The Revolution In Electronic Technology And The Modern University:

The Convergence Of Means

By James W. Hall

Sequence: Volume 30, Number 4
Release Date: July/August 1995

Few will disagree that technology, having radically altered the way
manufacturing and business are conducted, is at last changing the way the
university functions as an institution of higher learning. But, aside from
the automation of formerly tedious processes, few observers recognize in the
university the same structure-shattering technological changes that have
already transformed the way business is done in many other sectors of
society. The meaning and extent of technologically induced transformation
can best be understood if one thinks about the organizing concept of the
university itself. A changing organizing concept of the traditional
university will soon alter this contextual frame of reference so completely
that distance educators ignore it at high peril.

The University of Convocation

For nearly a millennium, the organizing concept of the university could best
be described by the word convocation. Beset in its earliest manifestation by
an often barbaric and intrusive world, and fearful that, in a moment's time,
the knowledge and wisdom passed down from generation to generation, recorded
painstakingly in precious, hand-lettered parchment manuscripts, could be
suddenly and irrationally erased from the human record, the university has
always organized for defense. Small pockets of scholars, huddled together
within moated, cloistered, or even fortified walls, blossomed, over time,
into a fortuitous "calling together" of the finest minds; the most
precocious students; the distinguished collections of monographs, texts,
serials, and artifacts that came to be libraries or bibliotheks; and the
study spaces, commons, laboratories, and lecture halls that both scholars
and students cohabited.

This convocation of academic people, scholarly things, and convening places
constitutes what we have traditionally thought of as the university. For
this traditional university, the controlling concept has been to bring
together, for the select few who could use them, these resources of
scholars, students, books, and facilities. We celebrate even today this
concept through a symbolic university ceremony of convocation at the start
of each academic year.

As an organizing concept, convocation has been powerful and pervasive. We
appraise the quality of a university on the basis of how much academic
wealth it convenes. What does a university own outright, manage, support,
and preserve? The more world-class the professors, the higher the
intellectual profile of matriculated students, the grander and rarer the
library holdings, and the finer the instrumentation in the laboratories,
then the more generous the appraisal and, hence, the more prestigious the
reputation of a particular university.

But throughout history, these attributes of university excellence have been
in short supply. As long as universities have functioned, there has been a
shortage of the best minds, a scarcity of the necessary books for these
minds to use. The scarcer the item, the more prestigious to possess it.
Those institutions that could call together more of these scarce commodities
than their rivals were appraised as best.

In fact, all of the university's traditions and practices assume that
scarcity is the controlling condition of educational opportunity. As a
result, the opportunity for students to pursue a university education must
be rationed, parceled out, limited to those most qualified to benefit from
it. To a remarkable extent, this sense of scarcity drives the assumptions
and understandings about what university learning is and should be,
fostering a sense of exclusivity among those who guard the gate. In the
United States, when President Franklin Roosevelt proposed opening
universities to returning World War II veterans, Robert Maynard Hutchins of
the University of Chicago said that the university would be admitting
"intellectual hoboes." Too often, the most critical qualitative measure of a
university's excellence is how few of its student applicants can become
matriculants and the relative achievement profile of each year's entering
class in comparison to that of an institution's closest competitors.

Gradually, over the past century, the university of convocation has sought
ways to lessen the problems of scarcity. It has attempted in many ingenious
ways to open its doors to more students. The primary responses to student
demand have been to increase the number of campuses and size of the
institution. In fact, one of the most critical debates over the years has
been with regard to the importance of size in the university. Many years
ago, a college or university of relatively small size was considered highly
desirable.But when the numbers of students seeking entrance to a university
education increased exponentially following World War II, very large
institutions became the norm. Not only could these rapidly expanding, often
publicly supported "Land-Grant" giants bring together vast troves of
educational resources, they could also pay the biggest academic salaries,
attract the most renowned scholars, and maintain the most extensive
collections of bibliographic resources, especially scholarly journals. Most
remarkably, they could do all of this and yet remain surprisingly
cost-efficient. Sheer size of the student body made it possible to support
the widest range of curricula and post-baccalaureate programs through the
doctorate in every imaginable field of study (not to mention a complex of
highly competitive athletic teams!). For several entire academic
generations, size of student enrollment was usually considered a positive
value. The institutional behemoths of the American Midwest are testimony to
this massive effort to respond to democratically inspired student demand.

In the United States, even increasing the size of single institutions could
not fulfill the demand. Within the boundaries of the states, many individual
institutions were forged together into enormous university systems, creating
mega universities of prodigious size and academic scope. More recently, this
same phenomenon has been experienced elsewhere across the world as
burgeoning demand for post-secondary access has occurred in political
democracies. Recently, Patrick Callan, Executive Director of the California
Higher Education Policy Center, referred to these large centralized and
hierarchical systems as "characteristics of a passing industrial age." And
just as technology has caused the passing of the industrial age, so
technology challenges convocation as an organizing concept of the

Distance Education and the Traditional University

Distance education, of course, is one of the most significant ways that the
traditional university has sought to respond to scarcity. Distance education
is, first and foremost, a movement that sought not so much to challenge or
change the structure of higher learning, but a movement to extend the
traditional university, a movement to overcome its inherent problems of
scarcity and exclusivity. Distance education developed as a creative
political response to the increasing inability of the traditional university
structure to grow bigger.

Distance education dealt with the downside of size; i.e., too many students
in a single physical space. As such, institutions that feature distance
teaching have filled an important niche unserved and, in the past, largely
unwanted by the traditional university. The university would, in effect,
reach out, offering not seats, but the opportunity to learn. Distance
education developed when convocation, as an organizing concept for the
university, had reached its natural limits-both in size and resources. But
distance education has itself suffered from shortcomings and scarcities that
have made it difficult to operate, expensive to develop, and occasionally
difficult to validate. All distance learning institutions have had to
grapple with three fundamental problems.

One problem is the continuing cost and quality of communications. Whether
the postal strike that greeted the inaugural of the British Open University,
or the absence of reliable telephone services, distance learning is
bedeviled by unreliable communications infrastructures. In the most advanced
nations, usually reliable voice, data, and postal communications are often
less than ideal for student-friendly, teacher to student interactions. In
underdeveloped nations, even the simplest telecommunications systems are
frequently inoperable or absent altogether. Distance education has long
suffered from the inadequacy of the infrastructure.

A second problem is how to maintain sufficient student contact and ongoing
interaction with those who provide intellectual guidance, timely assistance
when needed, and adequate performance feedback. Although distance learning
courses overcome the scarcity of faculty instructional time experienced by
the traditional university, the problem of adequate student/faculty
engagement remains. Specialists have expended a lot of time and effort in
attempting to devise ingenious solutions to this problem. But beyond an
occasional telephone call, an office visit at a study center, or the written
response to assignments, the lack of timely and frequent interaction is one
of the most difficult of problems to overcome.

A third problem is the availability of adequate resources, beyond the
required texts, for extended student exploration and research. Distance
courses are limited by the high cost and space limitations of set texts. In
resource-rich nations, students do have the option of using the local
library; in the rest of the world, library books are inaccessible and
scarce. But even where libraries are relatively accessible, shortages of
book copies, of available staff, and limited hours of operation convenient
to distance students pose serious handicaps. The lack of adequate resources
in distance education, as in traditional campuses, is an unsolved problem.
Practitioners in distance education have rightly looked to technology as the
means to address and solve these and other problems. They have been among
the first to see the promise of the technological revolution as a means of
access for students, and to help distance teaching institutions become the
leaders of the "new university." This may indeed happen. But there exists
another scenario that may be far more plausible.

The University of Convergence

It follows from the argument advanced to this point that the issue for
distance educators is not simply how to apply the new technologies to
distance education. Because technology changes the meaning and efficacy of
"distance," the niche occupied by distance education will become less
defined, and certainly less undesirable to the traditional university. In
short, the university is in the process of deep structural change, and that
change will lead to a new structural concept: convergence. This change opens
new opportunities for "distance learning," but it will also bring the full
weight of the traditional university into direct competition with
specialized distance learning institutions.

The fact is that "distance" is rapidly becoming less important as the key
descriptor for courses or students. Perhaps "connected" or "collateral"
learning will become a more accurate descriptor. Collateral learning
describes the growing availability of aids or alternatives that allow a
student to review, speed up or substitute for some or all of what normally
occurs in a classroom lecture. Such collateral options are becoming more
commonly available, of higher quality, less costly to access, and thereby of
much greater importance to every institution.

One can visualize the university of convergence as a place of vast, perhaps
limitless, exchange and interconnection, where research conducted by the
most brilliant faculty is shared almost instantaneously with the relevant
scholarly community and with the larger world. The rarest texts are
available within a short time, and increasing numbers of serials are
available electronically the minute they are published. These resources will
be available to anyone, anywhere, and, within limits, almost without
financial restriction. Students in the university of convergence will learn
to engage with information, understand how to use it, and gain the skills
and intellectual competencies associated with a university graduate. The
faculties of the university of convergence will also take on aspects of the
teaching role that have heretofore been less prominent or essential. The
role of intellectual guide to the student, or mentor, will become more
important as students pursue much of the formal instruction, formerly
communicated through faculty lectures, in a variety of self-paced,
student-directed modes. In fact, student planning and academic advisement is
likely to move to the very center of the educational process for both
students and faculty as both seek to find and use the most useful available
resources. The traditional university never gave this critical function more
than lip service. Most faculty time was committed to direct instruction and
research with little time reserved for direct engagement with individual
students. The university of convergence will require a dramatic shift of
time commitment toward student advisement. So, although technology offers
solutions to the problems and limitations of distance education
institutions, technology will also allow the traditional university to
address its limitations as well. With technology, the university of
convergence will be able to overcome the historic problems that made
distance education necessary in the first place.

Simply put, it will multiply the number of seats available to students. It
will multiply the heretofore precious resources for learning. Most
significantly, it will multiply the capacity for students to review and
master knowledge through self-paced, interactive study.

None of this will happen instantly or uniformly. Instruction, the most
traditionally organized core function of the university, remains largely
untouched by the technology revolution. Joseph C. Burke, Provost of SUNY,
calls the classroom lecture the element of university instruction most
resistant to change. At least in the United States, scarcity is still
defined on the university campus by the limited number of seats in the
classroom and by the tightly defined classroom hours of instruction. The
tyranny of the classroom hour, as noted by Educom President Robert Heterick,
is the remaining but nearly insurmountable obstacle to our overcoming the
scarcity of instruction. When instruction-redefined as student learning-is
unhinged from the classroom hour, the transforming possibilities of
educational uses of technology will be complete.

How far away is the transformation of the university of convocation to a
university of convergence? How many traditional institutions are ready to
accommodate such fundamental changes? Are the faculties aware of the
implications of these changes? Are they prepared to see their role as
lecturer modified?

Until a few years ago, one might have asked similar questions about the
permeability of political boundaries, or about the capacity of a
dictatorship to control its people. What we have witnessed recently is that
technology, in the form of ubiquitous communications, goes where it will.
Traditional political controls cannot stop technology. When one
organization, through its dominance or its traditions, resists the use of a
breakthrough technology, another organization creates alternatives that
compete with existing forms.

Technology will have a comparable effect on the traditional university.
Distance learning, which itself has offered a competing form, will also be
deeply affected, even as it pioneers in exploring the uses of technology. If
the university, in its traditional or distance form, does not adapt to the
possibilities of technology, competing structures will surely spring up that
can and will perform the tasks of the university.

Whither the Future of Distance Education?

What, then, is the future for established distance education, as it has come
to be known, in the era of convergence? One might deduce that its future is
dim. Indeed, that might be true, were it not for the distinguished track
record of achievement during the past several decades of the now large and
prominent existing distance learning institutions, which have a long head
start on the traditional university in using multiple pedagogies. That lead
will not last, but it will ensure, at the least, that distance institutions
have an opportunity to compete, themselves becoming universities of

Collectively, distance educators have great expertise in solving problems
associated with education beyond the classroom. This expertise could be
applied to help all of higher learning solve the intellectual,
developmental, financial, and logistical problems associated with
convergence. Moreover, distance educators can participate in this effort in
less isolation than in the past, involved more fully with the intellectual
mainstream. Significantly, distance educators will also have access to more
financial resources by working with partners who, after all, control most of
the resources available for higher learning.

Distance educators can also focus greater attention on comprehensive
planning and give attention to often ignored, but essential, research. A
great need exists for information on the effectiveness and related costs of
distance or connected learning. While a great deal of research has focused
somewhat narrowly on comparisons of distance and traditional learning, or on
the logistics associated with older systems of distance instruction, very
little study has examined the new relationships between pedagogies that the
new technologies make feasible.

In sum, distance educators need to forge new partnerships with the
traditional university, collaborate in creating new systems, academic course
software, and supporting networks for information transmission. Such
partnerships will hasten the day when the essential new systems to support a
university of convergence will be available, not only to distance students,
but to all students. Distance administrators can also be a moral force in
promoting the uses of technology to support the values of the university,
rather than allowing technology to dictate its values. Workers in distance
education know what is needed by students who are working on their own, away
from the support structures of the campus. There will be lots of opportunity
ahead to use this expertise, especially if the university is to prevent
opportunists from commandeering the world of the virtual university.

In the end, it will not be its traditional physical trappings, nor its
extended distance forms, neither convocation nor convergence, that will
guarantee the university's continuing significance to our global society.
That significance will be assured by maintaining the central values of the
university: viz., helping students to learn and grow intellectually,
creating a climate within which scholars can create and test knowledge, and
reaching out to enlighten a civilized community. The convergent university,
in which all must be full partners, can help achieve that worthy purpose.

James W. Hall is vice chancellor for educational technology and president of
Empire State College, State University of New York.

� 1995 Educom.

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