May 1998 // Commentary
by Peter Havholm
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Peter Havholm "Sage-in-the-Box" The Technology Source, May 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Glenn Ralston cites Ed Neal and myself as saying "using educational technology must require a ‘pedagogical deficit' in the results." The simplification this remark represents and Ralston's mention of the "Productivity Paradox" prompt me to say some very positive things about technology and what it may be doing for higher education in the United States.

This will not be the first time I have said positive things about technology, however. In an essay written by Larry Stewart and myself (and cited in my February commentary in The Technology Source), we argue that students' use of computer modeling in literary criticism courses "is good work—engaging in its own right and good for the critical thinking it requires and stimulates" (Havholm & Stewart, 1996, p. 114). Ed Neal wrote right here in February: "There is no doubt that, when properly used, technology can supplement instruction and help facilitate learning." No pedagogical deficits there.

I've taught writing for 30 years, but my most effective class may have occurred last semester in one of Wooster's enhanced seminar rooms (which feature a central seminar table backed by 20 networked computers along the outer walls, a desktop publishing suite and an overhead screen projector). Word-processing, networks, and online editing programs turn such a classroom into a tool-set that student teams and teachers use to cram fifty minutes of class time with writing, editing, and re-writing. For variety during a couple of weeks, this class created and distributed a magazine.

The technology allows much faster editing and easier sharing of drafts than pencil and paper, and it simplifies combining images and text, so students spend a maximum of time on editing and rewriting and a minimum on transcription and other production drudgery. Because of desktop publishing, they can observe the effect of their writing on a peer audience.

No students in any writing class I've taught without technology have practiced writing skills more assiduously. And work on the designed and illustrated magazine helped them increase their understanding of how one can reason as well as intuit through images. (I agree with Ralston that it is important for students to think more critically about visual communication.)

None of this is innovative, of course. Teachers have been using computer and networking technology in these ways, all over the world, for some years now. As a matter of fact, some American teachers did similar work using manual typewriters when those represented the latest in technology (Kalmbach, 1997, 9ff). Teachers have long been interested in adapting new tools.

We've been pretty frugal about it, too, until recently.

Remember rolling administration memos into your typewriter so you could use the backs for rough drafts? Here at Wooster, before my time but not that long ago, faculty had to go to the treasurer's office if they wanted to use the mimeograph machine. At the office, the treasurer personally issued masters on request—but you were expected to make do with what you got the first time. Frowns all 'round if you mucked it up and went back for more.

But now we have joined the nation of shoppers described so tellingly in Robert X. Cringely's Accidental Empires (1996). It's so much fun buying all this wonderful new stuff. And because the brilliant people in software companies come up with new stuff every day, we get to buy it over and over again.

I have not seen lately an estimate of technology's costs to higher education, but one can get a sense of the numbers such an estimate would involve in the General Accounting Office's January report on funding technology in the public schools. The report offers an estimate "that placing one networked computer laboratory in each school nationwide would cost $11 billion up front and $4 billion in annual costs" (United States..., 1998, p. 1). Ralston accuses me of exaggeration, but I'd say that $4 billion buys 80,000 teachers pretty comfortably, wouldn't you?

I promised good news, however, and I'm going to get there by way of the Productivity Paradox Ralston claims to have solved. The "paradox" is that the growth rate of national productivity from 1973 to 1997 is less than half of what it was before the advent of computers (though there was a spurt at a higher rate in the third quarter of 1997).

"Paradox" is an odd term for a situation in which the evidence does not support a beloved hypothesis. It comes as no surprise, then, when Ralston proposes fixing the evidence to fit after all. But there is another way. Other writers have recently offered a plausible revision of the hypothesis that technology automatically improves national productivity.

First of all, it has improved productivity. Firms all over the world have increased their production efficiency and access to markets, ushering in an unprecedented level of competition. As a consequence, novelty, product differentiation, and marketing have become more important in the "information economy" than they have ever been. There's simply no competitive advantage available in improving efficiency; everyone does it routinely. The consequence has been an increase in the amount of sophisticated labor that firms require to be competitive.

As Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose put it in Education for What? The New Office Economy (1997):

[C]heap standardized products have been replaced by more customized and style-sensitive products.... Heightened competition has required that firms be much more agile in terms of marketing and positioning their product.... Furthermore, as society has gotten richer, it has had to allocate a higher percentage of the labor force simply to managing its physical and monetary resources (as cited in Madrick, 1998, p. 33).

So, technology has indirectly decreased overall productivity growth by zeroing out the competitive advantage it is capable of providing, and forcing firms to spend heavily on novelty, marketing, and customized service—all comparatively expensive because they require educated human beings. In fact, our economy has produced an unprecedented number of jobs (communications and financial experts, marketers, business consultants, lawyers, high-level sales people such as real estate and stockbrokers) that pay comparatively well. Thirty-three percent of workers between the ages of thirty and fifty-nine now hold such jobs, compared to only twenty-eight percent in 1979. Their average pay has risen over these years to $47,000. At the same time, the average incomes for middle- and low-level jobs have declined to $29,000 and $19,000 and continue to fall. These are the people forced by their lack of education to compete with cheap overseas labor or machines.

The most obvious good news for higher education is all these new good jobs that, as Jeff Madrick puts it, "require communication skills, social ease, and basic reasoning abilities..." (Madrick, 1998, p. 33). Acquiring such skills, he believes, "may only be possible through higher education, where students are exposed to a sophisticated culture, a variety of experiences, and varying disciplines that require analysis of facts and concepts" (p. 33).

Even better news: some of my personal academic economist friends have suggested to me that the market is right and the scolds are wrong: higher education is not overpriced. We're the only way out of the McJobs pit. In an economy in which we make the difference between an average annual income of $47,000 (and rising) and one of $29,000 or $19,000 and falling, higher education is worth far more than it was in the 1970s, when today's huge gulf between the comfortable and those hanging on by their fingernails did not exist.

As government has steadily reduced its investment in higher education, colleges and universities have fought valiantly to stay accessible. The recent report of the Congressional Commission on Costs in Higher Education asserts that we have reduced costs even as we have spent so mightily on technology, mainly by reducing the number of full-time, benefit-paying jobs for faculty. If these efforts had not been somewhat offset by the significant increase in full-time, benefit-paying administrative and student services jobs, the overall effect would be more palpable even than the decline in rate of tuition increase we have seen in the last few years. That's the third piece of good news. We're already working very hard in higher education, and with some success, to control prices.

But the best news promises more seminar tables.

The skills our economy values are precisely those that require human teachers and physical classrooms: communication skills, social ease, and basic reasoning abilities. Essentially, the new economy needs people who have the skills classically associated with liberal education as classically delivered (jobs requiring technical knowledge are in decline—no surprise if you think about how well computers handle complex, rule-governed tasks). All of these skills are inculcated better around a seminar table with a teacher than by lonely communion with a machine. Half the time, the students in my writing class and I talk and laugh and argue about books while seated around the table, the computers behind us dark; otherwise, there'd be many fewer new ideas in their work.

It is vital to our national interest to keep producing people with liberal learning—to keep information technology companies supplied with innovative minds—because only their invention and reasoning and persuasiveness will keep our industries competitive. It is therefore in the national interest to increase the quantity and quality of liberal arts education.

Obviously, it would be foolish for us either to pretend that machines can do what they cannot or for a government to try to contravene the market. Therefore, we can look forward to increased national support for humane teaching and learning as I described it (and James Ptaszynski of Microsoft admired it) back in the November issue of The Technology Source.

Why am I so confident that the news is good? Because I cannot believe higher education will allow itself to be turned into a shop-'til-you-drop technology customer at the expense of the mission that justifies its price. I cannot believe that higher education will promise critical thinking, then provide only the training that leads to the junk (and suppurating) jobs. Nor can I believe that teachers, just as they have given up being the "sages on the stage" to become "guides on the side," will really put the sage into a box, wheel the box onto the stage, and leave the university-turned-toyshop for jobs in marketing.

Works Cited

Carnevale, A. P. & Rose, S. J. (1997). Education for what?: The new office economy. Princeton: Educational Testing Service.

Cringely, R. X. (1996). Accidental empires: How the boys of Silicon Valley make their millions, battle foreign competition, and still can't get a date. (2nd ed.). New York: Harper.

Havholm, P. and Stewart, L. (1996). Modeling the operation of critical theory on the computer. Computers and the Humanities, 30 (2), 107-115.

Havholm, P. (Nov. 1997). The merits of the seminar table [Online]. The Technology Source. Retrieved March 24, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Havholm, P. (Feb. 1998). It's not the technology that worries me [Online]. The Technology Source. Retrieved March 24, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Kalmbach, J. R. (1997). The computer and the page: Publishing, technology and the classroom. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corp.

Madrick, J. (Mar. 26, 1998). Computers: Waiting for the revolution. The New York Review of Books, 29-33.

Ptaszynski, J. G.. Taking an active role in educational reform [Online]. The Technology Source. Retrieved March 24, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

Straight talk about college costs and prices: Report of the national commission on the cost of higher education [Online]. Retrieved March 24, 1998 from the World Wide Web:

United States General Accounting Office (Jan. 1998). School technology: Five school districts' experiences in funding technology programs [Report to Congressional Requesters]. GAO/HEHS-98-35. Retrieved March 24, 1998 from the World Wide Web: dbname=gao&docid=f:he98035.txt

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