Electronics and the Dim Future of the University

Eli M. Noam
Professor of Finance and Economics
Director, Columbia Institute for Tele-Information
Graduate School of Business, Columbia University

tel: (212) 854-4222
fax: (212) 932-7816
e-mail: enoam@research.gsb.columbia.edu

To be published in Science Magazine.
August 18, 1995

By now, everybody knows about it -- about the tremendous advances in computer networks as tools of inquiry; about the free communication links among researchers around the world; about the loss of stifling organizational hierarchy and coercive governmental controls; and about the ethic of sharing information instead of commercializing it. Technology, it seems, has created a new set of tools for academic endeavors, strengthening and enriching the existing research environment.

Parts of this exciting scenario are indeed coming true. Yet to conclude therefore that the global academic village is all gain and no pain (beyond perhaps the need to protect against a few immature but creative youngsters) would be naive. True, communications technology will link the information resources of the globe. But as one connects in new ways one also disconnects the old ways. Thus, while new communications technologies are likely to strengthen research, they will also weaken the traditional major institutions of learning, the universities. Instead of prospering with the new tools, many of their traditional functions will be superseded, their financial base eroded, their technology replaced, and their role in intellectual inquiry reduced. This not a cheerful scenario for higher education.

Scholarly activity, if viewed dispassionately, consists primarily of three elements: to create knowledge and evaluate its validity; to preserve information; and to pass it on to others. Accomplishing each of these functions is based on a set of technologies and economics. Together with history and politics, they lead to a set of institutions. Change the technology and economics, and the institutions must change, eventually.

The Old Direction of Information Flows

Information institutions started about 5,000-8,000 years ago when at different places around the world specialized preservers and producers of information emerged in the form of priests. Collectively they were also the primary information storage medium of their societies. Since reliance on individual and group memory to transmit information across time and space was inefficient, recording methods emerged. Writers had to be trained, and schools emerged. Writing, in turn, led to formal information storage institutions. Under the Assyrian king Assurbanipal (668-627 BC), the royal library in Nineveh stocked over 10,000 works. Documents were arranged by subject such as law, medicine, history, astronomy, biography, religion, commerce, legends and hymns, each in a separate room in a compound. Wise men congregated there to use the information and to add to it. No doubt they also argued among themselves and were surrounded by disciples. Thus, knowledge and inquiry were already being organized along lines strikingly similar to today's university departments.

This model -- centrally stored information, scholars coming to the information, and a wide range of information subjects under one institutional roof -- was logical when information was scarce, reproduction expensive and restricted, and specialization low. It became also the model for the most formidable of knowledge institutions of antiquity, the Great Library of Alexandria. At its peak, the library amassed nearly 700,000 volumes. Less recognized is its role as a graduate university. From the beginning, Ptolemy I Soter and his librarian, Demetrius, recruited some of the foremost scholars of the Hellenistic culture, such as the geometrician Euclid, to what was called the "museum." These scholars were surrounded by disciples and apprentices. Again, the pattern was similar. Scholars came to the information storage and produced collaboratively still more information there, and students came to the scholars.

The New Direction of Information Flows

This system of higher education remained remarkably stable for over 2,500 years. But it is now in the process of breaking down. The reason is not primarily technological. Technology simply enables change. The fundamental reason is that today's production and distribution of information are undermining the traditional flow of information and with it the university structure, making it ready to collapse in slow motion once alternatives to its function become possible.

Most branches of science show an exponential growth of about 4-8 percent annually, with a doubling period of 10-15 years. To get a sense of the trend: Chemical Abstracts took 31 years (1907 to 1937) to reach its first one million abstracts. The second million took 18 years. The most recent million took only 1.75 years. Thus, more articles on chemistry have been published in the past two years than in humankind's entire history before 1900.

The responses of organizations to handle the increased volume of information is to improve processing capabilities by various means such as better education, larger staffs, internal reorganization, and investment in technology. But the main strategy is specialization. As the body of knowledge grows, the evolution of fields of expertise continues into evernarrower slices.

The inexorable specialization of scholars means that universities cannot maintain a coverage of all subject areas in the face of the expanding universe of knowledge, unless their research staff grows more or less at the same rate as scholarly output, doubling every 5-10 years. This is neither sustainable economically or organizationally, nor would it permit the existence of smaller-sized elite universities. The result is that universities do not cover anymore the range of scholarship. They might still have most academic disciplines represented -- whatever that means -- but only a limited set of the numerous subspecialities. For the same reason, many specialized scholars find fewer similarly specialized colleagues on their own campus for purposes of complementarity of work. Instead, scholarly interaction increasingly takes place with similarly interested but distant specialists i.e., in the professional rather than the physical realm.

None of this is new, of course. But as the information-induced pressures of specialization have grown, so did the means to make the invisible college the main affiliation. Air transport established the jet-setting professoriate. Even more so, electronic communications are now creating new electronic scholarly communities which respond to the elementary need for intellectual collaboration. Ironically, it is the university that pay for the network connectivity which help its resident scholars to shift the focus of their attention to the outside, or, to use the buzz words, to join virtual communities in cyberspace. As this happens -- and we are only at the beginning of convenient technology -- the advantage of physical proximity of scholars in universities declines steeply.

The second function of the university is the storage of information. It was said that a university was as strong as its library. But here, too, the economics and technology change everything. With the production of scholarship rising exponentially, so does the cost of acquisition and reference. To return to the same example, in 1940, Chemical Abstracts cost $12 a yr.; in 1977 $3,500; in 1995, $17,400. At the same time that comprehensive library collections have become unaffordable, electronic alternatives became powerful in storage, broad-ranging in content, and efficient in retrieval. Therefore, universities are gradually shifting from investment in the physical presence of information to the creation of electronic access. It is a logical response, and it undermines the fundamental need for the university as the physical location for specialized information. Soon the combination of laptop and phone line will serve just as well -- and often better -- anywhere, anytime.

This leaves the third function of the university, that of transmission of information, its teaching role. It is hard to imagine that the present low-tech lecture system will survive. Student-teacher interaction is already under stress by the widening gulf between basic teaching and specialized research. And the interaction also comes with a big price tag. If alternative instructional technologies and credentialing system can be devised, there will be an out-migration from classic campus-based higher education. The tools for alternatives could be video servers with stored lectures by outstanding scholars; electronic access to interactive reading materials and study exercises; electronic interactivity with faculty and teaching assistants; hypertextbooks and new forms of experiencing knowledge; video and computer-conferencing; and language translation programs. It is true that the advantages of electronic forms of instruction get exaggerated by various merchants of hype. But the point is not that they are superior to face-to face teaching (though the latter is often romanticized); rather, they can be provided at dramatically lower cost. A curriculum, once created, could be offered electronically not just to hundreds of students nearby but to tens of thousands around the world. It would be provided by universities seeking additional revenues in a period of declining cohorts, though probably not at first by elite colleges which guard their scarcity value.

Already, electronic distance education is offered by a wide range of educational instructions using various technologies such as video, on-line, and satellites and appealing to students with full-time jobs, family obligations, limited mobility, distant location, and needs for specialized courses. An example is the Agricultural Satellite Network, AgSat, which lets two dozen colleges of agriculture exchange their course offerings and "reduce duplication." Such efforts at cost reduction are not welcomed by the beneficiaries of low-tech teaching, the faculty, which tends to define the mission and structure of their institutions, and is as resistant to change as any self-respecting profession.

In any event, the ultimate providers of an electronic curriculum will not be universities becoming televersities (they will merely break the ice) but rather commercial firms. Textbook publishers will establish sophisticated electronic courses using the most effective and prestigious lecturers. At present, private universities change a tuition of nearly $50 per lecture hour per student, not counting most of the public and philanthropic support they receive, or the opportunity cost of students' time. With such Broadway- show sized prices, alternative providers will inevitably enter. Today's students, if they seek prestigious jobs or entry-restricted professions, usually have no other choice other than taking the university route. But this is a weak and mostly legal reed for universities to lean on. It is only as strong as their gatekeeper control over accreditation and over the public's acceptance of alternative credentials. When this hold weakens, we may well have in the future a "McGraw-Hill University" giving out degrees or certificates, just as today some companies offer in-house degree programs. If these programs are valued by employers and society for their quality of admitted students, the knowledge they gain, and the requirements that they must pass, they will be able to compete with traditional universities, yet without bearing the substantial overhead of physical institutions. It is likely that the commercial publishers will put together an effective and even updated teaching package, making the traditional teaching at universities look boring in comparison, just as Sesame Street has raised the expectations of pupils for a lively instructional style. Already available on tape are the "Greatest Lectures by America's Superstar Teachers," distributed by a company advertising itself as "your own private university, staffed exclusively by a 'dream team' of America's best lecture professors."

Commercial providers will primarily offer mainstream undergraduate and professional education. At the same time, some of the invisible colleges of interlinked specialists will mutate from unmanageable wide-openness into more structured virtual departments that may offer graduate credentials in their area of specialization, thus weakening the role of the universities from that direction, too.

Of course, another reason to attend a university is to share in a rite of generational passage into adulthood. This is important, but such experience could be replicated in other ways--as it did in the thousands of years preceding mass college attendance--and often in more attractive locations and climates.

If the dominance of universities over higher education falters, their economic foundation will erode. In these days of budget squeeze, most universities will not be able to compensate tuition losses by gaining more public funding. The role of the private sector will have to grow to fuel and maintain the existing system. Yet private donations are likely to decline, if anything, with the reduction in the universities' centrality in research and teaching, and with a more general disillusionment about the ability of higher education to solve society's problems.

The Impact on the University

The problems will not be uniform. On the teaching side, the greatest negative impacts will be on mass undergraduate and professional education and on highly specialized and advanced fields. Least affected will be contact-intensive programs such as selective and tutorial-based liberal arts education (especially if it is backed by healthy endowments) as well as skill training that requires hands-on instruction and feedback, and small but stable fields of graduate study that are not lucrative for commercial providers.

On the research side of the university, least affected will be fields that do not experience rampant growth and specialization, and where the various researchers share a strong core. (They will be financially squeezed, however, by the loss of cross-subsidies from previously grant-rich parts of the university). Most affected will be highly specialized research, where keeping up-to-the-minute is critical. This is not to say that research requiring physical teams and shared equipment still often be located on campus. But the research units involved will connect primarily to other units elsewhere in academia, industry, and government. The university then exists as a sort of office park of semi-autonomous units, each a soft-money tub on its own bottom. The administration of universities is then likely to be even more decentralized than today, and partly run from a distance by telecommuting staff and specialized subcontractors.

The Future Role of the University

All this is a bleak scenario for the future of the university. In making this argument it is easy to appear as yet another dismal economist or technological determinist, and to invite, as a response, a ringing reaffirmation of the importance of quality education, of academic values, of the historic role of education in personal growth, and of the human need for free-wheeling exchange. To make such arguments may feel good but is beside the point. The question is not whether universities are important to society, to knowledge, or to their members -- they are -- but rather whether the economic foundation of the present system can be maintained and sustained in the face of the changed flow of information due to electronic communications. It is not research and teaching that will be under pressure -- they will be more important than ever -- but rather their present main instructional setting, the university system. To be culturally important is necessary (one hopes) but unfortunately not sufficient.

This suggests a change of emphasis for universities. True teaching and learning are about more than information. Education is based on mentoring, internalization, identification, role-modeling, guidance, and group activity. In these processes, physical proximity plays an important role. Thus, the strength of the future physical university lies less in pure information and more in college as a community. Less in wholesale lecture, and more in individual tutorial. Less in Cyber-U, and more in Goodbye-Chips College. In research, the physical university's strength lies in establishing on-campus archipelagos of specialized islands of excellence that benefit from the complementarity of physical proximity. This requires the active management of priorities. In the validation of information, the university will become more important than ever. As the production of information keeps growing, society requires credible screeners of information, and has entrusted some of that function to universities and its resident experts, not to networks. But to shield the credibility of this function requires universities to be vigilant against creeping self-commercialization and self-censorship.

The threats to universities will not emerge overnight, but they will arrive for sure. People often overestimate the impact of change in the short term, but they also underestimate it in the long term. They recall that earlier hype about the potential of broadcasting as a tool of distance education failed to materialize, and they now believe that even a vastly more effective technology will meet the same fate, forever. Yet the fundamental forces at work cannot be ignored. They are the consequence of a reversal of the historic direction of information flows. In the past, people came to the information, and the information was at the university. In the future, the information will come to the people, wherever they are. What then is the role of the university? Will it be in the future more than a collection of remaining physical functions, such as science labs and the football team? Will electronics do to the university what printing did to the medieval cathedral, ending its central role in information transfer? Have we reached the end of the line of a model that goes back to Nineveh, more than 2500 years ago? Can we self-reform the university, or must things get much worse first?

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