The Campus: The Old Imperialism?

eskow_tnBy Steve Eskow
Staff Writer

Lynn Zimmerman asks all the right questions in her article “Access: The New Imperialism?” I hope we can find some way to bring others into the discussion since those questions cut to the very heart of the matter of the new technologies—and the old technologies—and the future of education for a world in search of  rebuilding.

Here is  Lynn’s central thesis:

As I read some of the comments  [in Eskow’s article], I started to wonder if this insistence on “getting out of the building” and going strictly to an online format is a form of “technological imperialism.” (See “Aping the West: Information technology and cultural imperialism” by Paul Cesarini.) Although many people have ready access to all kinds of technology, not everyone in the world does. By saying that the brick and mortar classroom is out-of-date and should be disbanded, aren’t we in danger of disenfranchising a large number of people who have no capability of engaging in education through technology? That is not to mention the people who have no interest in and no ability for using technology.

Our difference begins with Lynn’s assumption that we technological imperialists are urging “getting out of the building.” She assumes that the buildings—that old, great, medieval instructional technology, the campus—are already built, available to those who need instruction, and that we are trying to empty them and replace the rich instruction that goes on in lecture halls and classrooms and libraries and media centers with computers.

eskow_jan09aFirst proposition: the campus, like the computer, is a technology, an instructional technology.

Second proposition: there are many students for whom the lecture hall and notetaking is a poor instructional technology, and who do not learn much in the conventional classroom

Third  proposition: the campus is a very expensive instructional technology. Keeping the building clean and the lawns trimmed and the parking lots patrolled costs—and of course it costs millions to build the campus in the first place. The 26 public and private universities in Ghana, where my work is now, are breaking down: students in hallways because the lecture hall cannot accommodate them, eight students stuffed into a dorm room built for two—and despite all this, only 5% of those 18-22 can be accommodated.

Note, too, that  the vast majority of Ghanaians are in rural areas, often remote from the nearest university or polytechnic, which typically are in cities or large communities. To use the instructional technology called the campus the student must leave home and family and live in one of those dorms and sit in one of those lecture halls, if there is a seat for him, or standing room.

That old instructional technology of campus is a form of internal brain drain, taking from the rural areas their best minds and crowding them into the cities.

Current books and journals  in that campus library? At current prices? Adequate collections in each of those 26 libraries?

The Nigerian Lynn cited talks about the failures: the computer centers equipped with  computers donated to schools unprepared to use them. He does not talk of the thousands of Africans who have no access to good secondary instruction and are debarred completely from higher education unless they are of the elite and can afford to leave home to study—often at a foreign university, perhaps never to return to Africa. Again, the campus as brain drain.

Lynn cites an article re “technological imperialism”: Western technologies promoted thoughtlessly destroy indigenous cultures.

Presumably the author does not consider the British educational system, with its streaming and creaming and building-based universities with campuses and dormitories and maintenance crews and Western-style curricula a form of technological imperialism—but if that language is appropriate for computers it is appropriate for  campuses. The university as we know it, then, is a colonial transplant and not an indigenous institution.

wealth_of_networksThere is of course something to worry about, something to look at carefully, in the current vogue of “global education,” the possibility that we are exporting Western ideas and ideologies along with t-shirts and McDonalds. It is important to note, however, that many of those leading the attack on the “digital divide,” urging the creation of new educational forms built on the new technologies—technologies perhaps less expensive in the long run than the old brick-and-mortar technologies—are themselves Third World intellectuals. Indeed, many of them resent the talk of “indigenous cultures” and propose that it means that we want computers for the West and drums and chanting for he South. Those that I work with think they can have both: computers and chanting.

In his Wealth of Networks, Yochai Benkler contrasts what he calls the “industrial age information economy” with the new “networked information economy.” In the old information economy, communicating ideas, knowledge, and culture required expensive capital equipment—printing presses, television studios and the like—and around this equipment the structure of knowledge and its dispersion was built. Although Benkler does not include the university in his discussion of the old information economies, the case seems apparent: to have a “real” higher education system, you must first spend millions or billions for brick and mortar universities, and millions for their upkeep and maintenance.

Now anyone with access to a reasonably inexpensive computer can create and publish video and radio and text, and be part of the new knowledge economy. And be a student in an online university.

And we can put the instructor’s face and voice and instruction online, and send them to a computer in a church basement in a rural community where one or three or five students can use that computer to see the lecture, and engage with the instructor, and discuss the issues with colleagues they don’t see—as I am engaging with Lynn Zimmerman, whom I can’t see, but has contributed to my learning.

It may be, then, that the campus is the old imperialism, and the computer the promise of a new possibility for democratizing education.

22 Responses

  1. This discussion, and in particular Paul Cesarini’s article quoted by Lynn Zimmermann, reminded me of another one about cultural diversity on the Information Society: Voices from the South mailing list in 2003: Indigenous Knowledge is a Red Herring by Ghanian programmer Guido Sohne:

    …In a connected world, indigenous knowledge is the extent to which one is connected to other people. Indigenous knowledge will create itself once those who can use it and those who can create it are connected today.
    Knowledge is also a function of education and prior access to information. Connectedness is a state of acquiring knowledge of all kinds.
    A cornerstone of any effort at becoming a civilized, information society will be to work hard on making universal education available that is of. Education thrives on access to information, bringing in the connectivity
    issue once more.

    Indigenous Information =Bandwidth, Connectedness & Education

    There is no such thing as local needs in this argument. Local needs are a euphemism for being short changed into accepting islands of content in seas without connectivity populated by people unfortunate enough to have been born unconnected with information without the knowledge or awareness of the events that have and are conspiring to mire them forever in muck. Locality of geography has no value in the world of connected ideas.

    And in a 2003 radio interview, he insisted on this:

    I’ll start by asking three questions. What is African mathematics? What is African science? and what is African software? There is no such thing as “African” any of these. Thinking that there is is the easy way out. Africa is a place not a branch. / The point is that knowledge is the same everywhere because a fact is a fact ….. is repeatable. So we can look at these knowledges. You have local knowledge, you have golbal knowledge. What’s the size of the local knowledge, or what’s the size of the Global knowledge? Global knowledge is much richer than local knowledge. I believe that promoting indigenous knowledge is not as good as promoting formal knowledge and my fear is that this indigenous knowledge motive being promoted at WSIS will be used to fund projects at little benefit instead of looking at the legal problems and looking at the bigger picture. It’s easy to say that you are doing something about indigenous knowledge, by, let’s say, funding some web site of some local culture or whatever but to do something about the real problems which are poverty and lack of politic vision. So I think in that context, I think that indigenous knowledge is a misdirection, it’s a wrong, and that’s why I call it a red herring. (1)

    Guido Sohne died last year, aged 34. He had founded the Free Software and Open Source Foundation for Africa (see Nnenna Nwakanma’s Tribute to Guido Sohne – a global FOSS Citizen). But due to the absence of financial support from international NGOs and development institutions, he had accepted a job at Microsoft the previous year.

    (1) From my transcript of the interview, which was aired – dubbed in Italian – by Radio Fiume Ticino on Nov.24, 2003. (see Tam Tam – I contenuti locali)

  2. Claude, my own work in Ghana was heavily influenced by Guido Sohne: he was an easy and generous correspondent, and we agreed on much. You can perhaps see his influence in my comments on “indigenous knowledge.” His death was a great loss to Africa and the world.

    The notion that ICT is a threat to African culture is actually quite pernicious. There is hunger and sickness and poverty in Africa, and Africa needs knowledge to combat these scourges, and information technology can bring it to those Africans who need it. Africa needs a knowledge commons, and new ways of using the new information technology to bring learning to where it needs to go.

  3. I am certainly not saying that access to technology should be denied to anyone. Access to technology is a complicated, complex, and often contradictory issue. While access to technology on one hand can open many doors, and windows ;-), as educators we cannot ignore the potential for exclusion. Access can be and is denied to people on individual and institutional levels, and in varying degrees.

    At present, I am moderating an online workshop for ESL/EFL (English as a Second Language/English as a Foreign Language) teachers. This week’s topic is social bookmarking. One participant from the United States commented today (January 26, 2009) that his students were unable to use social bookmarking at school because the school’s filtering system recognizes many social bookmarking sites as “social networking” sites, and blocks them. Few of these same students have computer and/or Internet access at home. Therefore, due to issues of access, this is not a feasible tool for his students. While they are not being denied access to all technology, their access to what could be a useful tool for them is limited due to institutional restrictions that impact all students, and individual restrictions which impact those students who cannot afford access.

  4. Lynn, I don’t think you and Steve are in disagreement. You’re simply attacking the problem from different angles. From Steve’s perspective, one solution to the access problem is to divert precious funds from the “old imperialism” of classroom-oriented expenditures (buildings, maintenance, utilities, furniture, security, parking lots, etc.) to notebook computers for students and infrastructure that supports online learning. This shift from the medium of buildings to electronic media (he correctly refers to both as “technology”) provides instant access to the latest communications technology that serves as an open door to interactive learning and the world’s information resources.

    Access to computers and the web doesn’t necessarily solve all the problems, but it provides the essentials, leaving educators with the task of creating nontraditional physical environments that facilitate learning via the new technology. In this zero sum scenario where little or no funds are left for traditional schools and classrooms, teachers, administrators, and support staff will have to work with the community and use their collective imagination and creativity to come up with solutions.

    Teachers are ultimately resourceful, and I have no doubt that they’ll find the answers they need to undermine imperialisms — whatever their guise.

  5. Jim, you are by temperament and training a mediator, a conciliator who see all sides of an issue and looks for synthesis, or at least a peaceful disagreement!

    There may be some value in Lynn’s and my pushing a bit further on our differences for a few more exchanges.

    Perhaps one reason for the difference is this (and Lynn will correct me if I’m wrong): Lynn starts by taking the campus for granted, in place, and the new communication technology as as an additional expense, and additional complication. The millions to build the buildings are already spent, the parking lots are there, and somehow students get to that campus–by auto or by bus. And if the campus is for a community college, and woman has child care responsibilities that exclude her from leaving home, and there is no distance learning via computer to allow her to take courses, so be it–she gets no college education.

    Lynn rightly points out the exclusions generated by the new communication technologies. The exclusions generated by the campus technology have become invisible.

    Millions in Africa are now denied college instruction. There is no realistic possibility of meeting this need by building new campuses on the Western model. Africa can leapfrog over the old building-based technologies and harness the power of the new technologies to bring learning to where people live.

  6. […] Obviously, technology includes books, paper, pencils, even institutions. Which is why I found this discussion on the campus interesting: First proposition: the campus, like the computer, is a technology, an instructional […]

  7. Steve, I agree wholeheartedly: “There may be some value in Lynn’s and my [Steve’s] pushing a bit further on our differences for a few more exchanges.” I should’ve explained what I meant by not being “in disagreement.” The agreement is in the fact that you’re both after access — the difference is in the approach. We can work from inside or outside the box, and I agree that there’s a LOT of value in pushing deeper into your and Lynn’s differences. I’m convinced that if there is an answer, it’s somewhere within that gap between the way things are and the way they could be. Interestingly, in bumping against security issues that limit social networking among students, Lynn is beginning to challenge the confines of the box, and this just may be a first step outside the box.

  8. Jim, that other brilliant Jim–Morrison–seems to be an advocate of “blended” or “hybrid” learning: some mixture of required face-to-face presence and instruction with a large portion of technology-mediated instruction. The technology portion of the mixture can be on campus, as in an MIT lab which Jim admires, or at a distance.

    Does hybridity make sense, really work, or does it blend the worst features of the old and the new instructional technologies in a mixture that never really comes together? And combines the expenses of both technologies, the old and the new?

    Thus: if Jim S and Steve E were required to get together face-to-face once a week, or once a month, would that blending improve our work together, or, as I suspect, end it?

  9. Good question, Steve. I tend to think that “blended” confounds access issues — continuing the cost of traditional F2F resources while raising the cost of technology. Thus, replicating blended models in resource-poor areas would cost more rather than less, greatly reducing access to education.

    As a weaning step, blending might make sense, but it seldom works in this regard. Tech is often used to enhance traditional lecture methods, reinforcing belief that F2F is the most effective way to deliver instruction. Students are left wondering why they need to attend class when the tech to deliver the lecture asynchronously is available. This leaves the prof with the untenable position of limiting critical info to F2F lecture sessions: If the student doesn’t attend class, s/he doesn’t get the info.

    I’ve been teaching completely online classes for over a decade. In the early years, I offered hybrid sections for students who weren’t quite ready to make the leap. Once they became familiar with the tech processes, however, they didn’t see the need to attend F2F classes, and I couldn’t justify them except as workshops for those who still needed help with tech aspects. The few who remained quickly realized that they could avoid the commute to campus, the search for parking, the cost of gas, etc. if they could manage the tech themselves. That was motivation enough to master the online tech. Soon, the class was empty. I stopped offering hybrid classes after a couple of semesters.

    In my last comment re thinking outside the box, the “box” refers to traditional F2F approaches and “outside” refers to approaches that are separate from the box.

    I think a lot of what passes for “blended” approaches are resurrections of the old computer-assisted instruction (CAI), which relegated tech to secondary roles that offered programed drills, practice, exercises, canned info, etc. When Web 2.0 interactivity is part of the blend, it’s relegated to purely social functions or to auxiliary sources of info. The blend is always heavily weighted toward the F2F lecture or activity.

    Re the idea that F2F synchronous meetings are superior to asynchronous online interactions such as this — I think you’ve covered this ground exceptionally well. There’s no evidence to suggest that F2F is better. For example, Innovate, the journal, is a wholly online effort, as is I-Blog. Would F2F meetings improve the process? No. I believe it would actually make it infinitely less efficient.

    This discussion that we’re having is a critical first step in understanding the parameters of “real” change options, and I’m delighted that you’re not letting it go.

  10. Jim, never mind being on the same page: we’re on the same paragraph.

    We’re attacking the hegemony of the “campus” as the scene of learning, and proposing that “blending” may be a placebo rather than a genuine cure for harnessing the educative power of the new ICT. I wonder how Jim M, and Tad in Poland react to such views: can we get them to engage? And now that she’s gone beyond that first strange day, I wonder how Carrie Heeter feels about hybrid learning. And I’d welcome further thoughts from Lynn.

    Does the “metaphysics of presence” enter often in such discussions: the belief that speech is genuine and complete communication since we are fully “present” to each other, while writing, as in distance learning, is secondary, derivative, and something less than full communication? Jacques Derrida “deconstructed” this position, but I suspect it remains the belief of those who believe that only face-to-face instruction, the teacher and her students engaging in real time is complete learning.

  11. Steve, an invitation just went out to Lynn, Jim, Tad, and Carrie. I hope they’ll jump in.

  12. Thanks, Jim. I’m ready, willing and able. ;-)

    Steve, you’ve convinced me. Show me a university which is ready to employ me as an e-lecturer working online from Poznan, Poland, the European Union. To make a good start, I offer two e-courses: “Europe’s Information Society” ( ) and “Multilingual Europe” ( ). At a later time, I will offer some e-courses within the concentration “Technology for Information Protection” ( ). :-)


  13. Tad, what an exciting possibility you’ve opened up: we join or create an “open” university, all instruction online, academics from all over the world.

    The New York Times, and newspapers around the world, carried the story of the Israeli entrepreneur now living in California who intends to start an almost-free online university

    He’s putting up the first million of the five million US dollars he needs to start.

    Perhaps Denise Easton, who knows communication software and is entrepreneurial, can be our organizer.

  14. “It depends” is a cop out, but also usually true. A major factor in whether being together in the same room is how motivated students in the class are not to have to come to campus every week to be in class. I have found that full time students who are enrolled in an on campus program are most resistant to fully online classes. They are used to and enjoy the presence of fellow students, and they have organized their lives to be able to go to classes. The familiarity of in person togetherness overshadows potential benefits of fully online learning. Those exact same individuals welcome a fully online summer section, enabling them to go home (or anywhere else) for the summer but still complete requirements towards their degree.

    Students who live a long distance from campus, those will full time jobs and parents of young children are much more likely to welcome a class which they can attend from home. Here too the convenience of fully online outweighs perceived and actual limitations of technology.

    I would like to add a distinction. We should be discussion ASYNCHRONOUS, SYNCHRONOUS-physically present, and SYNCHRONOUS-but-online. Each has different teaching affordances. Physically present requires a building.

    As a teacher, quality of teaching and learning is another critical factor. I live in San Francisco and teach at Michigan State University. So, (instructor convenience), it is a given that my students are going to have a distant professor. I get to decide whether to teach fully online, to require them all to go to an on campus classroom almost like a “normal” in person class, or to do something hybrid.

    For 8 years I exclusively taught fully online. Then I started adding 1 hour of optional “in person” time huddled around a conference phone in a conference room. I didn’t know exactly what to do with that hour, but it seemed to add something the students had been missing. Then I had some students who didn’t want to go to campus, so about 1/3 attended via free audio and Breeze for PowerPoint and two thirds were physically together in the conference room, also linked by Breeze and an audio conference call. This mixed mode is a bit bizarre but meets both the co-present and remote students’ needs.

    This fall I taught an in person class that met in a classroom, live, 3 hours every Wednesday night. The only reason this happened is that I stepped in to teach this already scheduled class at the last minute. But I learned a huge amount trying to figure out how to make 3 hours of live class vitally interesting with a Skyped in virtual professor. It helped me better understand what to do with my live student time.

    My current best practice thinking is a hybrid solution. When I am providing linear information, I can offer a much better learning experience if I write documents, craft PowerPoint presentations, and record audio. I do that for mini-lectures, content modules, and giving assignments. I also package guest interviews with industry professionals. If I want every student to participate, we do it asynchronously (blogs, or uploading project reports).

    I use synchronous time for:

    – Any Questions? (clarifying assignments and concepts works better for everyone to be live)
    – Breakout small group discussion or activity during class period, followed by synthesis and full class discussion
    – Quick review (with Q&A – me doing the Q)
    – Thought provoking questions (students volunteer answers, prof sometimes calls on random people)
    – Student presentations to the class

    Because my current class this semester turns out to be entirely comprised of on campus students, everyone but me is in the classroom. Technologically, everything I am doing right now could immediately accommodate remote students. But I don’t have any who want that. I begin each class with a student survey, to help me decide how to offer the class.

  15. Thanks, Carrie, for a fascinating post–and one that adds a new (to me) complication to the notion of “hybridity”: the possibility of students required to go to the building but the instructor not!

    “It depends” seems to be the only appropriate answer. It seems to depend on the the “situation”, the initial structure of involvements and requirements shaping the students situation. Thus: in the summer, when students are not required to be in the neighborhood of the building, when they can be working elsewhere, or traveling, they prefer the all-online arrangement, which allows them the freedom to learn without the restrictions of campus geography. When they are required to attend campus at all, they prefer to have it all-campus. Doesn’t that seem to suggest that “hybridity” is not really a preference of students, but an imposition of the institution?

    (I’m not sure you’re right about why the campus students prefer the classroom to online instruction. You attribute this to the advantages of “presence”: I suspect that the advantages of “presence” when you are one of 300 in a lecture hall, or even 30 in a classroom, are not really that attractive to the students listening to the lecture or sitting quietly in the classroom.)

    Is it possible, Carrie, that your students want synchronous instruction because like the live lecture it’s less demanding, less insistent on participation?

  16. I teach all three types of classes at the University of Arizona–on line, hybrid, and face to face. The hybrid is new to me and I developed that option only after teaching some summer and winter sessions online–and yes, Carrie is right, they really want that option so they can leave campus! What I found in my online courses is that the discussions were deeper in the forums, more students participated more freely than they would have face to face. I know for a fact that young women from non western cultures would not have shared their personal and intellectual experiences so freely in a live discussion class.

    And so this semester I am using the Friday of my MWF class as an online discussion forum. Students in my Women and the Law class have been weighing in this week about what equality under the law means/looks like–and not only have the discussions been provocative and deep, but everyone has to participate and I can judge where each student is in understanding the reading. I think it makes me a better teacher when I go back into the face to face class on Monday morning and do a follow up to our discussion. And I also believe it makes them work harder (not less, as Steve suggests) as they need to engage personally with the reading in order to be able to respond to my discussion prompt.

  17. Steve,

    Your comments about presence make sense. I teach graduate classes, with enrollment ranging from 12 to 25.

    As far as live lecture it’s less demanding, less insistent on participation, ease of learning is not an inappropriate motivation. Harder and more demanding does not necessarily mean more learning. Always a challenge to make sure hard is also good.

    I offered my in person class a choice between me lecturing (via Skype and Breeze) or posting an online mini-lecture. They unanimously voted for the mini-lecture. At least for small classes, and certainly with a virtual professor, some of each (hybrid) seems like the best answer for on campus learners.

    Specifics aside, it seems like there are different affordances of live and asynchronous, Neither is best for everything.


  18. Judith,

    I find these words of yours of great importance:

    “What I found in my online courses is that the discussions were deeper in the forums, more students participated more freely than they would have face to face. I know for a fact that young women from non western cultures would not have shared their personal and intellectual experiences so freely in a live discussion class.”

    When campus-based students opt for face-to-face lectures rather than online discussion, it may be that the lecture, and even the 30-student classroom, are less demanding, allow for tuning out and reverie in ways that online dialog does not. Or so your experience seems to suggest.


  19. Carrie,

    Your students preferred the online mini-lecture to the live Skype or Breeze lecture in which you were “present”.

    What do you conclude from this?


  20. I have one graduate class that I have moved from face-to-face to hybrid using asynchronous discussion boards for student interaction online. The students and I both agree that the hybrid class allows for options and opportunities to engage in different ways.

    The online part of the course, as others have mentioned, gives my very busy students an opportunity to engage actively in class without having to drive anywhere. Because it is asynchronous, they can also do it at their convenience, within parameters that they as a group agree upon. Because the forums are written, and not oral, it gives those students who are comfortable with and good at writing a chance to engage the material in a different way and at a different level than face-to-face offers. Some of these students even try to engage their classmates more actively in the discussion. However, some of my students generally write enough to fulfill the assignment requirements and do not go beyond that.

    The face-to-face format offers advantages as well. First of all, there are some students who are better at expressing themselves orally than in writing. Face-to-face discussions give them the chance to engage effectively with the materials and with each other. Face-to-face also seems more open to spontaneity. Perhaps, I think this, because I am a fairly good discussion facilitator. I watch faces and listen to tone of voice. I listen to what is being said, and what is not being said and I guide the discussion accordingly, creating more flow than I often find in my students’ written online discussions.

    I can hear someone out there saying: you take care of that issue by giving your students the opportunity to have oral discussions online. Let’s save that discussion for later. I just want to conclude by saying that I think in order to meet the needs of all of our students, we need to offer them as broad a learning environment as is possible.

  21. Lynn, you’ve summarized the classic arguments for face-to-face instruction very well. Essentially you’re invoking what Derrida called “the metaphysics of presence”: that speech is the “originary” form of communication, that it is a more complete and full form of communication, since it includes all the nonverbal signals you mention, and so on.

    It’s important to note that the available research doesn’t support the conclusion that “presence” makes for greater learning. Tom Russell’s web site called “NSD: No Significant Difference” has been presenting summaries of that research: sometimes face-to-face instruction seems auperior, sometimes mediated instruction, most often–no significant difference.

    You might also want to look at Pierre’s Bourdieu’s writing on the issue. He writes of “scholastic enclosure”, the creation of set-apart spaces removed from the urgencies of daily living that generate a kind of teacher and student that have what he calls “the scholastic disposition.”

    My own position comes at the matter this way: even if there are minor advantages of the “enclosure” we pay too high a price for it. We pay millions and billions to build the enclosure, to maintain it: money that might be better spent on teaching and learning. And perhaps more importantly, by requiring people to be able to get to that building at specified times we eliminate from instruction all those for whom distance and obligations and economics prevent from getting to that place at exactly 9:00am.

    More simply: I might learn more about this matter from you if I could sit in your presence and hear you say the things you have written, so that you could watch me and modify your words according to my body language. I can’t do that. So I settle for this ability to learn from you at a distance, and I’d like to make it possible for those now excluded from learning to be able to do so with the prior need for architects and bulldozers.

  22. That last sentence should of course read “without the prior need for architects and bulldozers.”

    And: Tom Russell’s “No Significant Difference” is here:

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