14.0317 Phil Agre, "Imagining the Wired University"

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                   Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 14, No. 317.
           Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
             Date: Thu, 05 Oct 2000 20:51:03 +0100
             From: Ken Friedman <ken.friedman@bi.no>
             Subject: Imagining the Wired University
    Dear Colleagues,
    Passing on to you an important recent article by Phil Agre.
    Best regards,
    Ken Friedman
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        Imagining the Wired University
        Philip E. Agre
        Department of Information Studies
        University of California, Los Angeles
        Los Angeles, California  90095-1520
        This is a draft.  Please do not cite it or quote from it.
        References and footnotes to follow.
        2500 words.
    How can we reinvent the university for a world of radically improved
    information technology?  The question is hard because the design space
    is so large.  The vision of a university with no physical facilities
    or face-to-face interaction, despite the publicity it receives
    from futurists, represents only a small corner of this space.  Some
    educational activities will certainly conform to this all-virtual
    model; indeed some already do.  But the majority of wired higher
    education will lie in the broad middle of the spectrum, combining
    technological mediation and geographically localized interactions in
    various ways.  The possible combinations are numerous, and different
    models might work best for different fields.
    The question of how to design the wired university is hard for
    another reason.  The university that we know today is a highly
    evolved institution that serves many interlocking functions.
    Like any institution, the university has developed a large number
    of taken-for-granted routines that are not easily changed.  This
    body of routines is, depending on how you look at it, either a
    repository of accumulated knowledge or a mindless obstacle to change,
    either tradition and wisdom or cluelessness and resistance.  Both
    perspectives have their elements of truth, of course, and as the
    technological environment changes it becomes increasingly important
    to discover the dividing line between the elements of past practice
    that the wired university should keep and the elements that it should
    The picture is not entirely bleak.  The institutions of university
    research, after all, are governed by norms of originality that
    encourage a continual turnover in the topics and methods of research,
    and even to a degree in the institutional forms through which the
    emerging knowledge itself is practiced.  The Internet was largely
    developed in university environments, and universities drove diffusion
    of the Internet through their early commitment to e-mail access for
    students and staff.  The university has already changed considerably
    through e-mail culture and intensive use of the Web.  In these
    ways the university has proven itself resilient, and it is entirely
    plausible that if workable designs for a wired university exist then
    they can be chosen.
    The path from point A to point B can be analyzed in different
    ways.  One analysis is frankly political.  The university, like
    any institution, reflects a routinized accommodation among interests,
    and the institution will be reinvented through a fresh engagement of
    the many social groups that have a stake in it.  The tools of this
    political analysis are familiar; they begin by assessing the degree
    to which each stakeholder group is organized, the coherence with which
    it articulates an agenda, and the adroitness with which it enters into
    coalitions with other groups as the technological and institutional
    redesign process unfolds.  These political contests will occur in
    diverse venues, and most of them have hardly begun.
    Although this kind of political analysis is surely needed, in this
    context I want to pursue a different line of analysis, one that is
    normative and imaginative.  How *should* the university be redesigned?
    The answer is not to throw out the institution and start over.  The
    university embodies so much enduringly useful knowledge that it would
    be hard to replace.  To be sure, many of the entrepreneurs who are
    designing competitors to the university from scratch will find niches
    for themselves, but they will not reproduce the useful complexity of
    the university except through alliances with the university.
    Instead, the university community might pursue a strategy of rational
    reconstruction.  Research has made clear that the adoption of advanced
    information technology requires a re-institutionalization of the
    university.  The question is what institutional structure to choose.
    The institutional structures that come programmed into a software
    package such as SAP can only go so far, and they may even be
    ill-adapted to the university's needs.  So it is crucial to take a
    stand about the specific nature of the university.  Begin, therefore,
    with a structural analysis of the university: a nontrivial story about
    the dynamic equilibria through which the university reproduces itself
    and serves positive social purposes in the present day.  Then ask
    how those structures could be re-implemented using radically improved
    information technology.  Because these structures are already in
    effect, the design process becomes a sort of institutional judo, using
    technology to turn existing forces into means of change rather than
    ignoring or fighting them.
    To illustrate how rational reconstruction might proceed, let us
    consider ten structural features of the university, together with
    some of the considerations that arise as one attempts to preserve or
    amplify them using new technology.
    (1) Economies of scale.  Universities are currently shaped by the
    dividing-line between the aspects of teaching that enjoy economies
    of scale, such as textbooks in introductory courses, and the aspects
    that do not, such as the supervision of individual student projects.
    That dividing line will shift for two reasons, one more obvious than
    the other.  The obvious reason is multimedia courseware that extends
    the functionality of a textbook while incurring much greater production
    costs.  The obscure reason is the ongoing worldwide destruction of
    diseconomies of scale, for example through the emergence of English
    as a global language, the standardization of digital computer networks,
    the globalization of more forms of knowledge, and the rising numbers
    and prosperity of potential students.  In some subject-areas the
    shift to increased economies of scale will be dramatic, and will bring
    the danger of market concentration and reduced intellectual diversity.
    But the greatest institutional challenge will be the increased variety
    in the degree of economies of scale that different fields exhibit.
    (2) Modularity.  Courses in some areas will be relatively natural
    to teach online, and in those areas pressure will grow to allow
    students to mix and match courses from different schools.  This
    is a radicalization of the trend that is called articulation in
    the US and modularity in the UK.  Radical modularity has powerful
    consequences for the architecture of technologies, institutional
    forms, and curricula into which the courses fit.  Frameworks must
    be standardized, as must the contents of courses.  Professors will
    effectively lose the autonomy to write their own syllabi, and again
    intellectual diversity will suffer.  These deleterious impacts,
    therefore, must be traded off against the benefits of competition
    and geographic flexibility that radical modularity promises.  In
    particular, these impacts lessen the argument in favor of pushing
    courses toward an all-virtual format, and motivate the search for
    appropriate hybrid forms.
    (3) Regional networks.  The university is, among other things, a
    factory for creating social networks.  For most universities, these
    networks are primarily regional in nature.  Social networks are a
    crucial component of a region's economic and political health.  They
    also contribute to the health of the university, which in many cases
    could not function without alumni connections and contributions.
    Suitably designed and administered, computer networks should make
    it easier for universities to maintain the networks they have built,
    and they should also increase the institutional incentive to invest
    in building such networks.  Universities may therefore be motivated
    to treat their students more humanely and integrate them more
    systematically into existing networks.  The robust networks that
    result could provide the foundation for the intellectual life of a
    region, not to mention the basis for a market in continuing education.
    (4) Coupling to workplaces.  Too often, schools teach students how
    to be in school.  Learning is most effective in the real world if the
    situations of learning are analogous to the situations in which the
    learning will be used.  This analogy can be achieved in many ways,
    each of which can benefit from technology.  Students can do more of
    their learning in actual workplaces, for example, if they have more
    robust ongoing communications with their instructors and with other
    students in similar situations.  Computers can be used to simulate
    workplaces, or to capture the full details of real-world case studies.
    At the same time, the university should also be a place apart from the
    real world -- a place to practice the kinds of analytical thinking and
    innovative intellectual connections that real-world workplaces, with
    their established routines and pressure of deadlines, do not afford.
    The wired university can more effectively maintain this duality of
    engagement and detachment.
    (5) Matrix structure.  Most universities teach many topics.
    The university world thus has a matrix structure, with university
    organizations on one axis and disciplines on the other.  The wired
    university should resist the temptation to overcome geographical
    and organizational boundaries by collapsing this matrix into
    discipline-specific units.  The matrix structure plays an important
    role in creating spaces for innovation.  Disciplines are always
    threatened by the hegemony of particular dominant approaches, but
    minority approaches can colonize a few universities until they grow
    stronger or are shunned by a new generation of students.  The matrix
    structure will be threatened with collapse, however, if new technology
    enables faculty to strengthen their disciplinary bonds at the expense
    of their ties to particular universities.  Processes and incentives
    should be structured to maintain a balance between the two allegiances.
    (6) Informational substrate.  Information technology increases the
    design space for individual courses, and so the university must
    learn how to support a greater diversity of course designs.  Faculty
    must be able to negotiate their needs with a range of campus support
    organizations, including the ones now known as the library, audio-
    visual services, computing services, telecom services, the career
    center, room scheduling, and many others.  The UK is a leader in
    exploring ways to integrate these services -- an idea that may seem
    futile in practice simply for being ahead of its time.  What is needed
    is a relatively stable repertoire of course designs with which the
    institutional culture has grown culture.  At the moment, one is more
    likely to encounter individual heroic faculty who suffer intolerable
    overhead to pioneer new course forms that may or may not be capable
    of routinization.  One common problem, for example, is that the
    instructor has no way of specifying, and the university has no way of
    guaranteeing, that all students entering a given course will have the
    particular set of technical and professional skills that the course
    design requires.
    (7) Conceptual frameworks.  Computers are capable of representing
    information in highly structured ways, and much could be accomplished
    by explicitly representing the conceptual frameworks that underlie
    specific fields of study.  Much learning consists of practicing the
    application of such frameworks, for example in the analysis of legal
    cases or business plans, and even a very simple conceptual framework
    can be heuristically powerful when it is applied to so many disparate
    cases that unexpected analogies emerge.  If the students in a field
    routinely prepared structured documents that reflect that field's
    distinctive conceptual framework, then digital libraries could emerge
    to support the community life of the field.  Automatic processing
    could identify similar case studies and initiate communication between
    their authors, and case studies could be made available in an orderly
    way for peer review by working professionals.
    (8) Generalizing peer review.  As knowledge and learning become
    increasingly central to the economy, more occupations begin to
    resemble professions.  A profession is not just a monopoly on the
    exercise of knowledge but an institution for promoting the creation
    and diffusion of new knowledge.  Innovators can be recognized by
    publishing their work in professional fora, and individuals can build
    careers by serving as thought leaders and articulating or codifying
    new areas of professional knowledge.  With ubiquitous computer
    networks these social mechanisms can be generalized.  All of the
    people in the world who operate a certain type of machinery, for
    example, can form themselves into a profession with its own autonomous
    institutions of publication and professional advancement.  The
    peer-review publishing model could be introduced into schools, and
    there is no reason why ten-year-olds cannot publish their schoolwork
    in simplified online journals.  Certainly the journal model would be
    an improvement over the college term paper that only the professor
    ever reads.  Teachers at every level are too overwhelmed to provide
    students with enough feedback, and a suitably institutionalized
    peer-review system could supplement teachers' comments.
    (9) Commodity and community.  Visions of the wired university tend
    to polarize between two models: a radically commoditized model of the
    university as a purveyor of human capital in a market for modularized
    learning services, and a radically communitarian model of the
    university as a global community of practice into which students
    can be socialized.  These radical extremes are bracing in their
    simplicity, but they are misguided as well.  The university has always
    managed the tension between the commodity and community models, and
    there are good reasons why the wired university of the future should
    continue to find this balance.  This will be hard: the previous
    scenarios should make clear that information technology lends itself
    to the amplification of both the commodity and community models
    simultaneously, and the complementarity between the two models will
    certainly change.  Each model is propelled by powerful social forces,
    and each must be kept from undermining the conditions of the other.
    (10) An institutional framework for diversity.  Commentators often
    remark that the university is more segmentary and decentralized than
    nearly any other organizational form.  But the obvious conclusion
    that the university is therefore outdated is altogether misleading.
    The university, in contrast to any kind of private firm, must
    embrace subject matters that are extremely diverse in their behavior.
    Medicine, mathematics, music, management, mechanical engineering, and
    medieval history simply have very different properties.  They call for
    different teaching styles, social networks, methods of codification,
    means of evaluation, relations to tradition, and everything else.
    The university exists to provide these fields with the unique
    environments they need while also facilitating unexpected interactions
    and hybrids among them.  In this way the university might be compared
    to the market: each is an exceedingly generic framework of rules and
    norms that facilitates dynamic, diverse, self-organizing systems of
    production.  Of course, universities and markets differ in important
    ways.  Markets produce private goods, whereas universities produce
    a complicated combination of public goods, intellectual property,
    and services.  The point is that the wired university must continue
    to provide a robust and flexible framework, both technical and
    institutional, without accidentally or deliberately imposing one model
    of intellectual production over every field.  This is the opposite
    of the main tradition of computer system design, which emphasizes
    mapping, imposing, and controlling definite patterns of information
    Those, then, are ten structural features of the university, and a
    few of the issues that arise as we imagine transposing them into the
    new world of information technology.  These numerous cross-cutting
    opportunities and dilemmas cannot be avoided, for the simple reason
    that the technology will continue to improve by a factor of 100
    every ten years.  The technology will certainly be adopted by many
    players within the university, its environment, and its competitors.
    The question is not whether the university will change, because the
    stresses created by these new uses of the technology will transform
    the institution whether anybody makes any conscious decisions about
    it or not.  The question, rather, concerns rationality.  Will the
    university community build a rational consensus about the best
    methods for reinventing itself in a digital world?  That is a test
    of institutional resilience far beyond what we have seen so far.
    Philip E. Agre, The distances of education, Academe 85(5), 1999a,
    pages 37-41.
    Philip E. Agre, Information technology in higher education: The
    "global academic village" and intellectual standardization, On the
    Horizon 7(5), 1999b.
    Philip E. Agre, Infrastructure and institutional change in the
    networked university, Information, Communication, and Society, in
    press a.
    Philip E. Agre, Commodity and community: Institutional design for the
    networked university, Planning for Higher Education, in press b.
    Daniel Alpert, Performance and paralysis: The organizational context
    of the American research university, Journal of Higher Education
    56(3), 1985, pages 241-281.
    David Billing, Review of modular implementation in a university,
    Higher Education Quarterly 50(1), 1996, pages 1-21.
    James Cornford, The virtual university is (paradoxically) the
    university made concrete, Information, Communication, and Society,
    in press.
    David D. Dill, Academic planning and organizational design: Lessons
    from leading American universities, Higher Education Quarterly 50(1),
    1996, pages 35-53.
    William Dutton, Society on the Line: Information Politics in the
    Digital Age, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
    Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral
    Participation, Cambridge University Press, 1991.
    Richard R. Nelson and Sidney G. Winter, An Evolutionary Theory of
    Economic Change, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
    Robert D. Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern
    Italy, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.
    Benson R. Snyder, The Hidden Curriculum, New York: Knopf, 1971.

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