Technology as Change Agent, Technology as Mirror  

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The “New York Times Magazine” for August 13, 2000 (page 36, et seq.) provided an in depth article on TiVo and Replay, two competing technologies that will be able to search the television spectrum based on a user profile, pull down and store programs, play them when the viewer wishes, and either eliminate or fast forward through the advertisements. While the implications for the broadcast and advertising industry are yet to be understood, the ramifications for education are far more interesting.

Recently, the United States Army announced that it would issue a request for proposals for the establishment of a program to offer distance education courses to its soldiers, worldwide. The details are still to be made available, but it is anticipated that the World Wide Web will be the core; open architecture, common administration and uniform formats will be part of the specifications. This 600 million dollar project will, with one step, increase the online offerings by several orders of magnitude, jump start many institutional programs, and place the U.S. programs, again, as standards for the world.

The groundwork for this type of a program has been established as more institutions place their catalogues online, seek to share courses to expand offerings to their students, and establish reciprocal credits between institutions. Today, this is being carried out, almost wholesale, at the institutional level; whereas, in the past, faculty in departments reviewed courses and credentials on an individual basis. University 21 is an excellent example where twenty-one, international universities agreed to jointly issue a degree to students who choose courses from their joint catalogue.

As platform and delivery standards are reached, and as independent third parties are willing to evaluate and certify a student for competency, technologies such as TiVO and Replay will allow an individual to search the world, find, assemble, and download a curriculum that meets current needs, take courses when convenient, become certified and get reimbursements as may be appropriate from an employer.

The technology only automates and manages what is currently happening in today’s world of bricks and mortar. For example, in large urban areas, where several universities exist, there is often reciprocity so that students can go between institutions and receive credit at a home school. In many states, universities must accept credits from the community colleges as equal with their own, even though students paid lower tuition; and, there may be other mitigating factors that are to be overlooked. TiVo and Replay are just mirrors that clearly show current trends, as minute as faculty members who share, online, their materials with colleagues.

There are a number of key elements that make an industry suitable to be moved onto the Web. The first is that the industry be highly regulated, giving complacency to the members. The second is an industry that is highly disorganized and inefficient. And the third is that it be information based. The Academy fits these criteria very well.

The US Army proposal to fund the development of a U.S. based distance learning program coupled with the rising number of intelligent search engines and technologies open The Academy, globally, to competition at all levels, content, quality of materials, and particularly price. The last, price, can be seen in the bricks and mortar world with the community colleges and some foreign universities. In the world of bits and bytes or “clicks,” the software industry in India serves as a paradigmatic example with its plethora of developed world trained professionals working at a fraction of developed world salaries.

The issue of regulation of technology and knowledge prior to the Internet is now being felt, globally, with the high mobility of knowledge, from banking to music. The issues of patents and property rights are just being sorted out with the issue of music and the development of music sharing through an engine called Napster. TiVo and Replay raise the stakes. While the corporate world has been struggling with these issues both pre and post the rise of the Internet, education, in its bricks and mortar cocoons has felt safe, protected, in the United States by both state and regional regulations.

Interestingly, such protectionism, under the guise of maintaining standards, is the same argument that has brought countries before the World Trade Organization for restraint of trade, and might, in the United States be an issue with regards to interstate commerce. As long as knowledge was considered locked in the castles of bricks and mortar and persons had to journey to the knowledge, the issue was moot. Today, with the Internet, knowledge is mobile, internationally and wants to enter into the free market of ideas and commerce. This is seen by the rush of many institutions of higher learning to form separate, for profit entities, and enter into cooperative joint development ventures with sister institutions and with the private sector on an international basis.

The question of “certification” or regulation, today has shifted from certifying the institutions and/or separate courses, to evaluation of the quality of the student, not on how well they did in the “courses” or experiences, but how well their portfolios reflect the competencies needed by an employer. Thus, one student’s portfolio might be recast in several frames depending on who wishes to understand the student’s capabilities for a particular situation.

What does an institutional certification mean today with the interchangeability of courses and programs between institutions, the ability of students to choose where they wish to matriculate for particular experiences, and the extreme mobility of knowledge in any medium from books to virtual bits between individuals and institutions. What does institutional certification mean when independent third parties are able to make available evaluations of materials, instructors and experiences with the same alacrity that sites post evaluations of auto mechanics and products?

Institutional certification agencies, in their current embodiment probably should be entered on an endangered species list. That the regional agencies in the United States recognize this is seen by the willingness for all six to collaborate to establish institutional standards for distance education. These agencies have been fiercely independent. Some institutions have chosen the region in which they would have their offices based on the predilection of a particular regional agency while others chose carefully to which agency they would apply for approval. The agencies have even softened their review procedures so that they would be able to maintain some modicum of control.

The existence of the Internet has not so much as opened the opportunities and extended it beyond the borders of meaningful controls, but rather has pointed out the fact that the walls of the institutions of bricks and mortar have been shattered and circumvented with the same swiftness as Perry entering Tokyo Harbor or the Germans rolling around the French lines in World War II. The illusion of hegemony, which was already crumbling, has been exposed by the Internet with the same innocence as the child who said, “But the king has on no clothes!”

Beyond the institution, a number of other issues are raised when we look deeply into the technology mirror. The role of faculty has been changing from the humble origins of the 1500’s. At one time the institution was the “Alma Mater,” providing the secure environment for the learning community. Slowly, the faculty have, with less than reluctance, given up many of the tasks that have been commodified by the administration. With the intelligence of the Internet and emerging technologies, these tasks are now deconstructed. They can be returned or seized by the faculty or they can be given to third parties. The faculty, like the certifying agencies, are thus opening themselves up to also enter the ranks of the endangered. Like Poe’s M Valdemer, the faculty are hoping that the Internet’s appearance is not the snap of the fingers, breaking the trance, and destroying the illusion that the institutions with their promotion and tenure will continue to provide a sinecure.

Now one must remember that we have two clashes in time. The institution of 500 evolving years meet the dot edu’s that often have the half-life of a Mayfly. One doesn’t turn an ocean liner around with the same ease as a speedboat. It’s just a question of time. Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?

Critical Reviews

Critic RRR

Critic G

I am disturbed by the lack of explicit references to articles or even web sites in this piece, this sloppiness is to some extent reflected in the thinking which veers in one direction, now another, without subjecting the assertions - and that is all they are - to some intellectual scrutiny (That at least is something which the old dinosaurs are good at, and if the future of educational qualifications is as superficial as this, then god help the world, and my teeth!)

  I assume the 'University 21' is a reference to Universitas 21, where the 21 refers to the new century, and there are at present 27 members I think (and I would have thought, too many, even if it were just 21)!  So far it is little more than a travel and dining club for 'superior' vice-chancellors it would seem, and it certainly is not offering degrees validated by Universitas 21, because it has no independent validating powers. A far better example is the Global University Alliance (GUA) where the university partners are offering their own degrees in niche areas, with support from a commercial HE provider (solving the accreditation and volume problems faced by the commercial partner).

  The reference to the US Army is interesting.  I find the idea that it will use public networks for its training and education a bit fanciful.  WWW protocols may be used, but surely it has its own very powerful networks with massive excess capacity (for emergencies like wars!), including satellites, and dishes which could deliver courses anywhere in the world - to jungles, to ships etc. The firewalls to this network will be massive, and not crossed by any old traffic.

  I also find it fanciful that search engines will be able to provide courses - find resources yes, but without a meta-tagging system for quality, which still seems far away (and on whose judgment?), of suspect quality. But it is a very naive view of online education that sees it as just resources.  Those working at the leading edge know that online support systems, assignments relevant to the student's global location, trustworthy assessment, detailed feedback on performance are far more vital than the learning resources.  Most essential is reliable networks and fast access times, which means taking the servers close to the students - and such mirrors must be supported.

  This article is the usual scare mongering unrelieved by humor, and with the usual stereotypes of universities.  It may be the case that some of the old dinosaurs will lose out, relying on a 'name' and an outdated belief in their unique power to research new knowledge, but there are enterprising universities as well.  One might believe the 'commercial sector can do it better' hype if its efforts in education were not such generally low level, pedagogically uninspired-if-glossy pap.

  The writer is apparently not aware of the 'clicks and mortar' metaphor (or to be more generous, has dismissed it as a cliché), which contrary to the notion that bricks and mortar are unnecessary, suggests that a physical presence will remain important even in the online learning world. In a completely virtual world, a real identity may be a key selling point.

  There may be one or two interesting points in this paper, but it is too superficial, unknowledgeable and without joined-up thinking to recommend publication. There may be an interesting article in the possible serious support applications of this software for education providers.

Critic EE

I found the article extremely convoluted and a pretty frustrating read.  The points the article makes have been made many, many times before and generally made more thoughtfully [if I "get" it - and it's a pretty big if - it centers on the Internet as a reflection of (and implicitly I guess a catalyst for) the liberation of education from the "tyranny" of the institution or agency].  But I found the style impenetrable.

I'd recommend not publishing it. I think the "fix" is a rewrite with a focus on clarity and a critical eye to deconstructing his/her own deconstruction.

Critic ZZ