Boost for Liberal Arts Technology?

A new partnership could give small colleges the networking capabilities of research universities.
November 17, 2009

Super high-speed networks are usually the dominion of research universities that need to manage lots of information and transmit it very quickly. Liberal arts colleges, which are less likely to be running supercomputers or logging massive quantities of research data, have not typically deployed them.

That could soon change. The National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education is planning to announce a partnership with Internet2 aimed at bringing liberal arts colleges up to speed on advanced networking.

Eric Jansson, director of NITLE labs, said the institute’s collaboration with Internet2 -- a top provider of “backbone” networks for researchers -- could allow liberal arts colleges to expand their curricular offerings, attract top faculty, and provide remote access to digital collections and other resources.

“The liberal arts have every interest in growing their presence in the sciences, and attracting those faculty who are doing cutting-edge research in all these fields,” Jansson told Inside Higher Ed. “Operationally, they want to expand their capabilities, and they want to engage in the type of scale that makes these types of activities affordable.”

The partnership is in its early stages, but NITLE's executive director, Joey King, said the institute has been in talks with about a half-dozen colleges about putting together pilot programs to test the ways high-bandwidth networks might enhance liberal education.

One is by enabling better video conferencing. Internet2’s advanced networks are “low latency,” meaning that the glitches and delays that can foil the integration of video-based communication via less powerful networks would no longer be an issue. So, instead of five liberal arts colleges hiring five professors to teach five different Arabic language courses on five different campuses, Jansson suggested, one campus could hire one Arabic instructor to teach a course on his own campus and broadcast it to four others.

He pointed to Sunoikisis, the Harvard-based consortium of classics programs, as a model for this sort of exchange. “In some sense, you could say that we’re trying to do is look at the next generation of technology and how it allows us to propel a model like Sunoikisis,” he said.

Liberal arts consortiums could share other resources, such as media collections, Jansson said. It might even be possible to pipe out data being collected by electron microscopes and other sophisticated equipment at research universities connected to the Internet2 network to liberal arts colleges that could never dream of purchasing such machinery themselves.

The idea, he said, would be for liberal arts colleges to leverage each other’s resources to maximize what they could offer students and faculty while minimizing how much they would need to spend to do it -- similar to “cloud computing,” where colleges purchase the ability to use remotely hosted software without having to buy and maintain the associated hardware.

The possibilities the Internet2 network enables, Jansson added, would not only make these liberal arts colleges more attractive to students, but to faculty who might have balked before at their relatively weak research data infrastructures.

Still, King said NITLE’s effort to leverage Internet2 is in its early stages, and will not be without significant challenges -- such as connecting the super-speed network to the institute's sometimes rural affiliates and figuring out applications that are appropriate to the sort of teaching and learning that the liberal arts tradition promotes.

“That’ll take some doing,” he said, “to figure out how all these different capabilities will mesh with the liberal arts and liberal education pedagogy, where the classroom experience is probably the most valued part of the equation.”

While it could take time before any of NITLE's aspirations are widely realized, King said it is not too early to start thinking about how liberal arts colleges might adapt new technologies. "It behooves us to get involved early," he said, “because it will be so ubiquitous in higher ed in 20 years, and we need to essentially start facing the challenges now."


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