The Challenge of Technology

The residential liberal arts college remains vital, but the model needs to consider how recent advances may transform education, writes Barry Mills.

September 19, 2011

As we begin this new academic year, I see a set of complex and confusing issues that are potentially and likely transformational in the context of Bowdoin College. Beyond Bowdoin, these forces are likely to be fundamentally disruptive, certainly in the K-12 educational arena and even more likely in higher education, which seeks to educate large numbers of students to be employed in a growing, successful, and just society supported by vibrant U.S. and world economies -- something we all hope to achieve once again. These issues all involve the role of technology in education.

Shortly before I became president of Bowdoin in 2001, our trustees and many others were caught up in the tech boom of the late 1990s. I remember well a trustee retreat in the late 90s that was centered in large part on this very issue. Many trustees shared the then-conventional wisdom that technology would fundamentally change the educational landscape in profound ways. Back then, there were grand predictions about how technology would become a dominant force in the educational landscape. Then came the dot-com bust, as we began the 21st century, and those very same folks significantly discounted the projected impact of technology.

Yet, the impact has been undeniable: e-mail, text messaging, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter, wireless, iPhones, iPads, Android, Skype, BlackBerry, Blackboard, mobile apps, the Cloud, and on and on. Today, you can use an app to find out what's for lunch at our campus, and one of our professors, Eric Chown, is even teaching a course on building these apps.

I own an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple computer, and an iPod. My son George calls me "Apple Redundant." I think it's fair to say that we actually find ourselves on the brink of that revolution or evolution envisioned in the late '90s, but it happened organically and through innovation, surrounded by less hype and without the market exuberance. At least until recently.

In a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month, Marc Andreessen -- the venture capitalist who co-founded Netscape and has backed Facebook, Groupon, Skype, Twitter, Zynga and Foursquare -- wrote that we are on the verge of a new time, when "software is eating the world." Why? Because as he writes, "six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of modern Internet, all the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be delivered on a global basis."

As Andreessen tells us, over two billion people now have broadband Internet access, up from 80 million a decade ago. In the next 10 years he expects that 5 billion people worldwide will own a smartphone -- "instant access to the full power of the Internet."

Today, the world's largest bookseller is Amazon. The largest video service: Netflix. The dominant music companies: iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. And it goes on and on. Just ask the class of 2015 about video games! We are in a moment of change, disruptive change that is altering the landscape, and Andreessen's view is that health care (thankfully) and education are next in line for fundamental software-based transformation.

I connected Andreessen's views with a book I read this summer recommended to me by another brilliant investor. The book -- The Information by James Gleick -- is a history of the way we have thought about and chronicled information over human history. Many years ago -- but not so long ago in human history -- information was transmitted only through the spoken word. The world was fundamentally changed by the invention of the printing press, which allowed us to reproduce facts and information and to make them accessible to many. Today, we live in a society of the web and mobile applications that is equally or perhaps even more transformational. I understand I am conflating years of transformation to make a point, but I think of it this way.

Remember the movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," when the bridge keeper asks Sir Robin to name the capital of Assyria? Well, back then, if you didn't know the answer, the only option was to ask the other guys standing at the bridge before being catapulted into the abyss. Later, one might look it up in an encyclopedia, in an almanac (remember almanacs?), or in a card catalog in the library. Today, Sir Robin would pull out his iPhone and have the answer in a heartbeat, avoiding an untimely demise.

And in a more modern context, I always ask students from far off states how they found their way to Bowdoin. In years past, it was frequently about camp in Maine, a Bowdoin graduate who was their teacher, NESCAC, the Fiske Guide, or the Princeton Review or when Tony Soprano visited Bowdoin. This year, for the first time, the answer -- from more than a few students I met in matriculation -- was Google. And remarkably and importantly, more than a quarter of our applicants are now students we have never seen on campus or who have no contact with us before they apply.

My point is that we are storing, sorting, and filtering information today in ways that are vastly different than we did even 50 or 25 or maybe even 10 years ago.

Now, I am very willing to concede that it is just not the same to do art history research without traveling to a dark archive in France and looking directly at a priceless piece of art. And I am also willing to concede that generations have found it invaluable to walk through the stacks in the library and to locate books and treatises that they didn't even know existed. I understand the power of these experiences and this scholarship, but one must also concede that the transmission and organization of facts and information has changed, and has changed forever.

In the future, we are less likely to be limited by one surprising find in a library, there because a librarian decided to purchase a particular book. Instead, we will be surprised because an algorithm has placed a particular source at the top of our search list on Google, or the next Google. Of course, the future will decide if the process of discovery is as equally rewarding.

And, let me point out that in a world where there is persistent attention on the cost of higher education, the cost of books for our most expensive first-year seminar this year is over $150, and all of those books may be bought online for less than half the cost. Saves money, saves the environment and lightens back strain from the backpack. At this point, online textbooks are a work in progress -- but there are educators and entrepreneurs working today to deliver in the near term a new generation of online textbooks that focus on information, "accessibility, searchability and collaboration." These textbooks will not merely provide information, but provide it in a variety of learning and teaching modes that will make learning more accessible for their readers. One of our faculty colleagues reminds me often that our mission here is not to teach, but to learn. Recognizing that different people, including students, learn in different ways is essential. And, these new advances will allow us to become more effective if we are open and willing.

Where I am headed with all this is that I am convinced that we cannot responsibly ignore the changing dynamics in the way that information is stored and delivered, because these changing dynamics will undoubtedly change our role as educators. The imperative to supply information is being supplanted -- or more likely refocused -- by the availability of the information if sorted and organized responsibly.

The last dot I want to connect is the work of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who has done work throughout his career studying "disruptive change." Christensen studies industries that are convinced that they are serving their clients and customers well, innovating to serve their most important needs. These industries are, in fact, doing so. Until one transformative moment, their clients are willing to pay the high costs of the service or product they deliver. Then, one day, the business is replaced by a lower cost, more effective model, often driven by the power of technology. And the mature, well-conceived, high-quality, high-cost supplier is suddenly an anachronism.

Christensen's examples include PCs displacing mainframes, department stores yielding to Walmart, and Fidelity overtaking conventional investment banks, among others. Not surprisingly, Christensen has focused on technology as the disruptive change agent for education at the K-12 level. Also, given the economics of higher education and the skills required of our workforce, Christensen sees the advent of distance learning as a powerful change agent for higher education.

Christensen's focus in higher education is more directed at institutions that are educating vast numbers of students less than effectively at high cost. His thesis, borne out by current trends, is that the substance of the education these institutions provide will likely be delivered in the future much more through distance learning and possibly through for-profit education that is more cost effective and directed to skills and education that translates into job readiness.

For elite institutions such as Bowdoin, Christensen is more circumspect about disruptive change because the high-quality education provided by these elite colleges and universities -- education that is recognized as opening the doors to select and high paying jobs or academic careers -- will, over the near term, be sustainable despite the high cost because of the return on the investment and the quality of the education. But it will by its very structure be available to a privileged few who have the ability to pay the cost or are supported by institutional endowment.

So, what does all of this mean for Bowdoin and other elite liberal arts colleges? I'll be the first to admit, I don't know. But I am convinced it is worth thinking about. Let me be clear that I believe there will always be a place for the mode and substance of a liberal arts education and the residential life experience that Bowdoin represents. And in a Google and Wikipedia world with a high degree of access to facts and information, there will be a premium on a liberal arts education that helps students learn which facts are worth knowing, what they can rely on, and how to interpret these facts. I believe society will come to value our form of education even more because what we do, at our best, is more than imparting information. We enable our students to develop judgment and perspective using the available facts and information in a manner based on critical judgment and analysis.

College education at Bowdoin is less about merely accumulating facts that are a keystroke away, and more about evaluating the veracity of the information and developing the powers of interpretation and judgment. But given the reliance on talent that our model demands, it will be, by its very nature, the high-cost model of education. That's why we must be excellent, sophisticated, and the very best at imparting the wisdom and judgment our students will need to be important citizens of our country and the world.

Rather than being disruptive to Bowdoin, I am convinced that technology and modes of learning emancipated by technology will have the power, potentially, to incrementally, rather than disruptively, improve our educational model. Take the new student information system as an example. For years, Bowdoin students have registered for courses using paper cards submitted to our registrar. In fact, just this week, 485 first-year students registered in the last two days on paper cards for their courses this semester, and all are ready to go. And members of our faculty have advised students effectively for years, based on course catalogs and paper versions of course availability supplemented by our clunky current system. Our students have done well throughout this time, well advised and finding themselves in the courses they desire.

Now we will spend a few million dollars on a computer software that will allow people to register online and the system will collate and organize more effectively information about our students and our curriculum. The important question is, how will this make us a better college? How will we advise our students better with this technology? I suspect the answer will lie in how we change the way we approach the challenge. Or stated more directly, the technology will not improve our quality unless we utilize the technology to improve our educational and business practices. One cannot justify the expenditure unless we improve the quality of what we do for our students, except, of course, if one is satisfied that this system is better merely because it might take less time and maybe makes us more productive -- neither a goal that inherently suggests good advising. The interesting test case will be to see if technology improves our performance as students and as faculty advisers, a task that I have asked the folks implementing the system to assess over the coming years.

One could imagine innumerable ways that technology and the power to connect with colleagues nationally and internationally could allow us to expand our course offerings, or to become more global. Already, the power to connect is used in meaningful ways by our faculty to collaborate with colleagues in research and scholarship. I suggest that expanding our conception of teaching to incorporate this technology in similar ways will incrementally enhance our educational enterprise. For faculty who seek global connections for our students, there are mechanisms available to bring the global community into our classrooms here in Brunswick, Maine. Is this a perfect solution or an absolute replacement for foreign study? No. But it is quite likely that our students, faculty, and community would benefit from real time, face-to-face interaction with students and faculty in foreign lands.

We are continually and thoughtfully asked by our faculty and students to create new programs at Bowdoin. There is often genuine enthusiasm and good reason to consider the new program, but creating something new at Bowdoin from a standing start, where we might have one or two faculty committed to the concept, is difficult and expensive. Would it be better to build it ourselves in our residential community? Most definitely, yes. But it is also certain that resources over the next period will be limited and the power to connect with colleagues at other places that could create the critical mass for these new programs is worth considering. It is also apparent, at least to me, that there are opportunities to improve the substance and scope of our model of education by providing sophisticated programs and advanced study at the outer edges of certain disciplines where a few students would be interested in study.

How we utilize this technology while preserving the core of our college, the very brand of our college -- the connection between our faculty as teachers and scholars and our students as learners -- will be critical. But we should not turn away from opportunities to expand the sophistication and scope of our program in ways that adds to the depth and strength of our college. Not only because the opportunities might be cost-effective, but because the overall quality of a Bowdoin education will be directly linked with the excellence and sophistication of that program. For, while we are certain that the relationship between our faculty and students is at the core of what we do, that core will not be sustainable if the relationship is not grounded in the most sophisticated educational resource available. If we are not first-rate and intellectually sophisticated, over time we will not attract first-rate, sophisticated faculty or students. Connection and collaboration are crucial, but a sophisticated Bowdoin is fundamental.

Of course, I am sufficiently humble to understand that the musings of a college president do not effect change. Nothing happens at a college or university unless the faculty or some group of faculty decides on their own that there is something to an idea, and takes the initiative. But I think the future is clear, and we will be looking in our rearview mirror if we are not prepared to grapple with these new opportunities.

Finally, and more ambitiously, elite institutions would be well-served to consider more directly the means to impart more broadly and more cost-effectively the sum and substance of what we teach and how we learn to large segments of our society. Technology has the power to be the conductor of this education and to empower masses of people, rather than just a privileged few at these elite institutions. By this, I mean more comprehensive efforts than merely open-source education and free access to lectures.

Elite institutions with the brightest minds and the most ambitious programs would be well served to consider how we flatten the curve to make this quality education available readily to a much broader section of our society. This is a big project, but it is an imperative that elite higher education should take on. For while there is no doubt that elite institutions are doing great work making our form of education available to many who in the past could never gain access, the size of our institutions collectively and the access we create is a small fraction of the demographic that could benefit from the educational opportunity. A vexing task, but one made more possible every day through the innovation of software and technology. It is, in my view, a challenge that elite educational institutions should take on, especially given the demographics of the country and the cost and price implications of our institutions.

As you shift in your seats, let me reemphasize for you that I am confident in the style and substance of what we do at Bowdoin. But I am equally confident that we live in a rapidly changing educational landscape where it is essential that we exist at the highest level of sophistication in order to attract and retain the best faculty and students and support the cost structure of our form of education. To my mind, the transformation of education that we face demands that we have the confidence to explore these new opportunities.


Barry Mills is president of Bowdoin College. This essay is adapted from his convocation talk to new students this fall.


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