February 1998 // Commentary
It's Not the Technology that Worries Me
by Peter Havholm and James Garner Ptaszynski
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Peter Havholm and James Garner Ptaszynski "It's Not the Technology that Worries Me" The Technology Source, February 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I appreciate James Ptaszynski's open letter, but I still don't want to require anyone to pass a competency-test in word-processing—or e-mail or Internet use. Readers might not realize after reading November's exchange that that was the issue. Ptaszynski and the Microsoft Scholars had decided that all faculty, staff, and students should be required to demonstrate mastery of those three technologies. I claimed that none of them is required for superb instruction in critical reading, writing, and thinking and that therefore such a requirement would benefit only the companies selling the technologies. (Editor's Note: Jim Ptaszynski wanted to respond to this point. Click here for his response.)

Ptaszynski's reply to my argument does not deal with that issue, but it raises others. I have not had time (two of my courses last semester required many student essays) to do more in what follows than to question several of his assumptions. And like Ptaszynski and his source, Sir John Daniel, I make no mention of science education. Readers interested in a more positive way of thinking about technology and learning (quite different from Ptaszynski's) should see Havholm and Stewart, cited below.

Ptaszynski's first claim is that:

While traditional pedagogy may be the best for the students who can afford the cost and time required for a traditional education, there are many more students, both here and around the world, for whom it does not work.

He finds support in a remark by Sir John Daniel (Vice-Chancellor of Britain's Open University) in Change:

Right now, one large, new campus would need to open every week, somewhere in the developing world, just to maintain present participation rates. Did a big new university open somewhere last week? Probably not. Is another on schedule to start next week? Probably not (Daniel, 1997, p. 12).

In addition, Ptaszynski offers the example of a U.S. state in which 200,000 adults not currently in school want more higher education. "It seems unlikely that they could add that many more 'seminar tables' to accommodate these new learners under the old teaching paradigm," he concludes.

But, you know, they could. As Sir John makes clear in that Change article, you don't have to have a big campus to have seminar tables. If you want the students seated around the tables to engage in critical practice, however, you need one good teacher per table—and they should all, students and teachers alike, have some books, paper, and pencils. If both the developing world and that U.S. state that Ptaszynski mentions would swear off buying computers that have to be replaced every three years and software that has to be upgraded every six months, they'd be able to afford a lot of good teachers, books, paper and pencils. They've already got the tables in their dining rooms and kitchens.

But you worry that students wouldn't know how to use e-mail, word processing, and the Internet? Let's be honest; we are not talking about rocket science here. Having learned how to read and think critically, they could pick up these relatively simple skills in their first week on the job—probably in the first two days, if the software were ever really improved.

Ptaszynski's second point is roughly the same as Sir John's in the Change article, that U.S. higher education should use the new technologies and new business strategies to make its services available to many more people at much less cost. A sample paragraph in this regard:

I think it rather egotistical to think that our colleges and universities will be immune to changes associated with transformation from an industrial economy to an information-based economy.... Down-sizing, right-sizing, integration, total quality management, just-in-time manufacturing, industrial consolidation, mergers and acquisitions all seem like buzz words to academics, but they help to describe the forces of change in our economy.

The comments on higher education's scorn for modern business practices bewilder me, out here in the trenches. Why does Ptaszynski believe that college and university faculty feel "immune" to the market? Classes for 1,500 taught by a single instructor (aided by inexpensive graduate students) are not unheard of. The job market for teachers in higher education is as tight as it has ever been in a time when, as all of Sir John's and Ptaszynski's numbers show, more people than ever want to go to college. Why is that? Well, as James Perley, president of the American Association of University Professors, testified before the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education in November, "Since 1975, the number of part-time faculty [in higher education] has increased by 97%, while the number of full-time faculty has increased only 25%. Even among full-time hires, most are on contract" (AAUP Press Office, 1997).

Seems to me that down-sizing, right-sizing, and just-in-time teachers (hired right after the registration numbers come in) are very much a part of higher education. Moreover, as Perley points out,

In 1992, the average income of doctors practicing full-time was $177,400. Lawyers make somewhere between $100,000 and $200,000. In 1995-96 the average salary for a full professor at a university or four-year college was $65,440. Associate professors, assistant professors, and others with full time positions in the professoriate earn salaries in the $30,000 to $50,000 range (AAUP Press Office, 1997).

I'd say that faculty in higher education have been helping to keep costs down while (for example) Sir John's publisher, a corporation, is charging $90.00 a pop for Sir John's book, The Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media.

Let's dream with one eye open for a minute. If higher education adopted the corporate model, we would have to pay our top managers millions. And we'd have to build more campuses like Microsoft's, not fewer, sometimes situating them near our new institutional presidents' suburban homes. Provosts would visit satellite facilities in their private jets, and no dean would ever telecommute. (Why on earth did Sir John spend the time-off-the-job to deliver his AAHE speech in person when the Web was right there, ready?) We could of course expect in higher education some of the behavior now associated with corporate titans like Prudential and Archer-Daniels Midland. Probably a lot more Armani suits and Mercedes convertibles, too.

More seriously: the corporate model is no more obviously suited to higher education than the private non-profit or government model is suited to business. Everyone knows the perils of a category error. To apply terms that work with precision in business to a non-business is nonsensical unless one has shown that the business and the non-business have relevant characteristics in common.

Ptaszynski does not show this. Instead, he compares the medical industry to higher education. He argues that doctors made the mistake of thinking they could stonewall change and are therefore now being too tightly controlled by corporate folk. This is a curious example because it does not establish either that medical care has benefited from the corporate model or that doctors can be replaced by technology. Rather, the corporate model has produced a situation in which Ptaszynski feels "uncomfortable knowing that those best-trained in medicine are not intimately involved in designing the healthcare systems."

So to avoid the pillaging of higher education by the corporate model, faculty must stop resisting distance or technology-enhanced education. After all, says Ptaszynski:

Let's be honest. The arguments circulating against distance or technology enhanced education have nothing to do with teaching and learning. These arguments are a ruse. These statements are made by people or associations who are worried about their jobs, period. Most of the teaching methods we use today are at least 400 years old if not older.... What other industry uses systems this ancient as their "primary manufacturing techniques"? ...Why should education be any different?

Whether education is different is another argument, but I cannot figure out why anyone thinks the ideas underlying distance education are new. Joseph Weizenbaum makes an important observation in Computer Power and Human Reason:

The computer [in post-war America] ...was used to conserve America's social and political institutions. It buttressed them and immunized them, at least temporarily, against enormous pressures for change.... [O]f the many paths to social innovation it opened..., the most fateful was to make it possible... to eschew all deliberate thought of substantive change (Weizenbaum, 1976, p. 31-2).

In light of this remark, we might remember the wax stencil mimeograph invented by Thomas Edison in the 1880s. It offered a far more efficient way to deliver crisp, clear information to many students than did either carbon paper or morning assemblies, and it was much less expensive than the printing press. Packaging information and distributing it to many people is not a new idea. You could say that it was invented in the fifteenth century. Or you could trace it to the first popular cheap alternative to the print shop, more than a century ago. Through the electronic fog-machine mist wafting about the Web, you can just make out the ghostly mimeograph, its spirit masters transformed into shimmering blocks of HTML code.

Add the telephone-like facility of chat or e-mail, an idea that began with signal fires, and you've got the entire paradigm of distance education. The true innovations at the Open University are its superb use of tutors and project groups, both ways of organizing human work. On the other hand, if Sir John pays his tutors meagerly so that he can afford time off to attend AAHE meetings in person, he is using some of the oldest ideas around.

Ptaszynski concludes his remarks on faculty and technology:

It is time for faculty to stop complaining about technology and figure out the best ways to use it. It is not going away. Anyone who thinks so will be marginalized in the future.

In response to what I wrote, this warning is just odd. My complaint was that Ptaszynski and his Microsoft Scholars wanted to make all my friends—teachers, staff, and students alike—pass an e-mail competency test. That is not complaining about technology; it is complaining about pretending to bring change by forcing people to perform a trivial act in unison. I think history suggests that those who get marginalized are the people who think small, don't read, and believe all their own ideas are brand new. Occasionally, history also shows, such people acquire the brute power to force others to do their bidding. It is then that true suffering begins, and that's what is worrying me.


AAUP Press Office (1997, 27 October 27). AAUP president testifies before national commission on the cost of higher education. Copies of Professor Perley's testimony, with accompanying tables and statistics, are available from Iris Molotsky, (202) 737-5900, Ext. 3011.

Daniel, J. S. (1997). Why universities need technology strategies. Change, July/August, 10-17.

Havholm, P. & Stewart, L. (1997). Modeling the operation of critical theory on the computer. Computers and the Humanities 30 (2), 107-115.

Weizenbaum, Joseph (1976). Computer power and human reason. New York: W. H. Freeman & Co, 31-32.

James Ptaszynski's comments: Dr. Havholm is in error. If one goes back to my original Commentary (September, 1997 Microsoft Scholars Meeting), I did not argue for a competency test. Rather, I said, "When I was a student, every freshman, to be successful, needed proficiency in library skills in addition to the ability to produce a cogent report. Word processing, e-mail, and Internet skills should be added to this list, as they have become the new tools for today's classroom." I cannot imagine, in the present knowledge economy, anyone arguing against "proficiency" in these areas. I agree with Dr. Havholm regarding the importance of traditional teaching and learning activities, but I would disagree if he feels that there is no room to add new competencies.

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