Three Futures of the Electronic University:

To Dream the Possible Dream.

By Thomas H. Thompson

Sequence: Volume 33, Number 2
Release Date: March/April 1998

I ask you to share a fantasy with me. Imagine you have advanced a few decades into the future and you are in charge of operating a university. The information society has come of age. The technology and the software are up and running. The culture of buildings and boxes containing regimented students listening to a lecturer has gone into decline. Students learn what they need to learn when they need it. They buy their education in modules in a market-driven, competitive setting. Talk about user friendly! Information appliances, handheld or maybe implanted, disgorge knowledge in multimedia profusion. Outcomes, not seat-time, are the measure of success. Evaluation is criterion-referenced. And, wonder of wonders, the entire system is free of such problems as inadequate parking spaces, rotting infrastructure and the turmoil of faculty participation in governance.

Think of it! Just visualize a digital university - a virtual campus, if you please - whose stock in trade is a huge bin filled with storage disks, a dense network of fiber optic cable, a wide bandwidth connection to the Internet and maybe a satellite truck.

But back to your job as CEO of this cyber-university. The place is a turnkey system. You get to work at a civilized hour and you have morning coffee. And a bagel. Then you flick the master switch. The tapes roll and the disk drives do their thing. School is on. Call your golf partner, and leave the building for the links in good conscience, secure in the conviction that the curriculum is being taught inexpensively - and being taught well. In fact, KMPG Peat Marvelous, the internationally renowned firm of accountants, recently audited the operation. They returned a rating of A-1. You are doing a responsible job and improving your golf handicap at the very same time!

No wonder the trustees voted you a handsome increase in salary and a company car! The last buy-out of the faculty was a tough negotiation but it was worth the pain and sweat. You have no qualms of conscience about the handsome fees earned by that firm with the sharp pencils from Minneapolis. Certain former members of the United Federation of Professors still meet regularly - but only for mall walking. Is this a great educational arrangement or what?

Computer screens and educational software are great in other respects. They don't get sick. They don't get tired. They don't bargain collectively nor do they submit grievances or read the fine print in labor contracts. If they start to wear out, they can be archived and recopied.

Dream on with me for a moment more. Let's drill down the menus to one small portion of that database, a disk dedicated to teaching the history of philosophy. Professor Tom Thompson and his ilk used to teach such courses on a one-to-one basis. But the old fellow has been out to pasture for some years now and his budget line was dumped into Equipment. While he was around, Thompson, like the rest of his tribe, had a yen for regular increases in salary, light teaching loads, travel to expensive destinations, generous fringe benefits, tenure guarantees and a carpeted office. Worse yet, the longer he stayed around, the more expensive he got! In spite of Professor Thompson's earnest representations, it was quite impossible to verify claims that the value of his service to the institution kept increasing out of all proportion to the steady increase of his remuneration.

Now imagine Bertrand Russell had left behind a number of lavishly produced TV tapes consisting of a set of lectures on the history of philosophy from Thales to Wittgenstein. All delivered in that wonderful accent that made it plausible to refer to him as Lord Russell. Having seen Russell on film, I can testify that he is not only a world-class philosopher but a world-class lecturer as well. Even a Russell who can be only a holographic Obi-Wan Kenobi is still an impressive figure. Not to mention the name recognition factor.

So, if you were running your own university, would you rather pay Professor Thompson to teach the history of philosophy in his ripe Midwestern style - or - would you prefer to use the digitally-enhanced Russell disks? Is the flesh-and-blood presence of a professorial body really worth the expense of making it manifest in a small classroom for a modest group of students? Maybe not.

Now I need to test your imagination in the opposite direction of time.

Let's travel back to, say, the 12th century. There were great universities on the European continent, having developed from the cathedral and monastic schools of early medieval times.

The university is a late medieval invention. Its purpose was to prepare its students for the professions, as, for example, teaching, canon law or holy orders. Its economic base was the enhanced wealth of the great urban centers of the late medieval world. There was need for educated professionals then - as now.

Of all the institutions whose heritage is clearly medieval, the university, it seems to me, is one of the most resistant to the change. University dogma has not been subjected to a Vatican II. Think of the staying power of the so-called liberal arts, the trivium and quadrivium, even as natural science became centrally important in the outside world. The natural sciences were introduced into the curriculum against the grain and with cries of treachery and taunts of barbarism. Come to think of it, "barbarian" was quite a proper accusation. The knowledge of Greek, normally expected of an entrant to the university, and accepted as a part of its curricular foundation, did not die out without protest. My point is this: The university changes with time. But that change is reluctant and glacial.

Let the backwards clock we set running stop in a place like Paris, or Bologna or Heidelberg. Imagine a gowned member of the faculty of one of those universities, miraculously plucked from his resting place and restored to life. Let him be installed as a visitor in a typical university classroom.

As a classroom visitor he might attract some attention because of his long, flapping gown and funny hat. After all, the halls of a modern university are rarely as drafty as a cloistered walkway. But, if you try to imagine his observing that typical modern class, you must admit he would not find the class much different from those he conducted in his former life.

Back to the present. In the "typical" university classroom of the present day the audio-visual supplements are less than memorable. Let's be honest. Not just "less than memorable." They are amateurishly produced and clearly exhibit the exigencies of pinched budgetary resources for the audio-visual components of instruction.

What the students see on their TV screens outside class represent production values far more attractive and compelling than anything they are ever likely to see or hear in the typical university classroom. And that is just the commercials!

Let me reinforce my argument for the essential similarity of the present-day classroom and its medieval counterpart by invoking the example of educational television.

Some of us can remember the emergence of educational television in the 1950s. Claims were made that television would revolutionize education at all levels, transforming it into a wholly different operation. Television was claimed to reduce the cost of education while at the same time profoundly enriching its content. What a winning combination! The Ford Foundation was convinced and created some well-funded grant programs to bring the millennial day closer. Even Ed Murrow was impressed with the educational efficacy of the television screen. On the other hand, Newton Minow was right at the time, and is still right in describing television as a "vast wasteland." Both Murrow and Minow are right and neither is right. Television wears many faces and projects many possible futures. Today the vast potential of television is still that - just potential.

There are reasons, certainly, for the marginal importance of TV in the typical classroom. One is simply the resistance to any significant change by university faculty members. Another is that TV software tends to be a favorite of university administration more than their faculty. It was a top-down reform effort. The administration - always waging losing budget battles - saw an educational promised land in TV hardware. A tape or laser disk can be shown over and over to millions with no physical degradation. The initial expense once swallowed and a software budget established, a TV university would be a really cheap operation. Or so it seemed. Untrue. It turns out that the acquisition of hardware is easy, but the extended cost may be enormous.

The biggest reason for the muting of the promise of educational TV is the difficulty and expense of creating excellent software. I am struck by the anomaly that most digital rhetoric stops with the hardware. What about the messages carried by these media?

So I have a feeling of deja vu all over again when I observe current enthusiasm for newer versions of the electronic university. I may exaggerate. But the new dedication to computer-assisted learning strikes me as something akin to a crass religious cult: Give the digital revolution an educational home and America will surely blast the competition in the global marketplace! When the millennium arrives, American students will no longer play 13th fiddle to the high test scores of those students in Singapore! On second thought, it is not so much analogous to a religious faith as it is similar to an island cargo-cult or piece of medicine show quackery.

Idolatrous faith that computers will save Western civilization threatens to become the conventional wisdom. It is hard to find a politician who is less than enthusiastic about wiring up the nation and providing a computer for every student at all levels, including the digitally-deprived of the inner city.

Political enthusiasm for electronic learning has a lot to do with money.

College education, already expensive, may get even more so. About 60% of high school graduates go on to college these days. And this does not even count those newer non-traditional students who find themselves back in the educational stream, often because they are victims of downsizing or restructuring. Consequently, higher education will find itself struggling to cope with the same pressures forcing other labor-intensive service industries to restructure themselves.

Medicine is a rather familiar but instructive parallel. Physicians and the American Medical Association have said in the recent past there is no way good medicine could be practiced more cheaply. Yet doctor's fees, the rising costs of medical technology and of hospital stays, along with the large number of indigent patients to be somehow served, have forced change. Even deeper restructuring is on the way. Physicians and hospitals are clearly in the process of change. Most of us will be in some form of managed care whether we like it or not. Not because we prefer it but because, through taxes, insurance or fee for service, we have come to the edge of bankruptcy. Hence we are seeing what many said could never happen.

No choice of doctors; really brief hospital stays; denial of the most sophisticated tests and medical technology in the treatment of ailments. It is a form of triage, though not identified as such. A good many poorer patients will get sicker or die because it is too expensive to treat them with the very best medicine that can be imagined.

While higher education is not yet in the condition of the medical establishment, it may be quite soon. State governments, whose support of public higher education is vital, are dealing with more and more calls on their budgets, particularly as the federal government passes on certain costs to the states. Welfare, Medicaid and Medicare are examples of this pass through. Inner cities will increasingly breed crime and the temporary answer will be more money for police and confinement.

Thus state spending increases for higher education are already under attack and will, in the future, be even more at risk. There will be pressure for increased productivity without an increase in funding. Does that sound familiar? Do more with less.

Budget pressures stand behind efforts of legislatures and trustees to arrive at an acceptable definition of higher education accountability. It takes the form of audits by outside accountants. Or of lists of hours spent in the classroom. Or of diaries that report what percentage of time each faculty person spends on various activities. Or of the denial or suspension of tenure.

Within the near future, then, there is a reasonable doubt that the traditional university can sustain itself in the face of the onslaught of the budget-cutters and the technophiles. While the reactionary ethos of the university will surely slow and divert the impetus of this digital technological imperative, serious change is in the offing. Count on it.

What will be the nature of that change? How deeply and how profoundly will change penetrate? How will it impact the traditions of the established universities?

While there are no answers to these questions that can be based on genuine data, since by definition the future is unavailable for inspection, the effort to visualize the shape of the digital future - or rather, of possible digital futures - can be a valuable exercise.

I present three possible futures, based on three scenarios. Offered as discrete projections, the scenarios in fact can only be heuristically separated - blends and overlaps between scenarios being more than likely.

Scenario One: Ultimate Digital-Global-McLuhanism

Call this The George Gilder Vision-Thing Scenario.

Driven by economic necessity and increasing student numbers, almost all universities go virtual and digital. An all-star faculty aided by technical production teams creates the software bank and regularly updates it. George Gilder's speculative fantasies have been realized! Bandwidth has burgeoned almost to the edge of infinity, becoming as cheap as air or water. The questionable content quality of the former information highway, where porn was the biggest money-maker, has automatically corrected itself. Quality has triumphed because government regulators have left the communications process to the free play of market forces, absent the heavy hand of government regulation.

Elegant information appliances have at last made the classroom obsolete and the user-interface is not just "user friendly," but utterly user-transparent. The culture schism between the code-writers and engineers, and the fat-fingered and wooly-headed professors has ended. Technical and pedagogical modes of thought have coalesced and now stand in synergetic connection.

Thinking itself has been revolutionized. Descartes' aphorism, "I think, therefore I am," is replaced by "I compute, therefore I am." Instead of a klunky keyboard or speech-recognition software, the moving thought of the user triggers delivery on demand of the information desired. The CRT tube has morphed gradually and insidiously into a portion of the user's phenomenological life-world. "Memory" is transformed into a seamlessly-integrated combination of the virtual and the neurological. McLuhan's global village is realized.

But now it has been transcended and extended. Self and other, world and person, once separate, are now joined in context. The all-enveloping collective group mind envisioned by that evolutionary maverick, Teilhard de Chardin, is a reality. Universities as real-estate occupying entities have vanished. In their place, online research institutes and virtual learning communities grow and flourish.

Though the physical expression of the university is no more, its soul lives on, multiplied, deepened and triumphant. You should think of the Cheshire cat. The grin persists.

Scenario Two: A Modest Digital Infusion

Call this the Educom Lite Scenario.

The cost of hardware and bandwidth continues to descend precipitously. Cheap LED screens that are battery-powered and fit into a knapsack are in the possession of every student. CPUs squeeze into shirt pockets or wristwatches. And that includes the miniature modem that connects to the satellite. Moore's revised law of chip density doubling in nine months has long been mothballed for its hilarious conservatism. Creative software is finally available that takes advantage of the true uniqueness of the digital information interface, replacing the digitized syllabi and class handouts that formerly passed for online higher education.

In consequence, a significant number of second- and third-tier universities have converted to digital distance education, leaving a two-tier higher education system and posing a threat of educational class-warfare. The affluent minority who can afford the high cost of face-to-face instruction continue to enjoy an expensive mix of stand-up and high technology education, partially satisfying vocal critics of the inability of technology to supply "wisdom" not mere "information." Testing programs and research studies continue to deliver results that show no statistical difference between digital education and the face-to-face variety.

Enthusiasts continue to advocate a full court press for the conversion of Scenario Two to Scenario One. Meanwhile, the rest of society, increasingly digitalized and globalized, continually threatens the relevance of the Tier One higher education sector.

Scenario Three: A Revolution Stalled

Call this the Clifford Stoll Revenge Scenario.

While universities, especially public universities, still spend significant sums in the fading hope that digital education will bring down costs, the results have been disappointing. Just as the critics pointed out, students, while they love to "play games" with increasingly fast and colorful computers, show no discernible progress in achievement. The music and art programs, earlier vandalized to fund those big computer labs and expensive Net connections, have been restored. Schools in the inner city, once fully computerized, have gone back to traditional classroom boxes with human teachers in charge. Even politicians, taking note of the inability of computerization of the schools to produce a quick and dirty uptick in learning, have eased off on their willingness to pour money into hardware. Bill Gates is now divorced and works for Steve Jobs in a newly viable Apple operation. School administrators have united in finding the pie-in-the-sky promise of the Internet little more than the bastard cousin to the rosy promises of classroom TV and before that the radio, the phone and the magic lantern. Teachers who have had high-tech hardware dumped into their classrooms with minimal hand-holding and often without a sturdy electrical outlet, have banded together, fought back, and can now claim victory.

Gilderian prophets are still to be heard, but while everlastingly optimistic in pursuing their inflated claims, they get less press and little respect. In the private sector, computer use has actually decreased, the high costs of upkeep and the failure to show productivity gains finally making all too evident that those narrow-minded accounting departments were right after all.

The digital bashers in the peanut gallery are jubilant. Their technophobic critique of the defects of an over-hyped information highway has, for the time being, won the day.

None of the three scenarios of the future university pretends to be a prediction. For one thing, the details are only exemplary. The scenarios are vague and incomplete. No time-line is given. It would be tempting to pronounce such fuzzy forecasts useless, even harmful and misleading. A reasonable person could hardly be blamed for seeing such stuff as the equivalent of palmistry or astrology.

I disagree, even though I admit the weight of the criticisms of unanchored futuristic projections. Scenarios of the future - positive, negative and intermediate - help mold and shape a desirable future. Unless one accepts a dogmatic form of the technological imperative, unless one fatalistically presumes the victory (or defeat) of high-end educational technology (or something in-between), we need a dialectical matrix to help build the most desirable future available.

The future university, whatever its shape and substance, needs a Gilder at one end of the spectrum of possibilities and a Stoll at the other. How can we think about the range of alternatives unless the extremes have been defined and given some rhetorical reality?

Surely among the aspects of the desirable future university are some of the urgent reforms I visualized at the beginning of this piece. Higher education delivered asynchronously, targeted precisely at the student's unique learning style and tailored elegantly to exploit his present knowledge and capacity to learn, is a radical improvement over the lock-step practices of even today's finest Tier One institutions.

On the other hand, the critics who decry the current state of the art as little more than a series of graphic billboards that deny students essential human contact with real people and concrete reality, have a point. The most desirable future university will avoid these extremes while fully exploiting the promise of a combination of the best of the traditional university and the most promising innovations of its radically digitized future counterpart.

I am a moderate, in favor of the Educom Lite Scenario. The folks who yearn for the Clifford Stoll Revenge Scenario, to my mind, focus entirely too much on the multiple defects of the current state of educational technology. They need to dream more, to see the bright future inherent in the infancy of the Internet. Those of the Ultimate Digital-Global-McLuhanism persuasion need to ponder the contributions of the critics and somehow incorporate these warnings, while not deserting their apocalyptic posture. For the future is up for grabs. It is not set in stone. It will be what we make of

I conclude this piece with a few autobiographical remarks and a homily. I began supplementing my stand-up performances in the classroom right from the beginning with the best audio-visual technology I could devise. Not so many years ago, the best I could find was colored chalk for the blackboard and Life Magazine tear-outs for the opaque projector. Time passed, and I was into 35mm slides and mountains of overhead transparencies, all of them constantly in need of revision and improvement. I tried an automated course on cassette tape, accompanied by a syllabus, with office mentoring sessions. For all that time, I was searching for the Holy Grail of audio-visual pedagogy - a perfect match of graphics, lecture, discussion, and personal tutoring. I never found it. These days I surf the Net and try to learn HTML. The elusive dream of a perfect blending of the best of the old university and the best of the emergent future university still engages me. When I taught the Humanities courses, I would have been a much better teacher if I had an ideal Web page for the factual basis and an ideal set of virtual reality simulations for the visual portions of the course. I became a digital enthusiast when I pictured students stunned and gasping at the flaming site of the Athenian fleet defeating the Persian hordes, and, in the process, ensuring the future of Western civilization! Or listening to while actually seeing Pericles deliver his funeral oration over the bodies of the victims of the Peloponnesian War. Or listening to while sitting virtually at the feet of Socrates patiently explaining why he chose to die rather than desert his civic principles.

Digital reform of education is an instrument, not an end in itself. However refined and elegant the tools become, they must subordinate themselves to the ends for which the university was created. Those ends are: To civilize the young, to fit them for the professions, and to prepare them for governing themselves. The medieval visitor might have summarized the university mission as the cure of souls. If I understand where he was coming from, I believe he would welcome the emergence of the electronic university.

Thomas H. Thompson is is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. [email protected]

- - -


The creation, use, and improvement of technology are the unique features that set humans apart from all other species. Whether technology was a Promethean gift or a Faustian bargain, the deal is as irrevocable as it is ancient. The only choice remaining is whether we ride our technology or it rides us.
- Lewis J. Perelman, in School's Out

The teleputer could revitalize public education by bringing the best teachers in the country to classrooms everywhere. More important, the teleputer could encourage competition because it could make home schooling both feasible and attractive. . . . The competition of home schooling would either destroy the public school system or force it to become competitive with rival systems . . .
- George Gilder, in Life After Television

. . . the root attitudes of the American Campus, even a big state school, are still medieval, ecclesiastic, aristocratic, an extinct European world preserved in administrative routines and academic mind-sets like fossils set in stone.
- Anne Matthews, in Bright College Years

To be fully ourselves . . . it is in . . . the direction of convergence with all the rest that we must advance - towards the 'other.' The goal of ourselves, the acme of our originality, is not our individuality, but our person; and according to the evolutionary structure of the world, we can only find our person by uniting together. There is no mind without synthesis.
- Teilhard de Chardin, in The Phenomenon of Man

There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs - music, art, physical education - that enrich children's lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of "computers in every classroom" with credulous and costly enthusiasm.
- Todd Oppenheimer, in "The Computer Delusion"

For all the useful things computers do, they do not seem, on balance, to have made us much richer by enabling us to do more work, of increasing value, in less time. Compared with the big economic bangs delivered by water-, steam- and electricity-powered machines, productivity growth in the information age has been a mere whimper.
- W. Wayt Gibbs, in "Taking Computers to Task."

Chardin, Teilhard de, The Phenomenon of Man, Harper Torchbooks, 1959 (1955).
Gibbs, W. Wayt, "Taking Computers to Task," Scientific American, July 1997.
Gilder, George, Life After Television, W. W. Norton, 1992.
Matthews, Anne, Bright College Years, Simon and Schuster, 1997.
Oppenheimer, Todd, "The Computer Delusion," The Atlantic Monthly, July 1997.
Perelman, Lewis, School's Out, Avon, 1992.
Stoll, Clifford, Digital Snake Oil: Second Thoughts on the Information
Highway, Doubleday, 1995.
Western Governors University: Goals and Visions.
Wolfe, Tom, "Sorry, But Your Soul Just Died," Forbes ASAP, December 1996.

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