Editor’s Note: If a bell-shaped curve describes the spectrum from innovative to conservative, this paper attempts to find common ground and resolve differences between these extremes in institutions of higher learning. Do these vocal minorities facilitate or retard development and moderate each other? What advantages and challenges does each offer for teachers, learners and the community?
Enthusiasts focus on access to education for unserved or underserved learners and logistical advantages to integrate learning into work and family schedules. Critics emphasize lack of face-to-face contact and personal dialog that complement lectures and laboratory experiences. There is a growing tension between preserving academia as we knew it and/or adapting it to be accessible, efficient and relevant in the future. Small and vocal minorities are steering education and distance learning in different directions at the same time. They provide checks and balances for each other and pose questions for scholars to resolve through research and dialog.
In searching for common ground and solutions, Katrina Meyer found a trichotomy and issues that will be argued in the halls of ivy for years to come. And while the dialog continues in traditional institutions, other organizations continue to develop and propagate distance learning programs for regional and global education and training.
Moving From Theory to Assertion to Evaluation
Katrina A. Meyer
Current discourse about technology or the Internet in higher education is influenced by two extreme views. In the positive view, technology is transforming higher education into a better organization and in the negative view, it is destroying higher education. There seems to be little middle ground between these diametrically opposed positions. This paper explores the ramifications of these opposing positions and develops a transactional view that focuses on a mutual relationship that recognizes that technology and higher education affect each other and that this relationship is changing, on-going, and revising the relationship even as it is formed and reformed. This view would argue for more careful analyses of how the Internet is changing (or combining with other forces to change) higher education as well as how it is not. It is a more balanced view of the interaction of technology and higher education, and more fruitful for developing thoughtful identification of problems and solutions.
The past several years have seen numerous articles that claim that technology (often poorly defined) is “doing” several things to higher education. Examples of such claims are Barone et al. (2001), where technology will “transform” higher education, or Noble (1998), where technology is “destroying” higher education. It is as if these views are diametrically opposed and with little room to negotiate an amenable resolution of the conflict. These statements tend to be laden with strong emotion and influenced by deeply felt values about what higher education is, what is best for higher education, and what technology can or will do. Higher education is either virtuous and doing the Lord’s work of educating youngsters or it is moribund and failing to fulfill its public purpose. Technology, then, is introduced to destroy the good work of teaching and learning in academe, or it will prod a sluggish institution into new life and service. This is why technology is not-so-subtly characterized as “good” or “evil.” In either case, as you can tell, the characterizations are cast in the boldest strokes of black and white, with little shadings of gray or recognition that both stances may be partially true.
These claims beg for an analysis of the theoretical or suppositional frameworks that authors use when they speak of the role of technology and its effects on higher education. This paper will review these theories and the assumptions upon which they are founded. Next, it will further ground these theories with the perceptions and points-of-view of professionals working in educational telecommunications. As often as necessary, practical examples will ground the work further and help make some of the more abstract and abstruse concepts or ideas more clear and understandable. And lastly, it will develop an integration of the two theoretical frameworks and outline lines of research that might help evaluate the value of this new, integrative approach. Please note that judging the veracity of the claims made by technology’s critics or advocates is beyond the scope of this effort, but is surely a worthwhile endeavor. Instead, the focus of this paper will be on finding a way to forge a truce if not a working compromise between the warring parties.
Please note that while many early writers use technology as an unspecific term – sometimes defined differently by each writer or not at all – current writers about technology are discussing the Internet or information technology. Unfortunately, these are disparate definitions and likely produce a variety of influences. The discussion that follows will try to be precise in its use of the authors’ preferred terms: either “technology” or the “Internet” as the case may be. However, these distinctions are important and the reader should keep these distinctions clear and not presume that “technology” means the same thing in all contexts.
Barone et al. (2001) and Noble (1998) may or may not know it, but they are working from two distinct theoretical traditions on the effects of technology on human beings and their institutions. The first tradition is, for lack of a better term, the negative view and the second tradition is the optimistic view.
The Negative View
Ellul (1964), Barrett (1978), and McLuhan (1964) may be some of the better-known philosophers and critics of technology and specifically its effects on humans. Ellul (1964) describes “technique” as those methods that create their own reality and world view, which is a characteristic not just of modern technologies but our uses of them. Technique is not synonymous with technology, but technology systematizes and grounds technique in its processes and uses. Tenner (2003) states that technology and technique are inseparable (p. 5) but different, with technology used to describe the created thing (whether machine, tool, or item) and technique describing the processes and laws that predetermine, create, and use things. There are intellectual techniques, such as history and philosophy, as well as cultural techniques that stress systematization, rationalization, and the drive for efficiency. One such example of the technology-technique interaction and its effect on humans is how Microsoft Office software uses earlier office practices to structure activities. Documents to be worked on are in “files” and “directories,” and there is a “trash can,” “cut and paste” routines, and “format” options. These are perhaps innocuous examples of how a piece of software has structured our uses of computers, but it is also an example of how the adoption of an earlier technique has spread office concepts into all uses of the computer, including personal and/or creative uses.
Barrett (1978) extends Ellul’s thinking and applies technique to the control and determination of human behavior, which is much broader than just technological control or spying on humans at work, but the subtle processes whereby the individual is treated more like an object and less like a subject. Although an imperfect analogy, this may be the source of higher education’s discomfort with making students into customers, as students are transformed into mere partners in a business-like transaction. If we can continue with our Microsoft Office example, the software often assumes it knows what a writer is doing or wants to do and intrudes with dictated spacing, numbering, and indenting. The user is imposed upon by the software, is no longer in control of their document, and must disable these assumptions or concede to the software. The user is no longer a subject, but is subjected to the authority of the software.
Similarly, Postman (1993), never a fan of technology, expressed a fear that people will become “tools of our tools” (p. 3). In this view, which owes much to McLuhan, he worries that an important unintended consequence may be how technology changes our selves and our relationship to our creations (Meyer, 2005c). Freedom is lost and human agency impaired. Humans are products of media (Levinson, 2001, p. 183), which we may create and manipulate, but which also shape us in return. Two examples of this process might be the rise of so-called “Internet addiction” or perhaps less drastic examples may be how some adolescents turn their virtual games into a pseudo-reality or how spending too much time online might impair the development of social skills among children.
These are serious charges and the various authors ground the veracity of their claims in personal and societal experiences of how technology has changed our lives. These charges are taken up by more modern writers on technology such as Gurak (2001), Noble (1998, 2002), and Tenner (1996). Gurak (2001) extends the thinking of Postman and McLuhan about technology changing our selves and places it squarely within the emerging influence of the Internet: “How we view the world and how we live in it are being shaped by the features of these new technologies” (p. 10). Perhaps each of these writers on technology would disagree with the assertion that “technology is neither good nor bad, that only our use of it makes it so” (Neiman, 1998); in other words, there is a quality or something about technology that can be bad for humans. And this is not a matter of opinion or of mere human usage or intent. It is the character of technology to be bad for us.
Gurak (2001) has also noted how we “build our biases into technology” (p. 64), thereby making permanent our misassumptions and prejudices about learning or people. At first, the web was used by instructors as a place to post lecture notes or the course syllabus. These actions are no different than usual instructional practices that keep the instructor as the center of the course and in control of its activities and content. These uses belie an assumption that education is one-way, from teacher to learner, and that the web is a mere repository of learning aids and not a place for work or learning.
Noble (1998) has effectively tied the effects of technology (more specifically, digitization and more generally, distance education) to the commodification and corporatization of academia. Roberts (1998), in “Rereading Lyotard,” relates commodification to the exteriorization of knowledge, now made possible by computerization and especially the immense information storage possibilities of the worldwide web. In other words, now that knowledge (or perhaps more accurately information) is exteriorized on the web and outside the control and humanistic motives of the university, it can be bought and sold like a commodity, and business assumptions and processes will begin to dominate the transaction. This spells the end of the university’s control and influence over the use of knowledge and the ascendance of businesses who can figure out how to package, deliver, and market such goods and make a profit for their stockholders.
Tenner (1996) calls an unintended consequence of technology a “revenge effect,” which results when complex systems cannot be completely mapped and it is impossible to test all possible occurrences (p. 16). Flaws will occur. Witness every new version of software, which needs hundreds of users to uncover hidden errors and missteps between execution and result. Tenner also proposes that technology alone “usually doesn’t produce a revenge effect. Only when we anchor it in laws, regulations, customs, and habits” (p. 9) is a revenge effect likely to occur. Perhaps a good example of this process is the way rules about requiring “seat time” has plagued online and distance learning. A rule to govern an older technology (that is, the classroom) has been used inappropriately to hamper the development of online learning, far after the six regional accrediting associations have removed much of their former language on seat time in favor of stressing the assessment of student learning outcomes.
From Tenner (1996), we can know that complex systems and the application of inappropriate regulations or practices to technologies may be more likely to lead to unintended consequences. An example of this is intellectual property policy. When online courses began to be more widely developed, faculty and institutions viewed these courses as possible sources of income. These courses were not included in existing intellectual property agreements, and the push to include online courses and to negotiate a sharing of the proceeds caused anguish among institutions and their faculties. The assumptions were that online courses would generate revenue beyond course tuitions, they were different from other traditional intellectual property (e.g., books) retained by faculty, and therefore institutions could or should assert ownership rights. These misassumptions and inappropriate regulations led (although it was unintended) to antagonism among faculty that is still felt on many campuses.
The Internet has also been called a “disruptive innovation” (Christenson, 1997; Duin et al., 2001; Meyer, 2005a), a technology that has already changed definitions, roles, and even institutions. E-mail may be the best example of a relatively simple technology that makes it possible for one person to contact everyone in an organization, be they the CEO, president, or secretary. The level of the person communicating, the importance of their communication, and the immediacy of the message is all the same, whether it is a joke being shared from the guy in the mailroom, a notice of raises for all employees, or a request for assistance. This quality has the ability to flatten an organization and communication, changing certain institutional rules about who has power, who has information of importance, and the approved route or flow of communication.
What makes the Internet “disruptive?” It is disruptive because former rules or skills may not be helpful in managing the innovation and may even result in counterintuitive outcomes. When former assumptions or rules do not work as intended, the result could well be an unintended consequence. A favorite example of an innovation that seems to be impervious to former rules is the file-swapping phenomenon, where college students use their college networks to download music and share their music with others of like taste. Universities charged with stopping or slowing this practice have found that students are immensely creative in pursuit of their ends and better versed in the technologies involved. Policies against stealing musicians’ intellectual property, penalties for getting caught, and limitations on storage space on university servers seem to have only slowed this practice. This may be a case of the technology making possible a practice that not only violates current law, but has the potential of disrupting any attempt to manage it. In fact, by managing it in traditional fashions (e.g., policy), it may only encourage the practice to morph into new areas that are even harder to regulate and more disruptive in new ways.
These are not mere fears or simple fears. They are fears that are overwhelming to the fearful. Technology is frightening because we are sometimes blind to its effects (Levinson, 2001) and we are caught unawares and unprepared and perhaps left to deal with some very negative consequences. When fears about technology are minimized and dismissed, the fearful feel as if they have been treated with disdain, labeled “Luddites,” and treated as if they were un-American, unmodern, and worse, childish. Yet from the perspective of those fearful of technology, these trends are on-going, self-evident, and spell difficulties for human values held personally dear, such as free will and our own humanity. Birkerts (1994), Locke (1998), and Healy (1999) have all written passionately about their fears of technology, how it will change reading, our sense of self, and our ability to relate to others, our sense of what reality is and can be, and even the creation of new and different brains in young children. Use of technology in education is particularly frightening, since it affects the young and vulnerable and may have lasting effects.
These fears in turn influence perceptions of the future role of higher education, who controls higher education, and the role or function of faculty. Is the highest role of higher education to liberate students, to help them realize their full potential, or should it train them solely for productive lives? Is the control of higher education being eroded, gradually being taken over by legislatures, governors, and business leaders? And will faculty remain teachers with responsibility for maintaining curricula, quality standards and student learning, or will they be made into employees and responsible to administrators and boards for improving productivity and keeping control of sky-rocketing costs? The careful reader will note the largely negative cast to these perceptions, which can be readily overhead in conversations among faculty at meetings and lunchrooms. They express fears that in turn take much from the negative view of technology, but also perhaps the pessimism of individuals who no longer feel control over the changes that seem to surround and overwhelm them. Such persons are made more fearful and perhaps more extreme for having no means to influence the outcome.
The Optimistic View
The more optimistic view of technology – and more specifically the Internet or information technology – has resulted in the views captured by Barone (2001) as well as Hooker (1997), Matthews (1998), Norris (2001), and Morrison (2003). This is the view of technology as liberator and change agent: “New tools cause people to imagine new purposes” and change “people’s understanding of what they can do, what they want to do, what they think they need to do” (Burbules & Callister, 2000, p. 10, 13). New tools allow us to imagine new forms of success and new definitions for success as well. New tools can change us for the better, by releasing human creativity in new ways. New tools can perform some work for us, doing the work better perhaps, and freeing us for new tasks.
The view that the Internet will “transform” higher education is a theme in much of the current literature on the Internet and its effects on higher education. Hooker (1997) states that “technology will change the way we order life” and that “higher education is on the brink of a revolution” (¶1). Matthews (1998) claims that “information technology is transforming higher education” (¶5); Norris (2001) claims that “we finally have the power and the right tools to finally transform higher education” (¶7); Morrison (2003) states that “American higher education is undergoing substantial change” (¶1); Pittinsky (2003) also thinks the Internet and information technology will transform higher education. Such a consistent view of the impact of information technology and/or the Internet is remarkable; why is this so? Perhaps this is the result of a common assumption that technology is, first of all, that new tool that allows us to imagine new purposes and second, that it has the potential (through some implied quality or effect) to make positive changes to higher education.
What is that quality or effect? Perhaps our best guide to asking how that potential works is to think of the process of learning, especially constructivism. Learning constructed from new and challenging personal experiences helps us draw new inferences, develop new theories, and possibly reconstruct old learning into new insights. Perhaps it can also draw from the “reframing” process encouraged by Bolman and Deal (1997), whereby new frames or theories are used to put a different perspective on the situation, provide a new way of looking at an old problem, and possibly develop a new understanding and solution. Perhaps a new tool is simply a new opportunity to construct some new understanding or perhaps it is simply a new frame.
At this point, the analysis of this optimistic view of the impact of the Internet needs to grapple with three questions. What are the means or mechanisms that bring about this transformation? What qualifies as transformation? Is it the sole influence of the Internet that can be credited with these changes or is it combining in some fashion with other influences to create change? These questions need grounding in the experiences of professionals who are currently working in and around these issues.
In this stage of the analysis, the author engaged in a weblog conversation with members of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET). Members of WCET are drawn from over 40 states and several nations, including two- and four-year colleges and universities, state and system governing boards, technology companies, and accrediting associations, among others. It is particularly known for its work on cutting-edge issues of administration and policy, innovation and practice. It is an organization devoted to practical issues of improving institutions’ use of technology but also developing new uses of technology that respond to the needs of the over 230 member institutions. The author placed a question on the weblog that asked interested members to comment on a) the changes in higher education they attributed to the introduction and action of the Internet; b) the importance or significance of these changes to higher education (and why); and c) whether the Internet i) “caused” the change, or ii) supported or reinforced other forces for change, or iii) only augmented other forces for change that may have preceded the Internet or were more influential than the Internet. One would not expect the comments of professionals in such an organization to be negative, as indeed they were not. But the weblog allows us to ground the discussion of theoretical frameworks with the perspectives of professionals working in the distance learning arena, be they at the institution, system, or state level.
What are the means or mechanisms of transformation? They seem to be several. There is the role of the “information revolution” and “management revolution,” which combine to push an agenda focused on learning productivity (Hooker, 1997); the elimination of the need for synchroneity (Matthews, 1998); the possibility of “pervasive interactivity” (Norris, 2001); the influence of a generation of “digital natives” (Morrison, 2003). Some of these are tantamount to removing former barriers (e.g., education had to be synchronous and essentially one-way – from teacher to student – limiting the amount of interaction possible in a class). Others are changes occurring independently that create new possibilities (e.g., the push and possibility of improving learning productivity and the “digital natives” phenomenon).
Responses from the weblog conversation about means and mechanisms of transformation with members of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (WCET) uncovered several other mechanisms, including the role of the Internet to “increase access to higher education” by destroying distance and time constraints, “increase access to knowledge, information, and learning resources,” increase “individualization in learning placing the learner at the center of the enterprise,” and increase attention to “quality in both the online and on-campus” classroom. In each of these comments is imbedded a notion that the Internet made access (for students), access (to knowledge), individualization, and attention to quality possible or enabled. There does not seem to be a sense that these means dictated or determined certain outcomes, but they did certainly make these outcomes more likely to occur.
What qualifies as transformation? These changes are not mere changes or simple changes, but transformative, or “to change a thing into a different thing” or implying “a major change in form, nature, or function” (Merriam-Webster, 2005). These definitions seem to imply that transformation may not simply be a matter of judgment or in the “eye of the beholder,” but a matter ripe for extended research and evaluation. For instance, one might attempt to uncover the extent to which increasing access to higher education through online learning to the placebound or working student is transformative as it changes the character of the university, by encouraging changes to its student services as they are moved online or changing the composition of enrolled students by adding more working adults to the mix and providing greater attention to their needs and interests. Now this same phenomenon might not be true for a community college whose mission may have always included those students, so this might be an example of a transformation that is not systemwide, but for a particular institution or set of institutions. The point here is that what qualifies as transformation will be different for different institutional types, and simplistic claims for “transformation” might need to be subjected to further analyses that break down the processes of transformation by institutional type, location, and/or mission.
What the mechanisms have in common is a sense that the Internet can or will or has changed fundamental assumptions or structures. In other words, a fundamental assumption of higher education has been that faculty and student must meet face-to-face in some modest physical proximity (large lecture halls notwithstanding) for teaching and learning to occur. Other assumptions under re-examination are that on-campus classes are of the highest quality and the only or best means of providing an education. An example of a structure that has changed in a radical fashion is the web as repository of information rather than relying solely on a physical library. Universities, who remain justifiably proud of their physical libraries, find that the web also acts as a library and even makes online holdings of the library available wherever the student is. Another example is the way asynchronous education plays havoc with the structure of the class, making it expand beyond the timeframe of set class schedules and makes the concept of a classroom expand to include discussions and activities occurring while logged on at home or work (Meyer, 2003). And perhaps another example of an assumption and structure that is changing is faculty “office hours.” A mainstay of the faculty role, office hours become less and less necessary as students take advantage of email to access faculty 24x7 which transforms assumptions about how faculty perform their various teaching and advising duties and the way or structure by which these duties are offered.
Lastly, is it the Internet alone that is causing these changes or is it one of many forces acting on higher education at the current time, combining with other forces to augment or modify influences, so to speak? This is a difficult issue to untangle. In an assessment of means and ends and what is good and bad, the “inseparability and interdependence of many consequences should begin to shake the faith that such determinations can be so readily made . . . the very same effects can be regarded as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ depending on other considerations, or when evaluated by different people” (Burbules & Callister, 2000, p. 12). For example, as technology made the possibility of increasing access to higher education a possibility, it also increased the potential size of the higher education market. This in turn contributed to the dot.com boom-and-bust cycle, which both increased the number of new providers but also the number of alternative or types of providers, including for-profit, online or virtual, corporate, and traditional universities with expanded continuing and distance education offerings. This changed the higher education landscape by increasing competition among providers, increasing choice for potential students, and increasing the likelihood that higher education institutions thought and acted more businesslike or like competitors rather than autonomous entities impervious to external pressures. There is a flaw in this argument, since with the expansion of the market and numbers of students to be served, competition over students did not occur as supposed (Meyer, 2004), but this is an example of how several changes are inseparable and interdependent and combine to create new conditions. In other words, complex systems are both difficult to unravel but even more difficult to evaluate consistently or predict accurately.
Responses to the WCET weblog are particularly interesting, identifying other forces at work as “budget-cutting” by the states, student “demographic changes” (e.g., the growth in adult, working students), the “public’s demand for accountability,” and higher education’s “resistance to change.” Occurring somewhat simultaneously as the popularization of the Internet, these forces are seen to combine their influences along certain trajectories: a demand for greater learning productivity, a need for accountability, and perhaps a growing lack of patience with higher education’s usual sense of autonomy. Another example of a combination of influences that includes technology but is not solely dependent upon it is the rise of virtual universities, beginning with the creation of Western Governors University (WGU). In this case, governors of western states were being pressured by the growing numbers of students demanding higher education and companies demanding well-prepared employees as well as on-demand professional development for existing employees; at the same time, governors were experiencing pressures on state budgets from the rising costs of health care, transportation, and prisons and various forms of taxpayer revolts. Technology, with its promise to increase access and improve productivity, was a fortunate development that made WGU an immediately important public policy tool for driving change in traditional institutions who were less interested in helping to solve the states’ problems (Meyer, 2005a).
Untangling the precise role of each of these influences may be impossible, but it is essential to recognize that the Internet was likely not the only influence on higher education and may deserve less credit for either transforming or destroying higher education as we currently know it.
Before we proceed to a discussion of the integrative or transactional view of technology’s impact on higher education, it is important to take a short digression and discuss the ways in which the positive and negative views are similar and different. For example, both of these seemingly opposite views assume that technology is a change agent, that it has the power to influence an organism or organization such as higher education to change in some fashion. That power seems not to be at issue in either view. What is at issue is whether the change is a good or bad one. However, lest one thinks this is a matter of opinion or a simple matter of having different points of view – as in “he prefers apples but she likes oranges” – a careful reading of these writers leads one to conclude that the difference is more extreme or profound. The difference is more on the scale of “this way leads to destruction and that way leads to liberation.”
In any case, it is important to remember – despite the extreme qualities of the language – that these views are based on the same assumption that technology can and will change us. This similarity should not be minimized, and while it is intriguing, it is not the current focus of this paper. However, further research is necessary to explore the precise circumstances or processes that are credited to technology and that do not seem to have any effect on higher education, and determine why this is so.
But let us return to the issues of how to characterize the impacts labeled as positive or negative. These impacts may have a nature of their own which is a simple description of the impact, but what is more intriguing are the different responses to them. For example, communications are rapidly being tied to the Internet, and more particularly to the use of email and web sites. This is true for universities that are rapidly placing various services onto their home pages and relying on emails to communicate with faculty and staff. This, using the earlier term, is the nature of the change. However, whether this change represents a loss as face-to-face communications decrease (if this is the case) or a gain as important information is shared in a more egalitarian fashion, is a result of your positive or negative view of a) technology, b) change, and c) the type of change. For instance, a negative view would likely expect damage from the introduction of email, look rather dimly on changes generally, and be more distressed by this particular change and its loss of face-to-face communications. This is not just a simple difference of opinion, but represents a difference in theory or world view that an individual applies to questions of technology and change. This assertion ought to be assessed further, but for our purposes, it may be sufficient to wonder if our positive and negative views work as theory or principles or beliefs that explain phenomena and provide a basis for action (Merriam-Webster, n.d.).
This has been a long digression, but an important one. It has set out two areas of research – investing ways technology does not change higher education and whether the positive and negative views are theories that shape personal perceptions. One benefit of having answers to these questions will be a better and perhaps more shaded or rounded perspective of technology and change, one that recognizes that no changes may occur and any positive or negative qualities are the result of an individual’s world view which can be tested. The importance of this testing would be a search for instances that disagree with the theory or world view and finally, perhaps a more balanced point-of-view of technology. Rather than all-good or all-bad, such an exploration might lead more individuals to see technology as producing varied results – some good and some bad and others that are no change at all – or at minimum, that the results are interpreted differently by persons with different world views. This grounds the discussion on the world views and assessing these views and less so on the technology.
We can now return to the development of another alternative view that focuses on how humans and technology interact, influencing each other, and creating a new, integrated view.
The Integrative or Transactional View
There is a third approach to the “technology/society divide” (Latour, 1991, p. 103). This divide is partially responsible for the two extreme positions: pro versus anti technology, technology as doom versus transformational agent. We can either stand “opposed to a technology outside of us, or . . . be transformed by that technology . . . [or] be neutral about technology, or see it as only a tool” (Bruce, n.d., p. 3). The technology/society divide is so fundamental to our thinking about technology that it is difficult to see it in any other fashion; it screens out other points-of-view and in fact makes other views impossible to conceive. This division is the result, in part, of our conceptualizing technology as different from social reality, which is a “linguistic convenience, one that ultimately causes more confusion that clarity” (Bruce, n.d., p. 3). It is a convenience – to help us put words to our ideas and making conversation possible -- that in turn contributes to the “autonomy myth” (Bruce, 1996). This myth supposes that technology works independently to shape practice or that social practice shapes everything in its path. Autonomy is a myth because it ignores the ability for each party to the divide to “dynamically reconfigure each other’s meaning” (Bruce, n.d., p. 4).
These diametrically-opposed positions – the positions of the autonomy myth -- do not allow for a mutual relationship between humans and their tools, technology and higher education. A mutual relationship would recognize that each affects and is influenced by the other, and that this relationship is changing, on-going, and revising the relationship even as it is formed and reformed. This is a different point from the Burbules and Callister quote above, that different interpretations of good and bad are likely, but it focuses on the reflexivity between the change agent and the changed that is less simple and straightforward and much more complex than some technology proponents and opponents allow. In fact, “as we analyze, discuss, and use technologies, we change them” (Bruce, n.d., p. 4). This is, therefore, a “transactional” view (Bruce, n.d., p. 11).
This transactional view also incorporates Dewey’s theory of constructing meaning that recognizes the reflection, reflexive, and changing nature of the process as well as the meaning resulting from the process that can, in turn, change the process and subsequent and different meanings. Knowing is a process whereby the individual learns through reflection and communication with others, and each interpretation is essentially transactional. Each time the learner encounters phenomena such as a new technology or use for technology, his or her interpretation is neither determined by the external encounter with technology nor is it independent of the encounter. To put this process more simply, one’s understanding of technology is transactional, reflexive (going back and forth multiple times between the learner and his/her experience with technology), and ultimately constructed in possibly very unique ways and with unique interpretations. The outcome is not pre-determined.
This process begs for some examples to ground it in real situations. Just as technology has increased access to higher education, it has increased the demands these students have placed on institutions for new online student services, 24x7 support, more classes online. Having more online classes and services in turn expands the number of students who may be attracted to the institution, further exacerbating the type and number of demands for service. Each affects the other in ways that create new higher education markets and services and perhaps, a new higher education organization. Or think of two possible interactions that might shape higher education’s future. The first interaction focuses on the growth of web sites and online resources (e.g., online peer-reviewed journals), which might decrease the need of faculty to be the sole content provider and arbiter of course content; this would free up faculty time for other roles as Massy (2002) has proposed, which might improve the quality of student learning as faculty focus on taking student learning to higher (or deeper) levels. The second interaction focuses on the growth in availability of higher education, which as more programs go online and more providers enter the market, might make it easier for students to find a good match for their interests and abilities. In both cases, the interactions may be influencing the creation of new faculty roles or educated citizenry.
Reflexive changes are on-going, and each change has various potential trajectories. Let us return to the traditional college, which has several options when faced with the disruptive changes of the Internet. It can use technology to pursue new markets, compete in its current market, or focus on improving learning for students in on-campus programs. Certainly these options can be combined, but for now, let us assume they are separate options. The first trajectory – to pursue new markets – may well be successful, leading to more and more attempts at new markets, or it may be a failure, and sour the institution for further programs and confirm its traditional ways of doing business. These changes are reflexive – affected by success – and they confirm the institution’s pursuit of a particular path or trajectory. Or perhaps the early attempts are not successful, but upon reflection and further study, the institution decides to continue its pursuit of new markets, but to do so using different means or practices. Again, reflexivity makes further learning possible as well as multiple trajectories. One might picture this process as an immense decision tree, where decisions flow from prior decisions leading to later decisions that in turn comprise a path in a direction or trajectory.
If there is value in this third, transactional view of technology and higher education, then it would argue for more careful analyses of how the Internet is precisely changing (or combining with other forces to change) higher education as well as how it is not. Or how uses made of the Internet may change one element of higher education (say, its role) but leaves other aspects (such as values) intact. For example, online learning, made possible by the advent of the Internet, has the potential of reaffirming the institution’s mission to provide more and diverse students an opportunity to learn, but it certainly changes the means by which learning occurs. Is its use as a delivery mechanism a positive change but its use as learning tool a mixed blessing? Only further research and analysis can tease out this relationship further. As for another example, the faculty role might remain primarily focused on improving student learning, but the means by which faculty do this changes, by replacing lecture with multimedia and challenging traditions about class size with research on how students can best acquire the knowledge they need.
Furthermore, we need less indulgence in both extreme views and a more thoughtful and balanced approach to talking about higher education vis-à-vis technology, information technology, or the Internet. Less claims and better research that trace these influences might produce a better analysis of whether and how the Internet is or is not changing higher education, which can then be evaluated and altered by its leaders and inhabitants.
Let us take two more examples of what might be possible with a transactional approach. The pressure to achieve productivity gains through online learning is itself a result of states facing a growing population of traditional-age students and stagnant state budgets. Developing and delivering online education is a costly endeavor, requiring infrastructure, special staff with specialized knowledge, and various support services. Were one to rely only on the negative view, this consumption of resources would be criticized and the effort abandoned. The proponents of the positive view would likely remain focused on the potential of technology to solve the underlying problem and would advocate for proceeding. However, a transactional approach might recognize that both views have valid points, but that the role of technology is still uncertain and begs further research. It might recognize that – in this case – we have some research that demonstrates how to improve the quality and cost-efficiency of online learning (Twigg, 2003a, 2003b; Meyer, 2002, 2005b, 2006; Swan, 2003). But this drive for efficiencies should not overwhelm other processes or concerns, as one espousing the negative view might worry; perhaps the best alternative is one that is “cost-aware” (Ash, 2000) or at minimum, retains higher education’s original focus on student learning without losing an appreciation for the costs attached to many of its choices.
The second example also combines changes magnified by technology that can be researched and altered, if need be. This example is drawn from the changing higher education marketplace, the one that is now inhabited by new providers, new programs, and new students. The negative view might characterize this as introducing competition into what is best a tradition of calm and reasoned study; the positive view might see this competition as a valuable tool to generate more behavior from higher education institutions that responds to the needs of the marketplace. Could not both views be true AND false? Are not institutions operating in this new marketplace in various ways? Is not one institution grasping the market opportunities and another satisfied with its current share of students, programs, and resources? The point here is to recognize the range of responses to this new, emerging marketplace, and neither assume either disaster or nirvana, but investigate what paths different institutions are taking, what decisions they are making, how their decisions are being evaluated and plans adjusted, and what effects these experiences are having on the values, practices, and programs of the institution. This would be the sort of research that would recognize that technology and institutions interact, again and again, change each other in subtle ways, and those interactions or transactions have a variety of effects and interpretations, which also change over time.
The transactional view is perhaps more tempered and therefore, more honest. It recognizes that technology does not probably “drive” or determine a particular change, although some changes are more likely to occur as a result of human needs and desires. It moves away from dichotomous assertions of doom and paradise and recognizes the role of research to tease out relationships and impacts that cause and result from the introduction of technology into such a complex organization as a college or university. It attempts to balance evaluation between the horns of the divide and recognize the transactions that shape various possible outcomes.
The transactional framework is essentially a hopeful one. It is founded on the presumption that humans are not helpless victims but that we can and do influence what happens to ourselves and the institutions we value. It recognizes our role in accepting, modifying, or rejecting so-called changes resulting from technology. It also recognizes that technology is neither the saint nor sinner some might suppose, but an ambiguous entity that depends on humans to ascribe it with meaning and power. And finally, it recognizes that simple answers most likely leave us in ignorance, and complex answers – while difficult to unravel, understand, and explain – are probably more nearly accurate. It will take careful, thoughtful, and honest research that eschews the extremes for a more balanced and integrated view of technology. And it will take individuals who can see through the divide and appreciate the processes whereby we change and are changed by our technologies.
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About the Author
Dr. Meyer is currently associate professor of higher and adult education at The University of Memphis. She is author of Cost-Efficiencies of Online Learning, a 2006 publication of the ASHE Higher Education Report Series. For over three years, she was Director of Distance Learning and Technology for the University and Community College System of Nevada and prior to this position, served 8 years as Associate Director of Academic Affairs for the Higher Education Coordinating Board in the state of Washington.
Dr. Katrina A. Meyer, Associate Professor of Higher and Adult Education
University of Memphis, 310 Browning, Memphis, TN 38152-3340
(901) 678-2466 firstname.lastname@example.org