The Distances of Education

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Academe 85(5), 1999, pages 37-41.

Please do not quote from this version, which may differ slightly from the version that appears in print.

3300 words.


The university has a reputation for conservatism. Information technology is supposed to be a force for revolution. And so the reshaping of the university by means of information technology has the makings of a great drama. Great dramas stir up myths; they reopen ancient controversies and liberate forgotten energies. This is a fine thing, and it is also dangerous. Information technology prompts us to reconsider the fundamental values of the university, but it also enables us to destroy the university if that is what we want.

To make rational choices, we need to think seriously about the place of technology in institutional change. We need first to consider some common ideas about the matter. Does information technology impose a particular logic on the institutions of higher education? Having opened that question, we can ask how information technology might help us to resolve the genuine tensions within higher education as we know it.

Education in a Box

Two people I met recently on the Internet told stories that can help frame these issues. The first was a computer programmer. "You know those middle managers who were laid off during the early 1990s through downsizing? I did that," he told me. (I am paraphrasing his words from memory.) "My technology helped organizations expand managers' span of control and thus reduce the number of layers in the hierarchy." He said his next target will be college professors. He figures that four years of college education should cost $60. After all, Nathan Myhrvold of Microsoft says a personal computer gives you $100 million worth of software for $100. And Titanic gives you $200 million worth of movie for $8. A college education in a box, distributed to hundreds of millions of people worldwide, could cost billions to produce and still turn a profit. Most professors would become redundant and end up on the street, my correspondent concluded. Such an outcome would not bother him at all.

My other correspondent was dissatisfied with his undergraduate education in art. His professors, he asserted, could never make a living by selling their work, and they made little attempt to teach the skills their students would need to make a living. His complaint was not that his art school had misrepresented itself as a practical place. His complaint was that such academic art schools existed at all.

Neither of these views is unusual. But are they reasonable? To understand the opportunities and responsibilities that rapidly changing technology imposes on higher education, we must learn to distinguish the elements of truth in these views from the elements of historically conditioned misconception.

Standard Theory

The most common story about information technology and higher education emanates from two camps: ideologists who believe that the universities have been taken over by tenured radicals, and software vendors who see a business opportunity in the idea of a radically different university. Members of both groups -- I'll refer to them jointly as the "technophiles" -- tell a story of revolution.

It has eight parts: (1) The universities are now a centralized command-and-control system under the domination of an academic elite. (2) The Internet can change this situation by making instructional delivery possible over an arbitrary distance. (3) This kind of instructional delivery will give students more choice, enabling them to assemble their educations by mixing and matching courses from many institutions. (4) Course outcomes will be measured by examination or portfolio systems that are operated independently of the universities by centrally organized testing services or accrediting organizations. (5) Students will be able to learn on a just-in-time basis across their whole lifetimes; they won't be confined to a university campus for a fixed part of their lives. (6) Competition in the market will ensure quality and eliminate inputs that do not contribute sufficiently to the measured outcomes. (7) Universities are backward organizations, slow to adopt technology, and they will resist these threatening innovations. (8) Those universities that do not adapt will be left behind, their customers steadily siphoned off by more enterprising competitors.

Although this thinking is not entirely wrong, it is also remarkably naive. The basic issue is economic. Usually, economists hold that the price of a good in a functioning market should approach the marginal cost of producing it. But information goods mock this principle because of their vast economies of scale. That is, a company with twice the market share can sell its product for half as much, all else being equal. That is one reason why software markets often become monopolies. As more industries depend on software, trends toward centralization and consolidation may intensify. The technophiles know all that, but the potential for educational monopoly does not concern them. They believe higher education will become so cheap that competition will no longer be driven by price. Consumers will choose among several inexpensive educations. But even in this scenario, a handful of star professors will reach millions of students apiece with their courses, as opposed to the thousands of professors who now teach tens or hundreds of students at a time. That would seem to undermine the technophiles' goal of using the Internet to break the domination of a putative academic elite. And it would lead to more centralized control over what is taught in universities, not less.

Nor would the technophiles' vision deliver greater competition. Universities already compete for students. Students purchase their educations in two- or four-year blocks, and they have many universities to choose from, each with its own distinctive educational approach. Information technology can reduce costs by distributing the same information to many people, but it reduces choice by the same factor. True, the market for higher education will expand as prices drop. But the opportunity cost of time spent studying will not go down, so the impact of this effect remains to be seen. The technophiles also promote "articulation", or assembling a degree program out of modules chosen from different universities. But this scheme would require someone to define the boundaries of the modules. It would therefore reduce substantive choice and permit an institution much more centralized than anything we have now to effectively control the contents of courses.

The technophiles also exaggerate when they argue that universities are slow to adopt technology. Universities deserve much of the credit for developing the Internet, and its use diffused so rapidly in the early 1990s because universities provided their students with access. University teachers in fact embraced computer networks from their early days. Before most people had heard of the Internet, and before most of the technophiles had recognized its importance, academics had already conducted experiments in networked instruction. For example, philosopher Andrew Feenberg conducted some of the first network-based classes as early as 1981 at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, in La Jolla, California. Experiments such as Feenberg's were based on the Internet's democratic, bottom-up, and decentralized modes of interaction -- in contrast to the centralized, top-down, command-and-control-oriented systems that the technophiles' vision would in fact produce. The technophiles' tale, in short, makes no sense. Yet it retains its hold on the imagination because of its association with a historical story about technology and institutions -- a secularized millennialism. This point of view, which sees the Internet as the herald of total revolution, informs the thinking of many distance education enthusiasts. The reasoning of its adherents resembles that of a cult: your experience and common sense represent the past, the technology represents the future; if you want a future, then you will let go of the past and embrace the technology. Those who accept the inevitability of the technology are the vanguard, and those who reject the technology are reactionaries. But this binary choice is an artifact of millennialist reasoning. Those who reject technology play a role in the same drama as the technophiles who embrace it. The choice itself is false.

Values in Technology

Confusion about technology arises partly because the word "technology" shifts silently among different uses. Its narrowest use pertains to physical artifacts such as laptop computers. But artifacts do not simply drop from the sky. They come surrounded by cultural meanings (liberatory or oppressive, rational or spiritual, stabilizing or disruptive, traditional or modern, elitist or populist, and the like), and they are knitted into institutional arrangements (access, identity, maintenance, budgeting, space allocation, compatibility, intellectual property, and so on). If we focus only on the artifact, then the cultural meanings and institutional arrangements become invisible. In fact, the relationship between artifacts, meanings, and institutions is complicated and variable. For example, does the Internet, all by itself, bring us a decentralized society? Certainly not. Does the world that brought us the Internet also bring us a decentralized society? That is a different question.

Another source of confusion is that information technology is enormously plastic. Computers can be designed in a boundless variety of ways. You construct a computer by picking a metaphor, any metaphor, and translating it into the logic of software or hardware. We can be certain that information technology will continue to improve in quantitative terms: its processor speed, memory capacity, screen resolution, communications bandwidth, and so on. But the qualitative, architectural aspects of information technology are not at all inevitable. The clean, layered design of the Internet, for example, arose partly because it was funded by an organization, the US military, that did not need to profit by controlling what applications would be run on it. Those factors result from negotiations among the producers and users of the technology. And this is where technology can become ideological: if you believe that information technology as such inevitably brings markets, or hierarchies, or freedom, or modularity, or conflict, or God-like control over human affairs, then you may not even recognize that you have choices.

The technophiles' story depends on this kind of inevitability. Its organizing metaphor is industrial distribution, and it uses phrases such as "instructional delivery", which defines education as a "thing" that can be produced and consumed in standardized units. Neoclassical economics finds this metaphor congenial, inasmuch as something called "education" can be interpreted as the output side of a production function whose inputs include labor, machinery, capital, and so on.

And perhaps the discourse of productivity, by demanding clear analysis of what expenditures actually contributed to what educational outcomes, can shed some light on the tasks ahead. But this discourse also edits reality by treating education in narrow terms as the acquisition of knowledge, or even as the increase in earning power. It detaches undergraduate education from graduate education, the global research community, public service obligations, social networking, and much else. The point is not that technology is incompatible with these functions. The point, instead, is that metaphors have consequences. They are written into both the machinery and the institutions. Our choice is not technology versus no technology, but a wider determination of the concepts and the values that higher education should embody.

Shifting Linkages

Our options are complex. If we really wanted to destroy existing institutions and build new ones in their place, then we could imagine designing whatever educational utopia we like from scratch. And indeed, all-electronic institutions probably will arise in particular areas. But for the most part, we are negotiating a field of complex interconnections, both in and outside the university, and we should embrace the opportunity to reconsider those links and the values they embody. We can learn, for example, from managers the world over who routinely underestimate the training and support that computers require. We can also think more deeply about the many investments in instructional computing that are justified by little beyond an inchoate desire to avoid falling behind. Perhaps the strongest argument for these investments is precisely the need to get an early start on the institutional learning curve that arises as universities contend with the complicated reality of instructional computing, as opposed to its millenarian promise.

Information technology can also help the university renegotiate its links to other institutions. The university is really a metainstitution, interacting with virtually every sphere of life. Information technology brings its own connections to, for example, the vendors who control the standards for software and hardware. But it also enables closer and more complex relationships with professions, governments, social movements, business, and the media.

Technology will not evolve in isolation; nor will economics, values, or institutional connections. The whole ensemble will evolve together, each element constraining and enabling the others. Some ideologues look forward to the day when classes are conducted over video links, so that professors who expose students to unpopular ideas can be caught on tape and held up to public censure. Will that happen? And if not, then what? It is a larger question than we know.

Distances of Education

What values, then, should inform the coming changes in higher education? The answer, I hope, is simple: democratic values. Many technophiles propose to uphold democracy by making higher education cheap enough so that everyone can afford it. Economic access to higher education is indeed a democratic value. But democratic values also operate on the process and substance of education. We may feel that higher education promotes all good things, democracy included, but in fact we have an opportunity to rethink some real problems that higher education inherits from history.

For all the importance of prominent controversies such as multiculturalism, the major tension I encounter in undergraduate teaching is that students come to research universities looking for vocational educations. I remember one student in a communication program, who, having sat through courses on political economy and developmental psychology, asked me when the voice lessons were going to begin. Like the art student whose story I told at the outset, this student could not even conceive of education as anything besides vocational preparation. It's a dilemma. I want to teach things that my students want to learn, yet I believe that these students need to be capable of comprehending the institutional changes they will face in their lives and careers. And so I have struck an elaborate compromise: giving critical analysis the shape and form of a vocational skill.

I cannot tell whether I have succeeded. But however we rethink undergraduate education in the new technological environment, we need a new synthesis of the vocational and liberal arts models. The deficiencies of the models we have can be traced to their origins. Vocational education exists to prepare the children of working people for tasks whose methods are spelled out and rationalized, and where nothing much changes. In a world where such work is the norm, vocational education is not unreasonable. Liberal arts education originates from a different source. In the United States, it derives a powerful cultural value from its role in history. The founding fathers, being mostly the sons of successful but uneducated men, defined themselves as an aristocracy of education. Theirs was the classical learning of a leisured class that could afford to detach itself from practical affairs. This leisure and detachment were, of course, bought with the labor of women, clients, and slaves. It is little wonder that many students today do not identify with them.

The technophiles speak of distance education, but the university is defined by different kinds of distance. The university is physically distant from the places where its knowledge is used. Faculty autonomy is also a kind of distance. This autonomy creates space for globally distributed invisible colleges by enabling scholars to self-organize their own means of sharing their knowledge and evaluating their work, but it also invites woolly intellectualism untested by practical experience. Enthusiasm for electronic distance education is partly an attempt to renegotiate these distances, to recombine learning and life in new ways. Let us renegotiate. But let us also comprehend the institutions and their tensions, and not be driven by dreams of magical transformation through technology.

What role might the Internet play in a constructive reconfiguration of university teaching? Just as the founding fathers drew on classical ideals to fashion a model for responsible public engagement, so we can use the Internet to allow students to engage with a wider world. Liberal arts education has long been organized around writing exercises and class discussions that stand in for the public world. The classroom does its job when it provides a safe container for the development of students' voices, and democratic initiatives in higher education during this century have focused on enabling everyone in liberal arts classroom to develop a voice. What the Internet provides is a range of self-governing public forums for developing one's voice. Let us bring back the practice of developing a voice by revising an essay over and over until it does honor to the English language. But let us do so in the context of the actual public sphere in the democratic medium of the Internet.

The point here is not to break down the boundaries of the university or to collapse all distance. Healthy people have boundaries, and so do healthy institutions. And as we renegotiate the boundaries of the university, we will also renegotiate the nature of knowledge. Consider, for example, the institution of the word problem:

One drain can empty the pool in 6 hours and the other drain can empty the pool in 8 hours. How long will they take to drain the pool together?
It is easy enough to set up the reciprocals for this problem. But how about:
Jim can paint the house in 6 hours and his dad can paint the house in 8 hours. How long will they take to paint the house together?
Again, we can automatically set up the reciprocals -- or we can inquire into Jim's relationship with his dad. For example, we can ask whether their famous cooperative projects devolve into discussions of football. Word problems set standards for scientific courses by the simple expedient of having right answers, and they ensure that one course can build on the next by providing a clean way to specify what the student has learned. But they also encourage an uncurious habit of mind that Heidegger called enframing: trying to fit the world into the equations one has to hand. Enframing feeds on the distances between the classroom and the rest of the world. As an engineer now teaching in the social sciences, I feel both the inward force of the problem-set model and the outward force of the critical inquiry model, without any easy synthesis. The intellectual tension between the different kinds of learning is bound up with the institutional tension about the university's relationship to the outside world.

Renewing the University

In examining the role of information technology in higher education, I have found it necessary to proceed in two steps: first deprogramming the millennialism that shapes our thinking about technology and institutions, and then examining the values that can and should inform our educational institutions. My goal was to illustrate how to conduct such an analysis in a critical fashion, free of incoherent enthusiasms. I believe that information technology portends great changes, and that every institution will have to reinvent itself. That reinvention will demand imagination and probably conflict. If information infrastructure embodies ideas, then the contest of ideas takes on a newly material significance. University faculty are experts on ideas, of course, but I wonder if they retain their expertise in the public contest of ideas. Can professors win a public argument when their opponents employ the public-relations methods of think tanks? Will the technophiles' story win out despite its incoherence?

If mere self-preservation is not sufficient motivation, please consider the billions of people who feel that a technological tidal wave is going to hit them. These people have inherited a lot of bad religion dressed as social analysis, and they need critical tools to make decisions about the institutions that shape their lives. That is the deepest meaning of democracy, and the deepest responsibility of democratic intellectuals.