Evils of Technology in Academia
by Vicky Phillips
A reporter called me the other day with one question: "Are you for or
against the virtual university?"
After a big sigh I replied that I am for any little thing that might
possibly improve education in this country.
"Does online technology improve education?" he asked.
"That depends entirely on who is using it," said I.
Here is what I think. Anyone who says that technology will either save or
corrupt the American college system is flinging fat red herrings off
impossibly high intellectual rooftops. Let me explain.
I had the worst academic experience of my life as a wide-eyed freshman in
Indiana in 1977 -- the Ed Tech Dark Ages. I had to take courses via
warm-body-instruction because no other option existed. I did not own a
laptop computer because no such thing existed. Computers would not fit
into anyone’s lap back then; to be honest, they barely fit into
stadium-sized computer science buildings.
On campus at a small, private, liberal arts college, my freshman year, I
had a tenured, Ivy League-educated professor for a course in the History
of the Civil War. This professor never bathed, came to class drunk,
incessantly referred to me -- the only girl in the class -- as "chickee
baby," and taught not the social and economic history of the civil war --
which I had come to learn -- but the great winning military battle
strategies of the 1860s as taught to him in his days as a West Point
It was a very long semester. The hardest "A" of my intellectual life. I
won that "A" battle by battle -- and I do mean that quite literally.
I learned that semester the proper way to bayonet a foe from horseback. I
also learned that not all professors were the intellectual gods I had
naively imagined them to be. I learned that semester that John Henry
Newman’s concept of the university as a great "Alma Mater" or bountiful
intellectual mother was perhaps more of a sentimental Victorian ideal than
More importantly, I learned that a liberal arts education in this country
is truly open to anyone. Visionaries, geniuses, and madwomen -- come one,
come all. And I learned that this wide range of intellectual aptitude
applies as equally to the professorate as it does to the student body.
My point is that my civil war professor taught poorly for 50 years using
the no-tech tools of chalk and slate. I dare say had he been given a modem
he would have proved no less intellectually deadly.
Likewise, I have recently seen students ground into intellectual road-kill
by poorly designed keyboard colleges. Just this semester I advised a
colleague of mine to take an online course in computer programming from a
leading university provider of online education in this country.
My colleague may never figure me. She was kind enough to show me the
entire course in action, online. Well, "in action" is probably the wrong
term: educationally inert describes it all much better.
"Where are the instructor’s comments?" I asked. "What instructor?" she
asked. Every week the instructor would e-mail my colleague some Power
Point slides. Just the slides. No comment on what they were meant to refer
to, no reference as to why they were sent. She showed the slides to me.
"Do these help you learn?" I asked her. "No," she said, "They must be
pulled from his face-to-face course lectures because they do not
correspond to what I’m reading here on my own."
Halfway through the course my colleague finally e-mailed the instructor,
who had been dutifully collecting weekly assignments, but not grading
them, to ask about her status. Ten days later she got an e-mail that read:
"You hav an a. God jobe." Except for the baffling Power Point slides, this
was the first and last my colleague heard from her online professor.
Though online discussion boards existed for posting questions, only the
students used the boards. The instructor never typed-in a word of
commentary or concern.
My colleagues impression of an online university is that she took a course
and dutifully did her part but that no professor ever actually showed up
to assist, mentor, inform, evaluate, or encourage her. She found this odd.
I do too.
In my mind what my colleague received online was a high-tech and somewhat
high-priced version of "chickee baby." My point here: technology does not
teach, people do. Not all bad professors teach via modem and not all good
instructors are without the tools of technology. America’s universities
may be built of brick-and-mortar or they may be built of silicon chips:
clearly we will have it both ways in this country because we need it both
Brick-and-mortar is great for 18 year-olds who need the social
emancipation experience that place-bound education delivers in large
doses. Desktop universities are sorely needed by 42 year-old single,
working mothers who literally cannot stuff themselves, their children, and
the family dog back into a brick-and-mortar dormitory.
Technology and education have always been uneasy bedfellows. People write
and speak as if technology in education is a unique new danger for the
next millennium. It is not. When the printing press popularized written
texts many warned that education via printed books would ruin the academy
because it would mean that people would read, write, and memorize rather
than speak and debate -- the original methods of classical instruction
honored in both Greece and Rome and, as far as we know, for all of human
When the printed text entered academia, students and professors alike lost
much of their ability to think and reason on their feet. Teaching critical
thinking via in-class debate fell rapidly by the wayside. And that’s a
shame. On the other hand, both professors and students gained the ability
to create more lasting, complex, and portable arguments and investigations
via writing and print technology.
The printed book was the first virtual university. A technological marvel
that allowed for the transcontinental transmission of knowledge. Think
about it. A printed book is a first-class distance learning experience: a
class in full swing without the professor present. Talk about distance
learning: the printed book delivers to students the ideas of those long
dead. Yet in the early days of academia the mass distribution of knowledge
via printed books was denounced as technological high evil by many.
The fountain pen for quick note-taking. The printed teaching text. The
CD-ROM course pack. And now Internet conferencing systems. Each time a new
tool has made in-roads into academia the nature of education has changed.
Not gotten better or worse, mind you, just changed.
America’s universities will be built of brick-and-mortar AND they will be
built of silicon chips. We will have it both ways because we live in a
knowledge society that desperately needs it both ways. When it comes to
learning in a knowledge society, once is not enough. Education must be a
lifelong pursuit. Portable universities will increasingly pop-up inside
Dr. Thomas A. Clark, co-author of the classic book, "Distance Education:
The Foundations of Effective Practice," once wrote: "(Educational) media
are mere vehicles that deliver instruction but (they) do not influence
student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries
causes changes in nutrition."
Whether students learn anything of use at the universities of tomorrow
will not depend on the edifice of the institution itself. Bigger buildings
have never made better scholars. The quality of education in tomorrow’s
universities will depend, as always, not on the physical edifice, but on
the quality of thought and heart that goes into designing and delivering
the overall educational experience.