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  • Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Technology is a Double-Edged Sword
May 14, 2012 - 11:09am

"Technology is neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so" is a paraphrase from Hamlet that crossed this English major's mind a number of years ago when I began working in this field. It came to mind again recently as I have been reflecting on the irony of how technology has affected higher education. When in 2001 I became aquatinted with EDUCAUSE, and by that I mean the larger thinking about information technology in higher ed, I was not only thrilled to be part of a world where people talked about big ideas but in a community that swelled with optimism and hope about the transformation that technology would bring to my calling.  The underlying assumption was loud and clearly a positive one. The transformation would take us all to a new and better level.

As a historian, I should have known better. Having gone into the field of history with a similar hope that by understanding human behavior we could change it for the better and left the field exasperated and bored by "deconstructionist" interpretation that once I deciphered it looked like navel gazing to me, I should have understood that what begins in excitement and hope can without care become sad and jaded. No wonder I was ready at that point for law school.  :-)

Remember when we (in this field I am a young 'un, and still don't feel entitled to include myself in the term "we," but nonetheless ...) used to say that information technology would "transform" higher education? "We" were right, it is and will continue to do so, but not in the way we thought or hoped.  Information technology has the potential (together with other forces, which I will get to in a minute) to undermine not for profit higher education as we have known it in the last half century just as surely as it is a phenomenon with which we must keep pace or be sunk entirely.  Did we ever genuinely experience it in the positive, high minded ways in which it was previously considered? Absolutely. The pioneers of computers, software and network systems (in which I include my former partner, William Schaff, for a life of work on semi-conductors) in higher education, together with the U.S. government, took research in electrical engineering and computer sciences and turned it into a world-historical phenomenon: the Internet.

But alas and alack, without the insights about human nature in general and history in particular, we might have gotten well ahead of ourselves in the expectation about what was to come. Next to the Marshall Plan, the release of the code for packet-switching into the public domain may be regarded as one of the most generous acts of U.S. government.  But the unleashing of this powerful technology into the world without thoughtful consideration of market, technical, legal and user potentialities suggests adolescent enthusiasm rather than mature thinking. Ah, such is the United States in its historical trajectory all over again.

"We" in higher education had every right to have high hopes. After all that is what higher education is largely all about and has honestly been for many a generation of people, most especially in the second half of the twentieth century. But we should have asked humanists for their opinion.  Not the Luddites or people predisposed to looking at technology with a lemon pucker, but serious, grounded people who knew something about the double edged sword of technology, of how it can be used in myriad ways, is never a force unto itself but is always in dynamic relationship with society.  Above all, like history itself, it manifests in ironic ways.

Such is the effect that information technology is having on higher education. Most obvious is how for-profit higher education is leveraging information technology in the form of distance learning to threaten the almost ubiquitous hold that not for profit higher education has long held on American society.   Does for profit education seem to take instrumentalism that begins with students harping on the question of "what does it take to get an A in this class?" right on up through the love affair that many administrators have with making our not for profit institutions "run just like a business" to the next level: education as only a means, and never an end? I would say yes, although not in all cases.  What must also be recognized about for profit education is that it is serving people who might otherwise not have access to education at the price of not for profit higher education today.  Are there abuses?  Yes, and the federal and state governments should get and stay smart to root them out, but let's be fair.  For profit education can not be equated with abuses, that is far too broad a brush stroke and bespeaks to our displaced anxieties more than any clear understanding of the issues at play.  I have turned a corner in my thinking, and here it is: for profit education is not to be equated with "bad."

I say this because I would not want to deprive people today of that which I have had the fortune to enjoy if the only means by which they can have access to education is through a for profit company.  But I do not want to leave the discussion there.  There are forces in our society that have produced a devil's bargain. What are those issues? I vote for the combined and intertwined forces of the commodification of everything (a force which unregulated information technology political economy has abetted) and the diminution of public "sphere," "space" and "value" in American society.  On this last point, information technology is hardly the cause. For that, we need to look deeper into our love affair with an ideal of free market and illusions that ideal has created in all of our hearts and minds to allow it to continue to dominate public policy in such an unfettered manner over the last thirty years especially.  "Good luck, Mitrano," is about all on that account I have to say.

All of those factors and combined forces add up to encroachment on traditional not for profit higher education. They might go some distance in explaining why and how legislatures in the continental United States allow themselves to feel good about denuding public education. And they tell us something else too: that it is not just "technology" that might have benefited from a sober review by humanists. Higher education might have subjected itself to analysis, because, after all, institutionalized education, like technology, like all institutions in history, are neither good nor bad, only thinking makes it so.



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