The Internet and the University

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 1 December 2002



Abeles, T.P. (2002), "The Internet and the University", On the Horizon, Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 33-34.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2002, MCB UP Limited

Fortunately, the marketplace does not wait for academia to catch up (James Brian Quinn).

I usually eschew monographs, volumes with “n” papers sandwiched together between an introductory preface and a closing summary. This document, though, offers the reader a broad mix that creates an interesting glimpse into what may be the future of the higher education institution (HEI). This collection is the result of an annual retreat sponsored by Educause and the Forum for the Future with the focus around this volume’s title.

The introductory quote, above, comes from the penultimate article by Dartmouth College’s James Brian Quinn, who points out the fact that only about 2 percent of spending for R&D is within the academic community. While not denying the importance of this research to the community and to the training of future researchers, it does point out that the impact, once touted for supporting large, state‐supported research institutions as engines of development may be misguided and that we need to carefully understand what is happening in the world of education and research in the disaggregated environment created by the World Wide Web. Quinn identifies five steps that drive a service industry like education when confronted with technological change: New Economies of Scale, New Economies of Scope, Increased Complexity with concomitant lowering of costs, New Service Concepts which are significantly different, and Disintermediation and Redecentralization. Quinn’s concern seems to be with the apparent failure of the “university” to adapt to these emerging disruptive technologies.

Interestingly, the ultimate article is by James Duderstadt, the President Emeritus of the University of Michigan. He points out that “ the long‐standing tradition of shared governance, in which power is shared more or less equally among all potential decision makers, is cumbersome and awkward at best, and ineffective and indecisive at worst.” Duderstadt senses what critics such as David Noble have feared, that the changing nature of a technology‐driven education system will basically change the scholarly role of the academic. If Quinn is right, then the publish/perish role of the academic may be less important than the role of the educator and the preserver of long half‐life knowledge. And, given Duderstadt’s insights, the academic will become more of an employee, following the trend seen in the increasing ratio of adjunct to tenure track faculty.

As Duderstadt says, “These social, economic, technological and market forces are far more powerful than many people within the higher education establishment realize … (They) are driving change at an unprecedented pace, perhaps even beyond the capacity of our colleges and universities to adapt.” Keith Devlin has discussed in On the Horizon (Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 15‐17) Stanford’s Media‐X project, which builds cross‐disciplinary teams in the institution along with partners from the corporate world, much as the current business model of teams is developing in the private sector. And Michael Macedonia and Paul Rosenbloom in this volume share the military’s joint effort with the University of Southern California to adapt entertainment technology for both training and education.

The Macedonia/Rosenbloom piece complements the ideas presented by Marc Prensky in his articles and columns in On the Horizon (Vol. 9 No. 56, Vol. 10 No. 1 et seq.) Prensky suggests that the coming generation, digital natives, will be more attuned to Web‐based learning and knowledge presented through sophisticated tools that may change the role of the academic, not from a sage on the stage to the guide on the side, but rather reposition the function entirely in both the creation and delivery of learning.

David Collis’ article on “New business models for higher education” is especially sobering, particularly with the rise of the “for‐profits”. While most HEIs might see these institutions in a separate market, Collis points out that, like United Parcel Service skimming the high profit markets from the US Postal Service, these institutions are attacking markets with a high concentration of students able to pay market prices. Once this market has been essentially captured, these institutions will be prepared to go after students in a more diffuse marketplace. Their advantage will be a profitable business with a positive cash flow along with leading edge technology and cutting edge courses demanded by the corporate market.

Like Duderstadt and Quinn, Collis is not sanguine that the traditional institutions will be able to prepare adequately to respond to such competition. As Dator suggests in his article in On the Horizon (Vol. 10 No. 4, pp. 19‐24), HEIs may divide into three categories in the foreseeable future, the macversities, with packaged programs from the Bachelor’s to the PhD, the mega research institutions on single or, more probably, several campuses, and the élite institutions for those who desire and can afford a classic, on‐campus experience. While these reflections are focused on the US HEIs, as the dominant education system, it represents an international model, particularly in a world that is linked by the Internet.

Thomas Hughes’ “Through a glass darkly” paints a similar picture, questioning whether, like the telegraph industry or the carriage manufacturers, the universities can maintain a place at the table. In the case of most industries, the evolution of technology caused major changes within the lifetime of many who are still living. The Ivory Tower has stood resilient, with minor cosmetic changes for the life of the giant Redwood trees. All the authors directly and indirectly believe that the fiber Noosphere and Moore’s chips have been the irresistible, transformational force of immutable change.

As pointed out, the entire set of essays, individually, are downloadable in a pdf file format. The chapters are trenchant, well written and worth serious consideration. One point to be noted here is that most of the articles talk about the University as an institution, as we talk about a business as an entity with its own life. The faculty, the “academy”, is not the central focus, or seen as the institution housed in a physical or fiscal structure. The institution has transcended the original purpose of The Academy, a place where scholars gather to learn and share knowledge. In this respect, the change is already profound. Should an institution cease, it is the entity that is a felt loss. Like cells in a body that turn over many times in the life of the individual, the students and faculty are temporary inhabitants. In passing I have likened one major academic institution as having grown like “Topsy” but being held together by a rodent (the institution’s mascot). From the standpoint of this volume, the Internet is both a moving force and a lens through which change is made visible.

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