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Information Technology in Higher Education: The "Global Academic Village" and Intellectual Standardization
As we approach the new millennium, university administrators are planning for a world in which information technology (IT) will be pervasive—so pervasive, in fact, that the very institution of higher education will change. Of course, IT likely will be used to improve higher education; IT is exceedingly flexible, and administrators will face numerous choices about how best to apply it. Some of those choices are straightforward matters of efficiency, best left to technical experts. Other choices will require administrators to reflect carefully on the values that a university ought to express. If educators have learned anything from attempts to improve life using IT, it is that significant improvements are possible only when institutions are rethought. Some will argue that future changes are inevitable because they have been determined in advance by technological developments [such as... - DD].

For example, in a 1998 letter to University of California faculty members, Sandra Weiss (1998)—then chairperson of the University system's Academic Council—discussed course articulation, which she defines as "the degree to which students can build an additive degree program by taking courses either at different institutions or at the different campuses of one institution." (This same idea is called modularity in Britain, where it was central to the higher education policies of the Margaret Thatcher and John Major governments.) Weiss contends that flexible course articulation is important because "we have moved into an era where individual campuses are becoming part of a larger academic community—a 'global academic village,' so to speak." [need page numbers for direct quotes in print publications] Information technology helps drive this trend, and Weiss further explains that "[f]or technology-mediated coursework, we need to identify comparable content across courses that would be acceptable for transfer and also grapple with our expectations regarding traditional 'face to face [Was face-to-face not hyphenated in the original letter?] contact' between professor and student and among students themselves."

This sort of commentary refutes the stereotype of professors (or "academic elites," as the new jargon would have it) as Luddites engaged in bull-headed resistance to technologically driven institutional change. In her letter, Weiss, a professor in the School of Nursing at UC-San Francisco, verifies my own impression that fundamental changes currently are being implemented without significant dissent from faculty. Nonetheless, I believe that faculty and administrators alike should step back and evaluate more fully what choices they are making.

[comments for end of prev. paragraph] They should ask: Is anything sacrificed in the "global academic village?" What will course standardization mean for institutions that specialize in a particular field? [I've added in these sample questions, but feel free to make changes or suggest alternate ones.   I do think you need some questions as an indication of the discussion to come. Otherwise there's not as clear a transition between the intro and the info on ontological standardization.]

[One problem I see here is the idea that faculty are a monolithic body who all agree on movement in one direction or another.  If my campus is any indication, there are definite bodies of dissent as to which way to go with technology applications.  In some cases, new courses are circumventing traditional avenues of review and approval and are being taught through other areas than the usual colleges (i.e., centers for distance education, or colleges of continuing or community education, etc.)  The main body of faculty not engaging in Internet based courses or other distance ed are understandably aggrieved at  administrators essentially doing an end run around faculty groups such as the Faculty Senate or academic councils.  In many cases these efforts are being made piecemeal and through non-customary channels in order to circumvent the approval processes.  This is being done for the sake of efficiency, but also for political reasons.   There have been a variety of concerns expressed about online courses and technology deals at universities, even when disputes center on other issues (The Chronicle of Higher Education, http://chronicle.com,   Date: 05/15/98, Section: Information Technology,  Page: A29, Date: 12/19/97, Section: Information Technology, Page: A24,  Date: 06/05/98, Section: Information Technology, Page: A21, Title: Strife Over Job Issues Flares on Many Campuses, Published: 96/11/29) - L]

Ontological Standardization: Making Disparate Systems Uniform

The traditional practice of computer system design involves a phenomenon that might be called ontological standardization. When someone writes a computer program, his/her first challenge is to define the ontology that the program's data structures will reflect—that is, to define what sorts of things he/she believes that the world is made out of and, therefore, what sorts of data objects will be created and stored through the program's operation. In technical terms, this is a data model. In the case of higher education, one's ontology might include people, job titles, departments, courses, majors, and grades. The educational program will work correctly only if everything that the program represents can be contained within at least one of those six categories.

In the old, un-networked world, different universities developed their ontologies somewhat independently of one another. However, some trends, including the frequent movement of administrators from one university to another, enabled what Walter Powell and Paul Dimaggio (1991) call "institutional isomorphism": [please provide a definition here.] In the world of networked computing, the forces of institutional isomorphism are amplified greatly. If a student chooses to study at only one institution out of hundreds of different four-year schools, it matters little whether the internal workings of those schools can be mapped onto one another. But if, at the opposite extreme, a student chooses from among hundreds of schools for each course or even each class meeting, then the schools need to ensure that their definitions of course or class meeting, among other important terms, are the same.[What about student learning? We can agree on the meaning of course of class meeting but isn't the purpose of education to instruct our students? - DD]

Ontological standardization, then, is what happens when separate organizations in a given institutional field are required to make uniform the most fundamental categories of their internal workings. Until recently, the issue has arisen primarily in the context of mergers between corporations; if the computer systems of two merging companies cannot talk to one another—say, because their definitions of "employee" and "sales" do not match—then genuine havoc can result. Now, however, the same issue can arise in a wide variety of institutional contexts, even when separate organizations are not formally merging. 

The Implications for Higher Education

Institutions of higher education now compete on the basis of their distinctive programs: one university's economics department, for example, might be ranked above another university's economics department in a magazine survey. Each institution thus is able to establish its own distinguishing educational emphasis. Moreover, within individual institutions, program administrators can design departmental curricula according to the faculty's own distinctive approach. Because decisions about program philosophy and course content are made by the faculty (on the basis of professors' talents and the ability of the program to attract the best students), the content of and boundaries between courses are flexible; they can be changed rapidly to suit evolving circumstances.[How do students fit into your framework and ontological standardization? How much does higher education cater to the demands of the "market-place?" - DD]

Ontological standardization threatens this flexibility. Certainly, allowing students to earn academic credit at multiple campuses is a good thing.[That depends on your prespective. Many institutions fear students with credits from other campuses because these students pay less to their new institutions. Look at high school students across the country who earn college credits before matriculating at a college or university. Some institution base their decisions to accept these credits not on how well students have learned content but rather on how much money the institutions will lose if these students graduate early - DD] Administrators of the University of California recognize this fact; for decades, they have encouraged students to transfer from community colleges into the UC system,  even though the transfer students sometimes find this transition difficult. However, the ease of transferring course credit between schools—which effectively enables students to assemble their college education a la carte from among the offerings of a large number of potentially quite different programs—may come at a significant price in terms of intellectual diversity.

If the internal modularity of degree programs must be coordinated centrally, or at least negotiated among numerous independent universities, then the result will be less flexibility and greater uniformity. The power to adjust fine details of a curriculum inevitably will shift from faculty members to accrediting organizations, university administrators, and other professional coordinators. Faculty may lose the right to design their own syllabi. The diversity of thinking and teaching at universities has long been important to the health of a free society; that is why professors are awarded tenure once they have proven their abilities. Ontological standardization endangers the institutional conditions that guarantee a diversity of intellectual approaches.

As contemporary administrators decide how to use information technology in higher education, they face important choices. In the "old days,"  educational decentralization and diversity were guaranteed, or at least promoted, by the limitations of the physical world. Universities were distant from each other geographically, and it was relatively difficult to transfer people and practices between them; consequently, different universities evolved along somewhat independent paths. Now, however, that independence—that separate evolution and diversity of educational approach— exists only if administrators actively choose to foster it. 

Although many cyberspace visionaries have asserted that information technology inevitably brings decentralization and diversity to the world, the opposite might be closer to the truth.  [Agreed, but this statement would benefit from an example. - L] The practice of ontological standardization first arose in military and industrial settings in which centralized coordination did not threaten important societal values. Higher education, however, is a different story. Let us use technology when it helps us do our good work better. But let us not permit the traditional practices of technology to dictate important, value-laden changes in our institutions—such as the acceptance of flexible course articulation, which may result in a decline of intellectual diversity. The whole purpose of technology is to serve human purposes, but the burden of technology is that we must choose carefully how to apply it so that human individuality is not sacrificed.


Powell, W. W., & Dimaggio, P. J. (Eds.). (1991). The new institutionalism in organizational analysis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weiss S. (1998, May). Notes from the chair. Notices. (University of California Academic Senate. [APA guidelines: For a publication of limited circulation, given in parentheses immediately after the title a name and address from which the publication can be obtained. Please supply this information.]


Critical Reviews


An interesting paper with some very good points.  However this somehow seems incomplete.  A more in-depth discussion of some of the different issues involved would be very satisfying. For example, what becomes of a school's "core curriculum" if students are able to assemble their own curriculum from a variety of schools?  This is a problem hinted at but not addressed in the above paper.   There is also no suggestion for how the problem of decreased diversity can be prevented.  Perhaps this can be the first section of a two-part paper that will further explore the topic.


I like this submission. The issue is an important one: the trend toward allowing students to complete course requirements via online classes at multiple institutions is growing, and there's a real danger that colleges will move toward standardization for the sake of articulation, i.e., uniform curricula and strategies that will meet the expectations of most or all participating colleges. The writer warns the reader about this potential danger and about the importance of diversity in maintaining the unique strengths of classes at different colleges. I say publish it. Suggested edits: move end punctuations within closing quotes; revise references section to meet style guidelines.