from any technological imperative, yet Ehrmann shows how these principles guide good practice in technology enhanced learning. The seven principles are:
1. Good Practice Encourages Contacts Between Students and Faculty
2. Good Practice Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students
3. Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques
4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback
5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task
6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations
7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning
Peter Denning expands upon the themes of interactivity and the faculty member as part of 14a social process in “Teaching as a Social Process.” He concludes, “In spite of the
stress, the good news for students and teachers is that learning is more than information transfer, that automation can affect at most the information-transfer part of learning, and that the teacher is indispensable.” I would disagree with his conclusion that technology