Imagining the Wired University

Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Paper presented at the Symposium on the Future of the University, University of Newcastle, September 2000.

This is a draft. Please do not cite it or quote from it.
References and footnotes to follow.

2500 words.


How can we reinvent the university for a world of radically improved information technology? The question is hard because the design space is so large. The vision of a university with no physical facilities or face-to-face interaction, despite the publicity it receives from futurists, represents only a small corner of this space. Some educational activities will certainly conform to this all-virtual model; indeed some already do. But the majority of wired higher education will lie in the broad middle of the spectrum, combining technological mediation and geographically localized interactions in various ways. The possible combinations are numerous, and different models might work best for different fields.

The question of how to design the wired university is hard for another reason. The university that we know today is a highly evolved institution that serves many interlocking functions. Like any institution, the university has developed a large number of taken-for-granted routines that are not easily changed. This body of routines is, depending on how you look at it, either a repository of accumulated knowledge or a mindless obstacle to change, either tradition and wisdom or cluelessness and resistance. Both perspectives have their elements of truth, of course, and as the technological environment changes it becomes increasingly important to discover the dividing line between the elements of past practice that the wired university should keep and the elements that it should discard.

The picture is not entirely bleak. The institutions of university research, after all, are governed by norms of originality that encourage a continual turnover in the topics and methods of research, and even to a degree in the institutional forms through which the emerging knowledge itself is practiced. The Internet was largely developed in university environments, and universities drove diffusion of the Internet through their early commitment to e-mail access for students and staff. The university has already changed considerably through e-mail culture and intensive use of the Web. In these ways the university has proven itself resilient, and it is entirely plausible that if workable designs for a wired university exist then they can be chosen.

The path from point A to point B can be analyzed in different ways. One analysis is frankly political. The university, like any institution, reflects a routinized accommodation among interests, and the institution will be reinvented through a fresh engagement of the many social groups that have a stake in it. The tools of this political analysis are familiar; they begin by assessing the degree to which each stakeholder group is organized, the coherence with which it articulates an agenda, and the adroitness with which it enters into coalitions with other groups as the technological and institutional redesign process unfolds. These political contests will occur in diverse venues, and most of them have hardly begun.

Although this kind of political analysis is surely needed, in this context I want to pursue a different line of analysis, one that is normative and imaginative. How *should* the university be redesigned? The answer is not to throw out the institution and start over. The university embodies so much enduringly useful knowledge that it would be hard to replace. To be sure, many of the entrepreneurs who are designing competitors to the university from scratch will find niches for themselves, but they will not reproduce the useful complexity of the university except through alliances with the university.

Instead, the university community might pursue a strategy of rational reconstruction. Research has made clear that the adoption of advanced information technology requires a re-institutionalization of the university. The question is what institutional structure to choose. The institutional structures that come programmed into a software package such as SAP can only go so far, and they may even be ill-adapted to the university's needs. So it is crucial to take a stand about the specific nature of the university. Begin, therefore, with a structural analysis of the university: a nontrivial story about the dynamic equilibria through which the university reproduces itself and serves positive social purposes in the present day. Then ask how those structures could be re-implemented using radically improved information technology. Because these structures are already in effect, the design process becomes a sort of institutional judo, using technology to turn existing forces into means of change rather than ignoring or fighting them.

To illustrate how rational reconstruction might proceed, let us consider ten structural features of the university, together with some of the considerations that arise as one attempts to preserve or amplify them using new technology.

(1) Economies of scale. Universities are currently shaped by the dividing-line between the aspects of teaching that enjoy economies of scale, such as textbooks in introductory courses, and the aspects that do not, such as the supervision of individual student projects. That dividing line will shift for two reasons, one more obvious than the other. The obvious reason is multimedia courseware that extends the functionality of a textbook while incurring much greater production costs. The obscure reason is the ongoing worldwide destruction of diseconomies of scale, for example through the emergence of English as a global language, the standardization of digital computer networks, the globalization of more forms of knowledge, and the rising numbers and prosperity of potential students. In some subject-areas the shift to increased economies of scale will be dramatic, and will bring the danger of market concentration and reduced intellectual diversity. But the greatest institutional challenge will be the increased variety in the degree of economies of scale that different fields exhibit.

(2) Modularity. Courses in some areas will be relatively natural to teach online, and in those areas pressure will grow to allow students to mix and match courses from different schools. This is a radicalization of the trend that is called articulation in the US and modularity in the UK. Radical modularity has powerful consequences for the architecture of technologies, institutional forms, and curricula into which the courses fit. Frameworks must be standardized, as must the contents of courses. Professors will effectively lose the autonomy to write their own syllabi, and again intellectual diversity will suffer. These deleterious impacts, therefore, must be traded off against the benefits of competition and geographic flexibility that radical modularity promises. In particular, these impacts lessen the argument in favor of pushing courses toward an all-virtual format, and motivate the search for appropriate hybrid forms.

(3) Regional networks. The university is, among other things, a factory for creating social networks. For most universities, these networks are primarily regional in nature. Social networks are a crucial component of a region's economic and political health. They also contribute to the health of the university, which in many cases could not function without alumni connections and contributions. Suitably designed and administered, computer networks should make it easier for universities to maintain the networks they have built, and they should also increase the institutional incentive to invest in building such networks. Universities may therefore be motivated to treat their students more humanely and integrate them more systematically into existing networks. The robust networks that result could provide the foundation for the intellectual life of a region, not to mention the basis for a market in continuing education.

(4) Coupling to workplaces. Too often, schools teach students how to be in school. Learning is most effective in the real world if the situations of learning are analogous to the situations in which the learning will be used. This analogy can be achieved in many ways, each of which can benefit from technology. Students can do more of their learning in actual workplaces, for example, if they have more robust ongoing communications with their instructors and with other students in similar situations. Computers can be used to simulate workplaces, or to capture the full details of real-world case studies. At the same time, the university should also be a place apart from the real world -- a place to practice the kinds of analytical thinking and innovative intellectual connections that real-world workplaces, with their established routines and pressure of deadlines, do not afford. The wired university can more effectively maintain this duality of engagement and detachment.

(5) Matrix structure. Most universities teach many topics. The university world thus has a matrix structure, with university organizations on one axis and disciplines on the other. The wired university should resist the temptation to overcome geographical and organizational boundaries by collapsing this matrix into discipline-specific units. The matrix structure plays an important role in creating spaces for innovation. Disciplines are always threatened by the hegemony of particular dominant approaches, but minority approaches can colonize a few universities until they grow stronger or are shunned by a new generation of students. The matrix structure will be threatened with collapse, however, if new technology enables faculty to strengthen their disciplinary bonds at the expense of their ties to particular universities. Processes and incentives should be structured to maintain a balance between the two allegiances.

(6) Informational substrate. Information technology increases the design space for individual courses, and so the university must learn how to support a greater diversity of course designs. Faculty must be able to negotiate their needs with a range of campus support organizations, including the ones now known as the library, audio-visual services, computing services, telecom services, the career center, room scheduling, and many others. The UK is a leader in exploring ways to integrate these services -- an idea that may seem futile in practice simply for being ahead of its time. What is needed is a relatively stable repertoire of course designs with which the institutional culture has grown familiar. At the moment, one is more likely to encounter individual heroic faculty who suffer intolerable overhead to pioneer new course forms that may or may not be capable of routinization. One common problem, for example, is that the instructor has no way of specifying, and the university has no way of guaranteeing, that all students entering a given course will have the particular set of technical and professional skills that the course design requires.

(7) Conceptual frameworks. Computers are capable of representing information in highly structured ways, and much could be accomplished by explicitly representing the conceptual frameworks that underlie specific fields of study. Much learning consists of practicing the application of such frameworks, for example in the analysis of legal cases or business plans, and even a very simple conceptual framework can be heuristically powerful when it is applied to so many disparate cases that unexpected analogies emerge. If the students in a field routinely prepared structured documents that reflect that field's distinctive conceptual framework, then digital libraries could emerge to support the community life of the field. Automatic processing could identify similar case studies and initiate communication between their authors, and case studies could be made available in an orderly way for peer review by working professionals.

(8) Generalizing peer review. As knowledge and learning become increasingly central to the economy, more occupations begin to resemble professions. A profession is not just a monopoly on the exercise of knowledge but an institution for promoting the creation and diffusion of new knowledge. Innovators can be recognized by publishing their work in professional fora, and individuals can build careers by serving as thought leaders and articulating or codifying new areas of professional knowledge. With ubiquitous computer networks these social mechanisms can be generalized. All of the people in the world who operate a certain type of machinery, for example, can form themselves into a profession with its own autonomous institutions of publication and professional advancement. The peer-review publishing model could be introduced into schools, and there is no reason why ten-year-olds cannot publish their schoolwork in simplified online journals. Certainly the journal model would be an improvement over the college term paper that only the professor ever reads. Teachers at every level are too overwhelmed to provide students with enough feedback, and a suitably institutionalized peer-review system could supplement teachers' comments.

(9) Commodity and community. Visions of the wired university tend to polarize between two models: a radically commoditized model of the university as a purveyor of human capital in a market for modularized learning services, and a radically communitarian model of the university as a global community of practice into which students can be socialized. These radical extremes are bracing in their simplicity, but they are misguided as well. The university has always managed the tension between the commodity and community models, and there are good reasons why the wired university of the future should continue to find this balance. This will be hard: the previous scenarios should make clear that information technology lends itself to the amplification of both the commodity and community models simultaneously, and the complementarity between the two models will certainly change. Each model is propelled by powerful social forces, and each must be kept from undermining the conditions of the other.

(10) An institutional framework for diversity. Commentators often remark that the university is more segmentary and decentralized than nearly any other organizational form. But the obvious conclusion that the university is therefore outdated is altogether misleading. The university, in contrast to any kind of private firm, must embrace subject matters that are extremely diverse in their behavior. Medicine, mathematics, music, management, mechanical engineering, and medieval history simply have very different properties. They call for different teaching styles, social networks, methods of codification, means of evaluation, relations to tradition, and everything else. The university exists to provide these fields with the unique environments they need while also facilitating unexpected interactions and hybrids among them. In this way the university might be compared to the market: each is an exceedingly generic framework of rules and norms that facilitates dynamic, diverse, self-organizing systems of production. Of course, universities and markets differ in important ways. Markets produce private goods, whereas universities produce a complicated combination of public goods, intellectual property, and services. The point is that the wired university must continue to provide a robust and flexible framework, both technical and institutional, without accidentally or deliberately imposing one model of intellectual production over every field. This is the opposite of the main tradition of computer system design, which emphasizes mapping, imposing, and controlling definite patterns of information flow.

Those, then, are ten structural features of the university, and a few of the issues that arise as we imagine transposing them into the new world of information technology. These numerous cross-cutting opportunities and dilemmas cannot be avoided, for the simple reason that the technology will continue to improve by a factor of 100 every ten years. The technology will certainly be adopted by many players within the university, its environment, and its competitors. The question is not whether the university will change, because the stresses created by these new uses of the technology will transform the institution whether anybody makes any conscious decisions about it or not. The question, rather, concerns rationality. Will the university community build a rational consensus about the best methods for reinventing itself in a digital world? That is a test of institutional resilience far beyond what we have seen so far.


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