August 1997 // Vision
Information Technology and the Liberal Arts College
by T. Lloyd Benson
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: T. Lloyd Benson "Information Technology and the Liberal Arts College" The Technology Source, August 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Information technology (IT) in the liberal arts classroom is a controversial subject. Although colleges are now employing IT in classrooms to enhance traditional classroom activities, technology promises to redefine the classroom itself. As e-mail, presentation technology, online course resources and library databases have become standard tools, they are likely to transform the mission and market of all liberal arts colleges. Technological changes beyond campus boundaries will force all colleges to reconsider what their trajectory will be in the larger educational environment.

At every front, the distinctive niche of liberal arts colleges as institutions that combine high academic quality and a personal touch is being encroached on every front. With computers, satellites, and VCRs available to most people in their homes, offices, or libraries, the information that these colleges once held as their monopoly is now accessible through other means. In addition, in the larger total environment, employers are discovering that "just-in-time" training on immediately relevant subjects, using the knowledge databases of each company's own experts is more cost-effective in the short term than paying for broad general training.

In response to this challenge, large universities are starting to humanize their once impersonal lecture classes using e-mail, discussion groups, chat rooms, and personal web pages. Community colleges, less able to afford highly qualified instructors, are installing technology centers and remote classrooms where instruction is offered by national authorities. The recent initiative by governors in several western states to create a regional on-line distance university means that large numbers of students will be able to complete a full curriculum at accredited colleges without ever going on a physical campus. These initiatives also challenge the notion that college is something that belongs only to people who are eighteen to twenty-two years old.

Technology is so pervasive in business and public life, and in the overall educational field, also impacts liberal arts colleges. Those that fall behind in these technological initiatives are suffering significantly as they attempt to recruit new students. Yet keeping abreast with technology is costly, and it causes tuition to skyrocket. Colleges face a paradox. The very same technology that makes quality information available elsewhere and, for the recipients, more cheaply, renders the cost of a liberal arts education that much greater. In this environment it will become increasingly difficult to convince parents to shell out expensive payments for room and board and ante up tuition for courses with titles identical to those available at the Internet's World Lecture Hall. One worst case scenario is that the most self-motivated, entrepreneurial, and imaginative people of college age will use the new technology to construct their own personalized curriculum, abandoning liberal arts schools. Liberal arts school enrollments then would consist of only those mildly intelligent but well-heeled young adults who have sufficient time on their hands but no great plans and no desire to seek anything more than entertainment-not learning-on the net. The liberal arts college's distinctive appeal could become nothing more than elitist prestige of the hand-tailored suit and luxury name automobile variety-the "designer boutique model" of higher education recruitment. Such an alternative is financially appealing but intellectually bankrupt and morally suspect. We must proceed wisely to avoid such a fate.

The Furman Debate: The Cons

On my campus at Furman University, we have recently conducted extensive formal discussions of these issues as part of the university's self-study review process. The constituencies we heard from talked extensively of the philosophical implications of technology both within the campus and in the larger environment of higher education. Four concerns arose repeatedly. Of these, the most important was the issue of financing. Many participants voiced the opinion that technology money could be more wisely devoted to items such as foreign study, undergraduate summer research stipends, or a reduction in the student-teacher ratio. Others complained of gross inequities in campus technology budgeting, both among departments and between administrative and academic computing. A second concern was that the incorporation of technology would have unfortunate consequences for student learning. Technology, campus critics suggested, promotes instant gratification rather than contemplative study, shifts attention from the substance of ideas to flashy graphics and cute effects, leads students to place trust in dubious information, and discourages them from looking at the vast quantity of useful information that can only be found by looking away from cyberspace. A third concern dealt with the new opportunities that information technology creates for plagiarism, cheating, or just easy shortcuts in research. A final and pervasive concern was that technology would dehumanize campus learning. Discussants who opposed technology in the classroom stressed their belief that e-mail, chat rooms, training videos and self-paced tutorials could not substitute for the face-to-face classroom instruction that we consider to be one of the institution's hallmarks. Debate participants regularly invoked the image of students closeted in their computerized dorm rooms for days on end with no direct human contact, students whose face-to-face people skills would shrivel away in such an inhospitable environment. Nor could technology ever substitute for the wink, the gesture, or the patient ear of a skilled classroom instructor.

The Furman Debate: The Pros

Other participants, I among them, disagreed with this pessimistic point of view and were enthusiastic about the potential of information technology for a liberal arts education. The most important benefit we saw was that technology would make it possible for the Furman community to reach resources that have been hitherto unavailable. Even with tools as basic as e-mail, students in Furman classes are now able to observe nationally-respected scholars debate the critical issues of their disciplines. It is now possible for a small Furman class to have intelligent commentary from people around the world. The same tools can be used to promote interdisciplinary cooperation between related classes. For example, E-mail and discussion groups should make it easy for students in an English literature course and an English history course to collaborate informally or for biology students to converse with those taking an environmental law and policy course. A recent interdisciplinary initiative at Furman that combined English composition and introductory Computer Science classes provided ample evidence of how necessary information technology has become to collaborative teaching and learning. Students in this course made heavy use of e-mail to exchange their working papers and data files, submitted all assignments electronically, and ultimately posted their research results on the Internet for the world to see.

As the pro-technology discussion participants pointed out, information technology eases the barriers to the times, places and languages of learning. Virtual office hours are an accomplished fact. Students who were once too timid to speak in class become almost verbose when contributing to electronic discussions. Before e-mail it was difficult for students and alumni to converse; now graduation is no obstacle to lifelong relationships, teaching and learning within the university family. Moreover, the use of technology as an instant and contextual thesaurus, cross-reference, and explanatory tutorial has already brought classic works like Beowolf, T. S. Eliot's "The Wasteland," and the complete corpus of ancient Greek texts to the attention of people who have never been willing to engage these documents before. Likewise, faculty report that student discussion in culture and history courses have become much more sophisticated now that the pronunciation and vocabulary drills that once dominated classroom time have been turned over to an endlessly patient, native-speaking, multimedia tutor. Technology can thus enable (perhaps even force) new kinds of teaching and learning across international boundaries. Finally, while we may regard with skepticism the claim of cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett that information technology represents a higher life form whose purpose is the replication of ideas rather than genes, we believe there is no question that technology will favor the evolution of new modes of cognition among humans.

Those of us who support the introduction of technology into the classroom as a means of enhancing education would point to some educational history. Paradoxically, it is the dubious quality of most current Internet information that may bring about the most revolutionary improvements in scholarship. It bears remembering that most commonly published items in the early days of printing were not the glorious volumes so celebrated in museums, but rather cheap astrological handbooks and rip-off copies of the classics, each replete with errors of fact, translation, and transcription. Confronted for the first time with radically differing versions of supposedly definitive texts, scholars were forced to devise the critical apparatus we consider to be essential today. Technology then became an asset, greatly reducing the barriers to the exchange of legitimate research techniques and results. It is impossible to imagine modern science, in particular, without the technological foundation of printing. In contrast, those ideas, stories, texts, and languages that failed to make the transition to print have largely disappeared. With the new information technology we face a similar avalanche of data and similar consequences for information that fails to make the transition. Nobody can read the amount of material now produced on a given topic in a career, much less in a week or even a year. We are therefore both blessed and cursed to have to rely on the development of automated document search, retrieval, and summarization tools in order to keep current in our fields. Even in their crude and robotic infancy these tools represent a massive change in how information is organized and connected. Such tools have philosophical foundations and implications that can only increase in significance. Our research techniques are already changing, which will in turn provoke changes in the ways in which we teach our disciplines. The national shift towards undergraduate research and engaged learning can only hasten these changes. Technology will not prevent faculty from teaching in the traditional ways that have proven so successful, but it will mandate the creation of new teaching techniques and new areas of inquiry.

Current Problems

Liberal arts colleges have had varying degrees of success in their incorporation of instructional technology. Libraries at small schools have often done surprisingly well in compensating for limited purchasing budgets by aggressively adopting technological resources. Ironically, the power of the new reference tools is making students more aware than ever of shortcomings in the traditional print collections. Most campus networks and mail systems are adequate for today's uses but will soon exceed capacity as faculty incorporate electronic assignments into their courses and students turn to the Internet for both research and entertainment. Technical support also varies widely between and within campuses. Lacking the deep pockets and cozy vendor relationships of the major research schools, liberal arts colleges often turn to granting agencies to fund their most important innovations. While this has spawned some impressive facilities across the country, the reluctance of granting agencies to fund equipment maintenance and upgrade costs, not to mention hidden infrastructure expenses such as new lighting systems, high amperage electrical systems, and larger volume air-conditioning systems, leaves most schools with outmoded facilities in three to five years after a grant award. Most computer centers and information technology support groups at small colleges are struggling to keep their own employees current. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that most faculty and students can use their computers at less than 25% of capability. Administrative responsibility for campus computing is often fragmented, and many campuses struggle to balance the technology needs of academics and administrators.

On our campus the three most critical problems have been the lack of any coordinated strategic plan for academic or administrative computing, the lack of any separate technology budget to sustain such a plan and guide the allocation of resources, and severe shortcomings in funding and staffing for technology training. It was symptomatic of the challenges we all face that an extensive study and report by a campus-wide strategic planning group on the university's financial future undertook no explicit consideration of information technology. New buildings are still being endowed and constructed with insufficient infrastructure and no provision for the purchase of the computing equipment to stock them. As on many campuses, the funding for information technology at Furman has been so haphazard that it is impossible to figure out even basic information such as the total dollar amount we currently spend each year on computing equipment and support. At a minimum, campuses need to create separate budget categories for information technology, coupled with a systematic and equitable purchase and allocation policy for individuals and departments.

Training is a disaster. The majority of current faculty and staff are ignorant of the computing capabilities that already exist at their fingertips. For such a vast expenditure on equipment and software to go untapped is one of the largest areas of waste in campus technology. Having sold their products at steep educational discounts, most technology vendors are reluctant to provide more than cursory training to academic users. Generic support contracts are expensive and often geared to business rather than educational clients. Nor are even the most enthusiastic on-campus support staff much help when it comes to the intricacies of a discipline-specific application. The comment by one faculty member during a recent campus technology debate that there ought to be a three year moratorium on new technology so that we can learn to use what we already have is indicative of how serious the problem is.


  1. Colleges need to formally define their information technology goals and devise a plan for meeting them. To be effective this will have to begin with an examination and probable overhaul of the budget, purchasing, and allocation processes. The pace of technology change makes foresight difficult, the development of a short to medium range strategic plan for information technology is still imperative.
  2. As part of its ongoing planning processes liberal arts colleges in particular need to explicitly consider how global changes in information technology will affect their market niche. For example, if we at Furman are to stay competitive we must become a model of effective teaching technology that other schools seek to emulate. We cannot allow technology to become an end in itself, but the non-technology alternative is equally uninviting.
  3. Many faculty have developed their technology expertise by teaching themselves or by receiving uncompensated help from other faculty members. For want of good training some faculty and staff let the capabilities of existing technology resources go to waste. Every campus needs to create, fund and sustain a first-rate faculty and staff training program.
  4. Where technology training has not been incorporated into current curricula, institutions need to formally consider the idea of adding a technology skills and analysis course as either an admissions criterion or a general education requirement.
  5. The creation of life-long learners is a cherished goal. Institutions should formally explore the ways in which technology can promote the continuing education of its graduates. At Furman we feel it is prudent to keep this effort separate from the institution's alumni fund-raising efforts.
  6. Colleges need to ensure that all students (including those with disabilities or those whose family income prevents them from purchasing their own equipment) have fair access to teaching and learning technology.
  7. Colleges need to carefully examine the effects of the new technology on plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty. Anecdotal evidence suggests that use of technology for cheating is widespread. It should be noted too that technophobic faculty are especially vulnerable to this kind of computer fraud. Colleges will need to devote significant energy to faculty development and student training if this problem is to be reduced.
  8. Campuses will need to develop a clear fair use and copyright policy for material downloaded or published on the Internet. The inadequacy of print-based laws makes this a challenging task. Worse, publishers and software vendors whose interests tend toward profit rather than the promotion of knowledge have proven more effective than the academic community in lobbying for copyright law revisions. It is imperative that campuses protect themselves with clear policies and organize with each other to preserve fair use.
  9. There is a danger that the efficiencies of technology will be used as a justification for increasing class sizes or laying off staff. Institutions should commit to the policy that such actions are contrary to the fundamental liberal arts mission and intellectual richness of direct personal exchange between faculty and students.
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