As part of the company's gradual reinvention as a provider of agnostic support and consulting, Blackboard -- joining a market place crowded with competitors -- offers to help colleges reinvent themselves online.
Not too long ago, my university, the University of Virginia, along with a dozen or so other schools, entered into an agreement with a company called Coursera to develop Internet-based courses. The issue of Internet learning is especially fraught at Virginia. As just about everyone now knows, our president, Teresa Sullivan, was dismissed not long ago in part because the Board of Visitors thought that she had been lackadaisical in moving Virginia toward Internet-based learning. Though Sullivan was eventually reinstated, the issue of Internet education continues to be a major one at Virginia as it is (or will be) at many ambitious American universities.
What will happen when universities form partnerships with companies like Coursera? How will the coupling of the university with an online distribution company affect the kind of teaching that we do and the kind of learning that students can expect?
Our partnership with Coursera is young: at this point we are developing only a few courses in conjunction with them. But in time we will no doubt develop more, and an ultimate objective for both Coursera and the University of Virginia will be to use those courses to generate revenues.
Right now, it appears that Cousera is the junior partner in our mutual endeavor. Virginia is a large, well-regarded university with a six-billion-dollar endowment. Coursera is a relatively new corporation. For a while, it’s reasonable to imagine that Virginia will call most of the shots.
But what if the partnership works and begins to generate significant revenues? That’s a big if, naturally. So far, no major research university has succeeded in reaping enormous profits selling courses online. Though Harvard and Yale and Stanford have developed Internet-based courses, they do not give credit for them, either to their own students or anyone else.
But suppose Internet courses do begin to bring in revenues. If the partnership with Coursera works out well, we may soon become dependent on their good will. We may, in other words, need to take very seriously their thoughts about the kinds of courses we should teach and make available online. At Virginia, and at all the schools that begin teaching online, the distribution companies may come to have a consequential say in the way that professors teach and students learn.
What influence will the corporations have? What will they want? The immediate answer isn’t hard to come by. They will want to increase financial returns as much as possible. They will want to make as much money as they can without breaking the law.
And to do so, they will begin demanding the sort of courses that will sell best, not only in America but around the world. What sort of courses will these be? I think that they will be the most standardized, solid, predictable and sound courses that the university can produce.
Faculty members will have to submit their syllabuses in advance. They will have to cover precisely the ground that they say they will: there will be no swerving from the original plan. Digressions and jokes will be at a minimum, assuming that they are allowed at all.
And there is this too: the courses will also have to be radically inoffensive. They will have to be palatable to as many people across the world as possible so as to increase market possibilities to the maximum point. The course designers will have to think about whether they are offending the sensibilities of, say, Chinese students and also of the Chinese government when they put a political science course up for sale. They will have to wonder if this or that class in religious studies might insult Islam. (A look at this month’s news reminds one that Islam is not terribly hard to insult.)
There will, in other words, be a constant dialogue between professors and the corporation about what kind of content is going to be admissible. There will be disagreements and there will be disputes. Some professors may walk away. But in the end, it is not hard to predict who will win the arguments, provided the online courses are capturing significant revenues.
At a certain point our corporate partners may demand that all of the courses we teach be Internet-friendly. They may want to film each class we give on the chance that it might someday be profitable. And naturally they will want those courses to conform to the standards of the successful online class.
I think that there’s an analogy between what could happen to American university classes in the age of international Internet education and what happened to American movies when Hollywood studios decided that to make the kind of money they wanted, it would be necessary to market their product globally. American movies now are lowest-common-denominator movies, intended to sell in Singapore as much as in Seattle. Where we once had "McCabe & Mrs. Miller" and "Nashville," we now have "Spiderman" and "Batman."
What was most original and lively in mainstream American movies was erased by corporate imperatives, and something similar may become true about American education. To sell broadly, we’re going to have to tone our teaching down — become flatter and more predictable. And we’re going to have to be careful not to offend anyone. We’re going to need to engage in a certain kind of mass pedagogy. Those who don’t will not succeed in the new Internet-based academy— assuming that such an academy really does come into being. And this is, I want to underline, a big assumption.
Another analogy might be helpful. It’s possible that the incursion of the Internet market into the universities will be something like the incursion of big-time college sports. There are any number of American schools that appear now to have been swallowed by their sports programs. They admit anyone who can stand out in football and basketball, no matter how poor a student; they hide the indiscretions and the crimes that athletes and coaches commit; they overpay coaches and elevate them to superstar status; they organize social life around football and basketball games.
These schools are constantly sending out the message that academics don’t matter much and that sports and school spirit and getting drunk on Saturday and staying so until Sunday late at night really do. We can all name a dozen or two schools that because of sports are close to no longer being schools. Penn State seems to have been swallowed by its football program and now is in danger of losing a major quotient of its credibility and standing because of it.
Something similar may happen with Internet education. Certain colleges may become addicted to the revenue that Internet courses draw and they will deform themselves in the attempt to make more and more money. They will adulterate their intellectual goods for the marketplace and perhaps those goods will sell briskly. We now speak of football factories. In not too long we may be speaking of academic Internet factories. This is especially distressing, now that some of our best universities have jumped aggressively into the distance learning game. It would be sad if Harvard or Yale — two schools that lately seem gung-ho for money raising by almost any means — were deformed even slightly by the hunger to make money selling courses online.
But not every school that has a big-time football team has become a football factory. Stanford University retains its academic reputation despite having a first-rate team. Last year that team included Andrew Luck, the NFL’s top draft choice. Just so, it’s probable that even if Internet education does take off, not every school will be swallowed by it. Some will push back against the corporate types who want to dumb down their work to create profits.
But this is the first time in my memory when our leaders — presidents and deans and boards of trustees -- have so energetically opened the doors of the house of learning to commerce. It is the first time that they’ve shown willingness to insert the entrepreneurs directly into our day-to-day teaching lives. In the past they have stood between us and the market. Though the members of American boards of trustees often come from business, they have understood that the hunger for wealth is not compatible with genuine intellectual life.
The quest for truth will always collide in time with the quest for profits. If Internet entrepreneurs forge a strong alliance with the governors of universities, converting them to the pursuit of gain, teachers and students who want a university based on the disinterested pursuit of truth will be hard-pressed to fight back and to win.
Mark Edmundson is University Professor at the University of Virginia.
Since the 2008 Great Recession, American higher education has experienced a new round of uncertainties and reductions -- especially, but not only, in public institutions. British academics refer to the current season of top-down austerity as "the cuts," but in the U.S., we might speak of lingchi, "death by a thousand cuts." Faculty lines slashed, programs eliminated, course seats lowered, graduate student aid reduced, the decentralized U.S. higher education system has struggled to maintain quality across the disciplines. Humanities programs, in particular, have appeared threatened.
Yet, in this same time we are in the first phase of a digital revolution in higher education. Much of the teaching and learning apparatus has moved online. Computational technologies and methodologies have transformed research practices in every discipline, leading to exciting discoveries and tools. New interdisciplinary initiatives, exploiting the digital, such as bioinformatics, human cognition, and digital humanities, are bringing faculty members together in ways never before attempted.
For the humanities, the threat of diminished resources has appeared hand-in-glove with the digital turn. The recent events at the University of Virginia demonstrate just how influential the digital paradigm has become, but also how unevenly applied its pressures can be. The university's board members seemed to be swayed by the model of massive open online courses (MOOCs) under development at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, among other institutions, most of the key instances of which have been in the STEM fields. Meanwhile, some board members proposed to eliminate classics and German to save money in the face of the university's massive structural budget deficit. They apparently did not realize how many students actually take these subjects (a lot) or that the subjects have been required in state codes chartering the university.
As humanities chairs with a long involvement in digital issues, we have seen clearly that top-down budget cuts are often justified with arguments about how digital technologies are driving change in higher education. Just as the MOOC course model played a signature role in the University of Virginia saga, so one of the most visible controversies in the University of California system at the onset of the epic California budget crisis occurred when Berkeley Law School Dean Christopher Edley Jr. proposed an all-digital UC campus.
So we believe that humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators right now have a choice. One option is to take no systematic action on the digital humanities (DH) front and thus let the long-term digital future be built for them. By taking "no systematic action," we mean the present practices of many of us in the humanities who automatically denounce university ambitions for digital education without looking into the issues, allow digital humanities to be the special province of "power" users, and treat digital humanities as a discretionary field. The results of this course have been anemic: settling the responsibility for leading the humanities into the digital age on adjunct faculty or library staff, ignoring the mismatch between digital humanities and established ways of measuring academic performance, and quarantining digital humanities in a project. We have too often outsourced digital humanities to a special center on campus or tiptoed into digital humanities by advertising for faculty in established fields but adding wistfully that "digital proficiency is a plus."
The other option is for humanities faculty, chairs, and administrators to plan how to integrate the digital humanities systematically through our departments -- to infuse departments with digital technologies and practices so as to create models of organically interrelated humanities digital research, teaching, administration and staff work. Of course, we have no proof that this will "save the humanities," a goal we share but that we fear is counterproductive when posed as an all-or-nothing proposition. Good strategy requires picking some point on the line to apply leverage. The leverage point in the policies now shaping the future university is the digital, and we feel that it is crucial that the humanities try for well-conceived, humanities-friendly models of digital work that are institutionally cohesive enough to influence policy.
How can we change the dynamic and create new structures for the humanities to flourish in the digital age? We recommend the following four principles for faculty members, department chairs and administrators to follow in integrating the digital humanities in the humanities.
It all starts with where scholars live and work natively: in their departments (or similar units). Currently, digital initiatives are predominantly institutionalized in campus units, library annex programs, or interdisciplinary entities; whereas in departments themselves they spring up accidentally like weeds around particular faculty, areas, or projects. We propose an organic strategy for integrating digital initiatives into core departmental research, teaching, administration, and staff work.
Departments should help spread digital methods and tools across the curriculum, for example, by sponsoring graduate students to research digital pedagogies and promoting their cross-adoption or engaging students and faculty to build websites for best practices. Departments might cultivate DH across a larger span of faculty research and craft job searches that alternate between prioritizing established fields, with digital expertise a "plus," and prioritizing digital expertise, with an established field a "plus."
Chairs and faculty should consider adopting new guidelines for tenure and promotion reviews that value such activities as writing grant proposals, collaborating on projects, creating digital archives, building cyberinfrastructure, or contributing influential non-refereed articles or blog posts (starting with steps as simple as standardizing categories for these activities in C.V.s). We have worked in our own departments to explicitly include digital scholarship expectations in letters of offer to digital humanities scholars; to train graduate students in DH (e.g., through an introduction to digital humanities course); and to work with office staff to improve administrative and clerical support of research and teaching through digital methods that meet campus standards, where they exist, of accessibility, preservation, privacy, and security.
Think collaboratively (across departments and divisions).
In our personal experience, the digital humanities are not just a field but a conduit. Digital technologies and media typically require a broad set of methods and skills to carry out -- as in computational or archival projects that require the combined expertise of computer-science engineers, social scientists, artists, and humanists. Digital methods can thus be the common link across departments or divisions collaborating on shared grants, research projects, and curricular initiatives that strengthen the humanities with partners and make them magnets for cost-share and other funding. We have personally benefited from collaborating with other departments and divisions on digital projects, and correlatively we have seen impressive results in our campus administrations' encouragement and cost-share support.
In teaching, the need for partnership is especially acute. For example, the humanities could play an important role in helping to develop innovative digital alternatives to the thrice-weekly 50- or 75-minute large lecture course. Such alternatives could better-serve their own university's students (augmented, perhaps, with instructors and students elsewhere chosen to enhance the educational experience) than astronomically supersized MOOC courses distributed worldwide to ill-defined masses.
In general, departments could expand the collaborative reach of the humanities by taking such steps as: meeting with other departments (and deans) to explore how multiple departments might co-develop a digital course, project, or administrative tool; providing incentives to faculty to try for collaborative grants (e.g., by offering course release for grant writing that, if successful, would repay the lost teaching through curricular development or a course buyout); and creating lecture series and workshops that expose faculty to digital research and pedagogy elsewhere on campus.
Humanities departments need more intensive computing power to conduct research in today's era of large-scale text and data sets, distributed archival resources, and multi-modal (including visual, aural, and cartographic) materials. Yet they often lag in both simple and complex technology. This has spillover effects on teaching as well. Though universities and colleges often furnish classroom technology through central campus agencies, we believe that boosting department-specific technology for the humanities could lead to curricular gains.
The fact is that the latest technology improves humanities research and teaching together, affecting the way our faculty offer their classes by interweaving research and teaching to the benefit of both. For example, the National Endowment for the Humanities-funded English Broadside Ballad Archive (EBBA) project in the University of California at Santa Barbara's English department and the Digital History Project at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln's history department have driven the adoption of higher grades of department technology (workstations, servers, backup systems, remote conferencing tools, text-encoding and image handling tools), all of which has created a thriving digital environment (and busy shared physical space) where undergraduate and graduate students work directly on the project as part of their learning in courses. In general, the humanities are now at a point where we cannot settle for the minimal provision of one aging workstation in each faculty office plus a computer with digital projector in each classroom.
Departments and chairs should seek larger start-up packages for all new hires (and, opportunistically, larger retention packages for faculty with offers elsewhere) to encourage the adoption of powerful computational technologies; initiate a replacement cycle for faculty computers; explore creating a shared department computational research facility (or at least a grouped set of research workstations) if none exist; provide at least one departmentally controlled server for project development or collaborative experimentation that would not be possible on mission-critical university servers; boost large-scale faculty data storage and backup facilities; create remote conferencing facilities to accommodate the increasing number of online meetings and job interviews; and sponsor workshops to keep faculty current on new technologies and methods.
Humanities fields have enjoyed immense cultural authority and interest in every state and community. But they have organized few systematic efforts to maintain, renew, and update these associations in the digital age -- a task that is especially vital when austerity makes some leaders discount the value of the humanities on the basis of misinformed cost-benefit calculations.
The coin of the realm in the digital age, we predict, will be service to society. On the one hand, crowdsourcing and other partnerships with "citizen scholars" will increasingly contribute to humanities scholarship. On the other hand, the humanities must continue to develop their expertise as differentiated from the new, networked public knowledge. The trick will be to evolve the roles of the humanities faculty both in, and distinct from, digital public knowledge so that they will be valued as a necessary instrument in the orchestra.
While the established humanities model of research followed by presentation of finished results in scholarly lectures and publications will continue to be important, that model can no longer stand by itself. Digital technologies allow and, indeed, encourage humanities scholars to engage in open discourse about unfinished research; and they also drive them to "publish" in a wider range of socially visible venues and formats.
Humanities faculty members, chairs, and administrators should start by doing what likely has not been done in recent institutional memory: review what is meant by "service" (typically denoting committee work, supplemented by ill-defined "community" or "other" work). The goal is not to take faculty time away from research and teaching, as if academic work were a zero-sum game, but instead to explore ways to integrate service with everything else for the gain of all. We know ourselves that the simple act of creating a webpage for a project that addresses the public enriches our understanding of the project's research and teaching potential.
In all this, digital technologies are a catalyst for change. Already, digital humanists are exploring methods for publishing in open, crowd-reviewed, blog-based ways. Indeed, there is an incentive for the humanities to ask digital humanists to go even further to create next-generation scholarly platforms that integrate public engagement seamlessly with core research and teaching. For example, online journals could employ text-mining, topic-modeling, linked-data, visualization, and other tools to create on-demand summaries or "WorldCat Identities"-like pages--to be used directly by the public or by scholars for easy import into public websites or course pages.
Humanities departments can take such initial, imaginative steps as conducting a department-wide exercise in revising the departmental web site. Tomorrow's departmental site must go beyond presenting people, courses, and events just one level deep to exposing to public view some of the real content and activity streams of all these (e.g., through interviews with faculty, showcases of student projects, or excerpts from faculty lectures and articles). Other initial steps might include organizing online events that allow faculty and students to share their research with alumni or the community or creating a new service role in the department for an annual "public faculty member" charged with cultivating public engagement, agreeing to meet with members of the community, working on collaboration with local public libraries and museums, and keeping a blog or creating an online showcase for it all.
We are aware that there are valid concerns by many of our colleagues that signing on to the digital revolution in higher education in any systematic way is tantamount to undermining some of the core principles and strengths of the humanities. After all, leading philanthropists have suggested that the World Wide Web will soon eclipse all "place-based institutions" of higher education, and enormous sums of venture capital funding have moved into "for profit" higher ed. Faculty could reasonably conclude that the digital project means participating in the eclipse of their field, ceding even more influence to the oligarchy of elite, private universities with the resources and cachet to start online course consortiums, detracting from the humanistic ideal of close inquiry carried out in intimate conversation, and -- it must also be said -- eroding the need for as many faculty and instructor positions as now exist.
What the current climate tells us, however, is something quite different: that we have an opportunity and a responsibility to reframe the humanities for the digital age. We also see in our respective institutions that administrators, many colleagues, students, and the public are eager to help. The questions and concerns of the humanities continue to speak to and inspire these constituencies, and we should enlist them in our efforts. The reframing project that humanities leaders face will require imagination, leadership, and experimentation. The work we propose is to adopt the necessary level of organizational vision to systematically harness the digital age for the humanities.
William G. Thomas III is chair of the Department of History and the John and Catherine Angle Professor in the Humanities and professor of history at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is a faculty fellow of the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at his university; and formerly he was founding director of the Virginia Center for Digital History at the University of Virginia.
Alan Liu was chair of the Department of English from 2008-12 at the University of California at Santa Barbara, where he founded several digital initiatives, including the English department's transcriptions center (for research and teaching on "literature and the culture of information") and the University of California multicampus research group Transliteracies (focused on online reading technologies and practices).