Technology Companies and the Academy: Why Are We So Evil?

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The question is this: Why are technology companies so evil in the eyes of the Academy?

Basically, faculty fear the loss of their jobs. Basically, faculty fear the loss of their intellectual freedom. And, basically, faculty profoundly distrust the results of research on technology in the classroom that they see as mostly industry-driven.

For a great number of faculty, the rise of technology means the demise of teachers. Noble (1998), cofounder of the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, has said this of technology and the academic institute: "As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, de-skill and displace labor" (p. 19). What are the roots for such a conclusion?

Faculty are watching these two things happen in the academic world--first, a move by administration toward greater accountability from their faculty, which for faculty represents the standardization and quantification of education and, second, public attacks against the whole institution of tenure, which for faculty represents the academic freedom to pursue research and social commentary no matter where either might lead.

They view these trends as direct consequences of an emerging partnership between the academic institution and the corporation, which they see as anti-tenure, devotee of the bottom line, and creator of a technology that allows courses, which were once individualized, original creations resting in the soul of each professor, to easily become standardized shells, passed along the Internet highway from university to university.

David (1994), in an article published from the U.S. Department of Education, suggests that: "The acquisition of technology has been viewed as an end to itself, and the more ‘teacher-proof’ the better" (p. 2). As administrators look to high tech companies and their offers of equipment and training as a way out of financial burdens, they also look at the attractive prospect of further reducing the budget by reducing full-time, tenured professorships because of complete "classrooms on a disk" educational programs. Feasibly, as they see it, one day, students will be able to take an instructor-less course with just a push of a button. As faculty see it, so much the better for the administrator--gone are not only the fees for the professional development of faculty, but the very faculty itself.

That technology subverts education into training is another concern for faculty. The jargon of the high tech computer industry has filtered into all areas of our lives, education not excluded. Talbott (1999) states: "We have slowly been re-conceiving education as the transfer of information from one database or brain to another. . . What we haven't realized is that this fact-shoveling model of education renders both teachers and schools superfluous" (p. 26-33).

Faculty envision the academic institution as the future breeding ground for corporations eager for high skilled workers and ready to pay for their training at the University level. Companies now supply not only the equipment and the training as incentives, but sometimes the curricula as well. As a consequence, profs see education becoming the business of transmitting efficient "bytes" of information, not of exploring complex issues that require critical thinking and synthesis. Technology is more concerned, they feel, with appearance, formatting, and consumer appeal than expanding ways to explore subject matter more deeply.

To make matters worse, recent technology has been embraced by those advocates of learner-centered teaching, rather than teacher-centered, and the ramifications of this paradigm shift have not been fully explored by either the industry or the Academy. All the faculty know is that once more they are being pushed out the classroom door.

Rickard (1999) suggests that "the benefits of IT-infused education . . .typicallydo not relate to educational quality in its purest sense (improved learning or increased academic productivity)" (p. 42-45). Faculty see the corporate world involved in the efficient transmission of information of fact or routine--all in order to achieve that bottom line. This is training, while education is messier, more complex, less quantifiable. It is about a process of learning, of self-discovery, of intuition and ethic. Already there are anecdotal studies out there that claim that computers cause a drop in creativity and innovation, of cognitive skills and higher skilled thinking functions, that it actually creates isolation, not collaboration and community, all of which add fuel to the fires of professorial fear.

A third concern for the professor is the quality of research done in the area of technology and education. When they hear that technology improves education, they ask, where's the proof?

Miller has said that: "The research is set up in a way to find benefits that aren't really there. Most knowledgeable people agree that most of the research isn't valid. It's so flawed it shouldn't even be called research. Essentially, it's just worthless"(qtd. in Oppenheimer 1-32). This from a former editor of the Harvard Review.

But why is the research out there so "damned?" One underlying simple reason is this: technology in the classroom, and as the classroom, is a rapid-rise phenomenon. Back in the '80s the Xerox copier in the back room of the English department was the only reason for celebratory awe. All such short-term research is suspect, whether it's quantitative, qualitative or anecdotal. And there is fear that the biggest effect technology has in the classroom--fundamental shifts in teaching method-- has never been isolated and eliminated as the cause for improvements in learning when technology is used. And of course there is always the big "damnation"—so many of these studies have been industry-funded, partly because those very senior, tradition-bound faculty members don't consider faculty research into the use of technology tenure, acceptable.

It has been said that "Educational technology is still in its infancy" (Berg, 1998) and perhaps this is the starting place for partnerships between corporations and academic institutions. In even the most hard-core anti-corporation, anti-technology tirades, the opposition will often concede, perhaps half-heartedly, that the real problem with technology in education lies in the lack of faculty skill to effectively incorporate it into their curriculum. David (1994) puts it this way: "The primary reason technology has failed to live up to its promise lies in the fact that it has been viewed as an answer to the wrong question . . .as has been typical with innovations of the past, scant attention has been paid to preparing teachers and administrators to use technology well. . . "(p. 2).

By focusing on the teachers, and on that key word, the "use" of education technology, the tech company could begin to instigate a three-fold solution to that problematic academic perception of the corporate devil scaling the ivory walls. First and foremost, the teacher's rightful and necessary position within the classroom, as both conduit and source in the process of learning, would be validated. Second, a group of people who chose a profession out of passion, not out of love for money, and who achingly desire not only to touch the minds of their students, but to enflame their hearts, would be both illuminated and reassured if, unlike the acolyte, the technology company is willing to venture beyond script into the broad spectrum of issues that surround new technologies and their future in education.

Third, academic fires could be ignited that would lead to institutionally-supported research, the validation of which will mean for the tech company validation, and for the professor, who is anxious to pioneer, academy-sanctioned professional development that rightfully contributes to the granting of tenure.

Recently, my kids and I were at an ice cream store and parked on the curb outside was an enormous telescope pointed at the sky. A small man sat at a card table in front of a laptop that he had connected to the telescope. And there on that computer screen was the moon in all its craterous beauty.

"Have you ever seen the moon like this?" the man asked my kids, and with that he began to teach them about the moon. As I watched, I was struck by two things: first, by how absolutely exciting all this new technology could be. Now anyone could set up a laptop anywhere and use it to make the world see even the whole universe in an entirely new and wonderful way. But, second, and most importantly, I was struck by the man himself who had harnessed the wonders of technology in such a way that his passions for teaching and astronomy shone through. The computer, the telescope, and what they could do, would have meant nothing if not for this man, this teacher, who knew how to engage my children, who knew how to use the technologies of education so that he could make my children understand the formation of a crater through the computer simulation of a single raindrop striking the surface of water.

"Do you know what gravity is?" he asked my children, and with that, he showed them a video clip of astronauts bouncing on the moon, the earth behind like a new one. He was marvelous. He was awe-inspiring. He reaffirmed for me what many have thought for years: give the right teacher the right kind of technology and he will shoot for the moon.

As for the Tech company and the Academy? As Humphrey Bogart put it in Casablanca: "Louis, this could be the start of a beautiful friendship."



Berg, G. (1998, June). Public policy on distance learning in higher education: California state and western governors association initiatives. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 6(11). [On-line]. Available: [1999, Jan. 13].

David, J. (1994, September) Realizing the promise of technology: The need for systemic education reform. <> [1999, Jan. 13].

Noble, D. (1998) Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. FirstMonday, 3(1). [On-line]. Available: [1999, Jan. 13].

Oppenheimer, T. (1997). The computer delusion. The Atlantic Monthly, 280(1). [On-line]. Available: [1999, Jan. 13].

Rickard, W. (1999). Technology, education, and the changing nature of resistance: Observations from the educom medal award winners. Educom Review, 34(1). [On-line]. Available: [1999, Jan. 13].

Talbott , S. (1999). Who’s killing higher education? Educom Review, 34(2). [On-line]. Available: [1999, Jan. 13].


Critical Reviews

Critic W

I recommend that this article not be published. The author devotes the first 13 paragraphs to what s/he perceives to be the  problem and then only three to possible solutions to the problem. It's a  nice, catchy title, but the article would be much stronger if its main  thrust focused on how technology companies partner with faculty and  institutions to improve learning, and thus counter the concerns of  faculty expressed in the article. IBM's collaboration with UNC and the  late IAT serves as a good example. There are many others. A really good  opportunity was missed here.

The characterization of faculty attitudes in the opening section is  so skewed that it probably renders the article unsalvageable without a  major overhaul. This is a gross generalization of how some, hardly all,  faculty feel -- lots of speculation without citations except for the  quotes. Methinks the author has been reading too much anti-technology  propaganda from faculty unions. The author might get away with stating  that some faculty feel this way, but the implication is that all faculty   feel this way.

Citation of the Noble article sent up a big red flare for me. That is  one of the most slanted articles I've ever read. I use it in my own  teaching as an example of the need for critical thinking when reviewing  material found on web sites. I first encountered it at, which was the site for the Telecommunications Workers Union in Canada (the link still works). Noble's view is extreme, and the author should not imply that Noble speaks for "a great number of  faculty".

The vignette at the end with the guy and the telescope is good but  seems out of context. It is a nice anecdote supporting the use of  technology, but the issue here is technology corporations and their  relationship to the Academy. Somehow the author needs to make that  connection for the vignette to be relevant to the rest of the article.

Critic E

I have read the below article three times and pondered  its content in the air, on land, in bed, and in the shower. I recommend  it be published as is in the Commentary section. It is sure to raise  some blood pressures but more importantly some dialogue. I must say, it  was a well-balanced article as it irritated nerves as a former faculty  member, administrator, and currently as a corporate white shirt.  

Critic AA

I'm a bit confused about the overall premise of the  article. Judging by the title and the final paragraph, my impression is  that the author is of the opinion that there is a possibility of  peaceful coexistence. Some of the comments in the body of the article,  however, seem to put forth a case more in agreement with authors like Noble. If the author's intention is to allay fears, and persuade  academic skeptics, then I'm not sure the article accomplishes its  goal.

This is a debate that deserves attention and discussion, but I think  viewpoints need to be clearly stated and justified. Perhaps this article  could be rewritten, and appear in a point-counterpoint pairing with an  opposing view.