Teaching, Learning, and Research

The agile and creative institution that lacks the distinctive market niche to serve a full complement of traditional residential students will respond to this new environment by developing new service roles. Its faculty will become expert as booking agents, navigators, and tutors.

As ""booking agents," they will use their special knowledge to evaluate the array of educational programs offered by various vendors and help their institution enter into agreements to function as host (or receive) sites for the best of them. They will continue to make critical judgments, as they do now, about the content areas in which they specialize, and seek out the best electronic materials for the people served by their institutions. In addition, they will use their knowledge and professional networks to arrange visits by stimulating and provocative guest lecturers, outstanding artists and performers, and others who can enrich the quality of life in the communities surrounding them.

As "navigators," they will help students find their way through the potentially bewildering array of course and program options available to them. The World-Wide Web offers huge volumes of information that have not been scoured by professional librarians or any other authorities. In some respects this is enormously liberating; in others, it is potentially confusing and misleading. The faculty-as-navigator will help students learn how to find their way through masses of undifferentiated information. This ability, which British Prime Minister Harold McMillan once described as "knowing when another chap is talking rot," is central to liberal education. If anything, it will be even more important in the future.

The "information age" is apt to be a great disappointment if we do not create ways to give meaning to the information at our disposal -- that is, if we cannot transform information into knowledge. Perhaps, then, we should add a sub-role: faculty-as-alchemist.

What we are affirming here, in a vastly different environment, is the classic role of the tutor in English universities, a teacher-scholar who is in frequent contact with students in small groups. This kind of contact is becoming increasingly difficult today as enrollment growth and limited resources cause many faculty to work with larger numbers of students. Electronically delivered instruction can result in faculty having more time for students than they have now. As a Virginia Tech report noted in 1988, the advanced technology, if used correctly, will "free faculty for students, not from them" ("The Impact of Digital Technology Upon the Classroom Environment," Virginia Tech, 1988).

As "tutors," the faculty of the flexible and imaginative institution will offer students opportunities to augment instruction delivered electronically with personal, usually small-group, learning experiences. Tutorials will offer extra help with difficult topics, help students tailor their learning to the local conditions of their lives and work, or offer opportunities to learn in ways that may not be available electronically.

In The Paideia Proposal, Mortimer Adler points out that bad teaching (and poor learning) often is the result of a mis-match between what teachers are trying to teach and how they are trying to teach it (NY: McMillan, 1980). For instance, "information transfer" is simply a process of one person conveying information to others. Put most simply, the teaching method is "I talk, you listen." But, Adler suggests, we can't teach ethics that way, or the close reading of literature. We can't explore questions for which there are many possible answers ("What is beauty?" "When should we withdraw life support?"). We also can't teach laboratory procedures, diagnostic techniques and surgery, or dance. To teach these, we need three other methods: dialogue, coaching, and apprenticeship.

Instructional technology is improving so rapidly that it is possible to use all of Adler's teaching methods electronically. Indeed, in less than a generation it will be unusual for any course not to include some material that is accessed using electronic networks. Personal contact almost certainly will be possible through the mediation of electronic technology, just as it is possible today through the medium of print. The question is to what degree physical proximity -- the caring presence of one with whom I break bread or sip coffee while working through some scholarly problem -- will be necessary to that contact.

Personal exchange is a sine qua non of learning. . . friction between two minds lights the fuel that fires all education. What I think we do not yet know is what ineffable educational benefits are lost when people are not in each other's physical presence. After all, we do not assume such a loss when we are using familiar technologies such as books (Margaret A. Miller, "Technoliteracy and the New Professor," New Literary History, 1995, 26: 601-611).

It is possible, Miller notes, to be strongly influenced by the work of John Henry Newman, "who has long been unavailable for conversation."

Nevertheless, I suspect that we shall forget at our peril the importance of some direct, face-to-face human interaction in all aspects of our lives, including education. The agile institution whose faculty members are navigators and tutors will continue to make a critical contribution to advanced education to the extent that it can be the place in which the abstract can be grounded in place and practice. I can imagine the possibility of quality discourse occurring over great distances; electronic technology merely makes immediate and interactive what the book long has provided. But I cannot imagine learning experiences that do not, in ways perhaps new to us, respect our flesh-and-blood existence and the fact that we act in the world in space and time.

Research in this new world of higher education will be carried out where it usually is carried out now: in major research institutions that will look much like they do today, except that they will be even more broadly networked to enable collaboration and resource-sharing. Most faculty at other institutions -- the community colleges, the flexible and imaginative regional ones, and smaller niche-market colleges -- will be responsible more explicitly for what they do now: stay current in modern scholarship so as to be able to teach the best that has been thought and said in their subject fields. Some will originate instruction for broad general transmission.

We shall need new ways to fund institutions. Many of them will be brokers for various instructional programs delivered electronically but may not confer many of the degrees their students earn. They will augment instruction offered nationally but will not generate most of the credit hours earned by their students. Indeed, in many ways the students will not be "their" students at all.

In addition, some positions now filled by faculty will be converted to different use and at different costs. There will be a need for more professional staff who are technical experts in creating, presenting, and disseminating and receiving electronically delivered instruction. These information technology specialists will provide essential support to faculty and students and they will, therefore, be central members of the staff. But exactly how they will be formally associated with the institutions, as permanent staff or as independent contractors, for example, is not clear.

It is not too soon to begin designing new funding mechanisms and personnel systems that acknowledge some of the changes that are already happening, and the Council of Higher Education should begin working with the institutions to do so.

Finally, there is the question of values: what they are, and how they will be maintained. The system I have described will be highly utilitarian, at best. It will offer consumers what they will buy at prices they will pay. As I said earlier, general education and what we think of as the traditional liberal arts and sciences are apt to be among the first casualties. Can we maintain a set of "core values" that higher education should convey and, if so, how?

We ought not become romantic or nostalgic here. Long before there were electronic networks, higher education in America was strongly utilitarian. When its utility has been questioned, enrollments have dropped, as they did during the middle of the 19th century. Today, many, perhaps most, among the millions who participate in higher education today do not do so for love of truth and beauty. They want jobs and a secure place on the socio-economic ladder.

While there are many different opinions about what "core values" American higher education should convey, many people probably would agree that we want students to learn about their own culture and history, as well as to be introduced to the cultures and histories of others. We want them to be good writers, speakers, and readers of their own language, as well as having at least minimal competence in another language. We want them to be familiar with the concepts and tools of modern science and mathematics. Finally, and I think most important, we want them to grapple with important ethical problems, chief among which is defining what a "good life" is and how it should be lived.

Students who participate in the traditional collegiate experience will be exposed to some variation on these core values, while those who pursue advanced education electronically very well might not. This difference could lead to the development of two kinds of higher education, and the United States might back itself into a model that is more like those in numerous economically advanced nations that have "university" and "technical institute"" education. But again, it is important to avoid romanticizing the current array of higher education experiences. Many of our nation's colleges and universities merely salute the general education that is supposed to convey core values; and many if not most of the 14 million students could care less about them. Students learn from how their college or university behaves, as well as from their professors, and some are learning that a liberal education that helps to develop core values really is not very important. Vocationalism is not new to American higher education; it merely may become more pervasive.

For many students, college has become a variety of trade school that they attend to acquire specific technical skills and abilities. These may be adults whose liberal education prepared them to do nothing in particular. They may be immigrants or children from families of the poor seeking to grasp the first rung on the ladder of opportunity, students whose interest in truth and beauty might have to wait upon economic security. They might be students whose immaturity blocks everything but narrow and material self-interest until a broader self-interest requires them to have not only a technical skill but some measure of wisdom as well. The success of public television shows like NOVA and Ken Burns's series on the Civil War evidences the public's hunger for knowledge that goes beyond what they need to earn their daily bread.

Electronic delivery techniques can be used to offer general education of exceptionally high quality, especially if combined with mentoring and tutoring by faculty at local institutions. Faculty at Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia have developed several outstanding courses in engineering and the arts and sciences, and their colleagues elsewhere have done the same. The IBM Corporation has produced a teaching module on Tennyson's "Ulysses" that is both intellectually and emotionally engaging. Partnerships between content specialists and information technology specialists can develop a great variety of general education courses that students will want. Indeed, the capacity to tailor-make electronic courses may offer students opportunities to become engaged in serious consideration of fundamental issues and their own values in ways that are immediately significant to their work, families, and communities.

Higher education should find ways to meet the needs of all students for the individual and civic development that we call "general education." It is already abundantly clear that this is a need that many students in higher education and many potential employers do not recognize, and this may become an even greater problem in the consumer-driven future. The colleges and universities should use their extensive resources and the vast capacities of the new technologies to offer even richer and more pertinent general education experiences.

We need to convince state governments that general education is important enought to invest in, and we need to show the electronic providers that it is potentially profitabel for them to do the same.


Twenty Years of Higher Education in Virginia