Taking Aim at a President: Technology vs. Traditional Practices in Liberal Arts Colleges

Jim ShimabukuroBy Jim Shimabukuro

Midway through 2012, I can’t help but feel that the toughest job in higher education is that of president. With stakes so high and change so rampant, chaotic, and divisive, it must be close to impossible to please everyone. Thus, those who take on the challenge and actually thrive have become masters at tiptoeing around the edges of controversy. Perhaps the most active sinkhole on college campuses is technology, where presidents are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Thus, I take little pleasure in spotlighting Adam F. Falk, president of Williams, for a presentation* at a recent conference, defending the traditional practices that have defined liberal arts colleges against the onslaught of the latest technology. However, I feel that the issues are important and that discussing them openly, even if it’s in the context of an outstanding educational leader, is necessary.

Falk defines the core values of a liberal arts education as a learning environment

  • that is “personal, intimate, collaborative”
  • in which students “will know the faculty and their fellow students, and the community will know them”
  • “that will prepare them best to be purposeful in their lives and effective in the world”
  • in which “education is still as much about human interaction as about delivering content”

He says “that the great potential of the new technologies is not to upend these core values, but to allow us to fulfill our existing educational mission more effectively, especially by giving us new strategies to transcend our limitations of scale and location.” He cites distance education in particular, which, “if thoughtfully deployed, [extends] our curricula into areas not covered by our relatively small faculties.”

If this were the extent of his presentation, I’m sure few if any would find fault with it. However, the details of his argument are surprising if not, at times, perplexing. For example, this is the picture he paints of today’s teens:

  • they are “raised in a world of Wikipedia and ubiquitous multimedia stimulation”
  • they have adopted a learning style that prefers “the most disjunctive and hyperkinetic features of the modern world”
  • they “[speed] along the Information Superhighway” and are, as a result, “cognitively [exhausted] and … ultimately [unsatisfied]”
  • they “surf a relentless wave of disconnected facts” and are unable “to slow down and think carefully about a coherent set of information”
  • they’re losing “the capacity and disposition for slow, reflective, and difficult engagement with material”

This portrait seems condescending if not demeaning of the vast majority of young people who routinely use the web and the latest personal electronic devices for instant, on-the-go information and communication, learning and research, reflection and analysis, recording and composing, publishing and sharing, socializing and entertainment.

Furthermore, Falk paints an unflattering picture of those who advocate change:

  • they “[passionately claim] that information technology has changed everything about our students and how we must educate them”
  • they assert “that these new technologies have changed, or will soon change, the very fundamentals of our profession”
  • they say that “all … liberal arts colleges … need to become something completely different if we are to survive”
  • they argue “that because our students come to [college] with different modes of encountering and absorbing information (multitasking, multimedia, instant access, short attention spans) we must as a consequence become like them if we are to reach them and educate them”

This picture is dramatic but only partially true. The missing truth is that most advocates are practical and occupy the middle ground. The issue is not, as Falk seems to imply, all or nothing, either-or. They believe that the latest advances in personal communications technology and the web have created a disruptive architecture that introduces anywhere-anytime features that challenge campus-centric or on-site pedgogy. Yes, tools and the architecture for learning are changing, but the process is, as Falk also seems to be saying, evolving. That is, core values don’t have to change just because the learning environment is changing. In this case, having their cake and eating it, too, is not a pipe dream for colleges.

Falk cites the failure of earlier technologies to change the way colleges have functioned for over a hundred years as proof that current innovations will also fall short. He says, “Printing, television and the postal service” have not “[changed] the fundamental fact that at its heart education is a social activity that takes its highest form within a real community of students and faculty. Neither books nor video nor chat rooms have made colleges obsolete.” He compares today’s tablet PCs with the programed textbooks that were popular a half century ago and distance education with correspondence courses. He also compares online learning with educational TV,  no more than “the most efficient, or most engaging, means of transmitting information.” In these scenarios, students are portrayed as isolated and alienated, “alone at home in [their] bathrobe and fuzzy slippers.” For Falk, these are ample proof that newer technologies pose no real threat to traditional forms of learning.

Considering the social dimensions of personal communication devices and the web, Falk’s perspective is, at the least, puzzling. Surely he’s not claiming that “the creation and nurturing of a community of students” is limited to “a particular kind of social and physical environment” such as a campus or classroom, that “learning things together” is only possible in face-to-face (F2F) encounters.

Continuing this either-or reasoning, Falk poses a rhetorical question: “Perhaps our students are so accustomed to online interaction that the virtual communities erected within modern course management systems are all that they need to be connected to their fellow students. Perhaps their brains really are wired differently now.” His answer: “Personally, I doubt it.”

Personally, I doubt it, too, but for a different reason. Virtual communities aren’t limited, as Falk implies, to CMSs. The social networking possibilities in the web and via mobile devices extend far beyond CMSs — and even then, participation doesn’t necessarily exclude F2F activities, which can be on-site or electronic. Students aren’t wired differently, but they may simply have more wires connecting them to different media.

Falk raises a couple of points about the real cost of technology that are worth noting. He says that “new technology is expensive, especially technology on the cutting (or bleeding) edge. And immediate obsolescence is a perpetual danger.” He also says that “the introduction of technology does not generally drive down overall costs; in fact, it is likely to increase them.” Both are problematic but not insurmountable. In fact, careful planning or thoughtful alternatives can alleviate or even eliminate the problems. A critical issue is the propensity to view technology as an expensive add-on instead of a cost-cutting replacement. Obviously, it costs more to support both old and new architectures. In cases where the new can be a cost effective replacement, the possibility of discontinuing the old should be considered.

Falk values the Williams library and well he should. He says, “Our plan is to create a vibrant academic hub that will excite students’ passions, nurture their curiosity, and above all else, bring them together in space, not cyberspace.” However, in his effort to argue for the value of campus-based learning, he fails to appreciate the potential cybervalue of the library. In fact, libraries, especially college libraries, are leading the movement toward anytime-anywhere electronic access, and I’m sure the Williams facility is no exception.

Finally, Falk cites and praises his college’s tutorial program, which has been expanded “at a very significant investment by the college.” In tutorials, “a faculty member sits with two students at a time, weekly, and facilitates a discussion in which the students alternately critique each other’s work and defend their own.” He says that the “investment in people … seemed to some critics to represent a retrograde commitment to a pedagogy of the past, during an era of great technological advances.” In defense of the program, Falk says:

Student satisfaction with the tutorial program is, by far, the highest of any part of our formal curriculum; and the faculty reports that student learning in tutorials is the deepest, as well. We consider this program one of our great successes, a hallmark of a Williams education, and an expression of our fundamental, and enduring, educational values.

Again, his purpose is to emphasize the value of F2F over virtual alternatives.

The problem is that tutorials don’t have to be an either-or decision — F2F or virtual. With some imagination and creativity, tutorials could be adapted for the virtual learning environment. For example, students could post their work in a blog or forum to be critiqued by classmates. They could, alternately, be presented in video and posted in YouTube for sharing with the class. Professors or trained teaching assistants could facilitate these discussions. In an asynchronous mode, time would not be an issue. In fact, this approach could translate to less cost and increased effectiveness.

Falk says that “bringing faculty and students together and giving them the space and time to interact is what we, at liberal arts colleges, do best. That is our core purpose.” He also says that “technological evolution will make it possible to do this better, in all sorts of important ways.” The problem is that Falk either refuses or fails to accept the fact that “space and time” can be both real and virtual and that technology is the critical factor.

In “Technology in Education: Revolution or Evolution?“, Williams,17 May 2012, presented at “The Future of the Liberal Arts” Conference, Lafayette College, 10 April 2012. Webcite alternative.

5 Responses

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  3. I certainly agree that the current Internet technology (and more to come) is fundamentally different from TV and radio. It’s interactive and can be so both synchronously and asynchronously. As hardware decreases in cost and bandwidth becomes more readily available, the focus will be on the software. I suspect that you won’t recognize education in twenty years. Getting there may be quite painful for us, however.

    The Williams tutor program is an amazing investment of faculty resources. No wonder these schools cost so much. You can do this synchronously today quite readily with Skype. Falk seems to have missed that point.

    I’ll make one personal comment about all of this. Falk emphasizes the social aspects of college life as being crucial. Perhaps and perhaps not. My experience in college would not have been significantly different were I the only person in my 180-student class. Colleges are located in communities where you can have a social life if you choose. The curriculum was so intense for me that I had little time for social events — mostly bridge while eating the bag lunch I brought with me. Most of the students were eating institutional lunch at that time, and I was with the few who, like me, lived off campus. I kept up with none of the acquaintances from my college days.

    I think that the social aspects of being a college student are over-emphasized. I also think that many younger people are able to socialize quite well with Facebook, Twitter, and Skype — and whatever is the next great online social thing.

    • Harry, interesting point: “I suspect that you won’t recognize education in twenty years.”

      If we look at the radical changes that have occurred in the last 5 years and assume that the next five will be even more radical, then 20 years is an unimaginable chunk of time. Even as the physical aspects of campus life remain stagnant, the electronic dimensions of students’ lives are changing at an exponential rate that defies comprehension.

      College presidents define the course of their institutions. MIT is going with an online-oriented leader. That, alone, says a lot. Still, the vast majority are blind to the changes that have already occurred and don’t have a clue about the impact tech will have on higher ed in the next 5 years. The signs are all around them, but they don’t see them. I wonder why. -Jim S

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