A New Order of Things

By Robert C. Heterick, Jr.

Sequence: Volume 29, Number 1

Release Date: January/February 1994

We have an extraordinary national research infrastructure (composed of
disciplinary societies, the Internet, publishers of scholarly journals,
national laboratories, and peer review) and a highly developed teaching
infrastructure (composed of institutions of higher education and their
physical plants and faculties, publishers of textbooks, and shared
precepts of curricula promulgated primarily through disciplinary
societies). What stands in stark comparison to these two accomplishments
is the lack of a national learning infrastructure.

Learning is still primarily place and time constrained, offered in
a one-size-fits-all style characteristic of the industrial era. To
control the costs of higher education, we developed communities of
scholars composed of faculty and students that became vertically
integrated communities in every sense of the term, with their own
"hotel," "restaurant," and retail operations as well as a host of other
services one associates with a town or community. Along the way we
institutionalized a series of learning compromises: the academic year
contained two semesters of sixteen weeks to permit summer farmwork by
the students; classes were offered in fifty-minute periods on
alternating days of the week; the lecture arose as a teaching paradigm
because books were expensive.

To be sure, we are witnessing some chipping away at the historical
compromises that have turned teaching into a surrogate for learning.
Information technology has infiltrated the academy in the form of some
instruction's being offered via television to remote learners, some
course materials uniquely packaged for the learner through digitally
created course packets, and some extraordinarily creative course
materials delivered through multimedia computers. We even have the rise
of modular learning materials packaged for commercial seminars, video
conferences, and new commercial enterprises such as Mind Extension

Both the research and teaching infrastructure provide well-defined
economic systems that through something approaching an invisible hand
define a market and arrange for fund transfers from government, students
and parents, and philanthropic efforts to pay for faculty, equipment,
repairing the roof, purchasing textbooks, and the host of expenses
attendant to maintaining an infrastructure. No similar economic
mechanism exists for a learning infrastructure, although the New Age
spirit of the Internet may offer some clues as to how it may best be

What continues to be lacking is the infrastructure to facilitate
technology-mediated learning. This would require the collaboration of
institutions of learning, disciplinary societies, scholarly publishers,
testing services, and the panoply of communications service providers.

The problem is not so much technological as cultural. One way to
attack the problem is to create new alliances between the value adders
that are, or can be, focused on student-centered learning models that
take advantage of information technology. There are clearly some
subjects that lend themselves to an improvement in learning and a
reduction in the cost of that learning when directly mediated by
information technology; judicious application of technology to those
areas can free resources for subjects that are more spontaneous or

However, as Machiavelli observed, "There is nothing more difficult
to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to
handle, than to initiate a new order of things, for the reformer has
enemies in all who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders
in all those who would profit by the new order." There are those who
will argue that a shift of emphasis from teaching to learning is solely
a faculty issue, not the concern of the institutional information
officers. Just as the current generation of industrial CIOs has had to
learn how to shift their focus from bits and bytes to the core issues of
their respective businesses, information officers in higher education
need to apply their skills and talents to the core issues of higher
education--the processes by which students learn and the infrastructure
that must underlie them.

The new order of things will require higher education's information
officers to play an active role in helping to design and create the
national learning infrastructure.

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