Digitized Audio Commentary in First Year Writing Classes

by Susan Sipple, University of Cincinnati Raymond Walters College

Instructor Name:

Susan Sipple

Course Title:

English Composition I


University of Cincinnati Raymond Walters College

What is the overall aim of the course?:
English Composition I (ECI) is designed to help students master effective writing processes and critical thinking skills. To that end, it requires that they write several papers and make substantial content revisions in all essays. In addition, ECI encourages students to reflect upon their writing processes in order to help them to recognize successful and unsuccessful patterns in their work. The course attempts to enhance their skills in choosing appropriate rhetorical strategies, to develop sophisticated arguments and interpretations, to think and write in increasingly complex ways, and to become better critical readers and more effective writers.
Course design and scope of the project:
ECI is a quarter-long course—one in a sequence of composition classes required of all students at Raymond Walters College, a two-year branch of University of Cincinnati. Enrollment is capped at 20 students per section. In my sections of ECI, students write four essays; on each one, they receive extensive instructor commentary. In addition, students make substantial content revisions and editing changes to every essay at least once during the quarter, using my feedback and new skills they have acquired along the way to guide them. My frustration with the time and space limitations of handwritten instructor commentary, combined with a sense that students sometimes ignore or misinterpret feedback delivered via this method, led me to experiment with audio commentary, beginning in 1990. Inspired by the work of Jeff Sommers (see References/Links), I began offering students extensive audio commentary on cassette tapes. Over time, my method of delivery changed: I now make audio CDs for students or e-mail them MP3 files. In an effort to better understand student attitudes toward instructor commentary on their writing and learning outcomes enhanced by varying commentary methods, I began in 2003 a series of qualitative, classroom-based research projects studying several aspects of handwritten and audio commentary. The results have convinced me that audio instructor commentary on student writing is received more positively by college composition students and leads them toward more substantive revision of their essays.
Incorporation of Technology:

Audio commentary on student writing can be produced in a variety of ways, from the low-tech method of recording comments on cassette tape, to producing MP3 files that can be burned on CD-Rs, e-mailed as attachments to students, or even placed in the Digital Dropbox on Blackboard course websites. In addition, MSWord offers the option of introducing audio inserts into computer files of student texts, using the “voice comment” menu selection on the reviewing toolbar. For several years now, my primary method of delivery has been via CD-R. Using my PC, a microphone that plugs into the designated jack on my computer’s CPU, and the Sony sound recording program, Sound Forge 7.0 (version 8.0 is now available), I am able to make high quality audio recordings for my students. Sound Forge is easy to learn, easy to use, and offers a variety of editing options as well. Audio recording software can also be downloaded free from a variety of sources (see http://www.users.muohio.edu/sommerjd/recording.htm for two options).

Lessons Learned:
Audio commentary can be used in any class, regardless of discipline, where instructors want to offer students formative response to their writing, course projects, or presentations.

Notes & Ideas: What Are You Implying About My First Life? Real Students, Virtual Space and Second Life

by Christopher Watts, St. Lawrence University

I have been thinking quite a bit about Second Life lately. And yes, I have been spending a fair amount of time in Second Life. There are some things about it that irk me. The name, for example: it seems to imply that my second life, whatever form it may take, is likely to be of higher quality than my “first life.” I hope that is not the case. But there is also an incredible potential there that keeps me coming back.

If you are unfamiliar with Second Life, I will try to give it to you in a nutshell: it is a massively multiplayer online virtual environment with over 300,000 users and a “real” economy, complete with a currency exchange and IP rights that extend to virtual property. What makes SL different from popular MMORPGs like World of Warcraft has to do with content. SL is not a game per se. There are no goals, points, or levels. Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, relies on users to generate content and set their own goals. Users buy and sell land, goods, and services for Linden Dollars. (At the time of this writing, the exchange rate is $213 L per $1 US.) It is also possible for users to create games within SL; gameplay is restricted to certain areas.

A number of individuals and groups are exploring the educational potential of Second Life. The New Media Consortium, with the support of the MacArthur Foundation, has purchased a private island in the virtual world of Second Life and has built a campus there. The campus is designed to accommodate groups of various sizes as the educational potential of virtual space is explored in a variety of ways. Visit the NMC Campus Observer for more.

Every year at the end of the spring semester, St. Lawrence puts on a faculty development workshop called the May Faculty College. For one of the sessions, we thought it might be fun to show the faculty a technology that was out there, but that we had not figured out exactly how (or even if) it had a place in liberal education. So, I found myself demonstrating Second Life and the NMC Campus for a group of 60 or 70 faculty. And they went completely nuts.

Some of them thought it was hilarious. Others thought it was magical. Still others thought it was pure evil. And they were all right. It is hilarious because my avatar—whose name is Walter—looks like me (only sexier), and we dress alike. It is magical because of the level of visual sophistication, and because it transcends geography. And it is pure evil because it can be used to escape from the world rather than to engage it. And that is a potential that we must take care to discourage.

As I think about the negative reactions my demo received, I am reminded of some past mistakes that are still biting us:

(1) We used to think of emerging educational technologies as tools that could potentially make our lives easier, and that has simply not been the case. New educational technologies can help us be more effective, but do not typically save us time or energy. This is an important distinction. Second Life is certainly not going to save anyone any time; it is probably not going to save anyone any energy. But I suspect there are many ways that it can and will be used to enrich liberal education. For example, many liberal arts colleges are in the midst of launching new visual literacy initiatives, and virtual environments like Second Life will have a role to play.

(2) Sometimes we are seduced by the cool factor of new technologies rather than by their potential to transform learning. Second Life is unbelievably cool. I hope that, when the cool factor wears off a bit, I will still be as excited about its potential. But it is hard to know. This second point is one I brought up with the faculty group in my demo. It is important for faculty to see instructional technologists and early adopters approaching new technologies with a healthy mix of enthusiasm and skepticism. These groups – especially the technologists – cannot afford to be seen as salespeople.

By the end of our session, faculty members were coming up with fantastic ways to make use of Second Life: staging crime scenes; prototyping sculptures; designing stage sets; bringing a level of visual interaction to distance learning that is currently missing. The following day, two senior faculty members approached me to tell me that they had had nightmares about Second Life the night before. It is not for everyone. And it is important to remember that our students are not all going to enjoy or even be comfortable using virtual environments. We can call them the Net Generation, but that does not make every one of them exactly the same. Still, Second Life has captured my imagination, and I look forward to figuring out the ways it fits within the enterprise of liberal education. As long as we manage to use it as a tool for engagement and not escape, I feel good about it for now. I hope others who are exploring related questions will weigh in here. In the meantime, I’m going clothes shopping for Walter.

Three Stars and a Chili Pepper: Social Software, Folksonomy, and User Reviews in the College Context

by Joseph Ugoretz, Macaulay Honors College–CUNY


The “future history of the media,” EPIC, presents a fictionalized retrospective, from the year 2014, of the history of media, news, and information. “In the year 2014,” the “Museum of Media History” tells us, “people have access to a breadth and depth of information unimaginable in an earlier age. Everyone contributes in some way. Everyone participates to create a living, breathing mediascape.” While we have not reached the point predicted there, and only time will tell if we’re going to be there by 2014, there have, of late, been some significant steps in that direction. One of these steps has been the development of a constellation of online tools that can be (at least loosely) tied together in the broad category of social software.

Social software includes many communication media, but the new tools which are the subject of this essay all fit three broad descriptions. These tools are interactive, with the content created and structured by a wide mass of contributors. These tools are also interconnected, with user-provided searchable links structuring and cross-referencing that content. And finally, these tools are bottom-up and communitarian, with the users of the tools providing and benefitting from associations, reputations, and authority within a many-to-many community. The various tools of social software are an increasing presence in the online world, as well as the offline lives of their users. Four brief vignettes demonstrate this.

Four Vignettes

In Boca Raton, Florida, baby Andrew is very sick. He and his twin sister Carly, born prematurely, came home from the hospital and seemed to be doing fine, when suddenly Andrew’s hemoglobin levels started dropping rapidly. In the emergency room, doctors prepared to give Andrew a potentially risky, but seemingly necessary, emergency blood transfusion. Andrew’s father, concerned, acted quickly. With only a small amount of battery power on his cell phone, he punched in a quick Google search (he used the search terms: hemoglobin and “premature infant“) on the phone’s integrated web browser, and found an article from the American Academy of Family Physicians Journal which described Andrew’s situation exactly. Showing the link to the doctors, the worried dad got a most surprising response. The doctors quickly headed for their offices and their own computers, to do their own searching, and returned to (sheepishly) admit that this was research with which they were not familiar. And that Andrew did not need the transfusion at all.

In Vatican City, the Pope is dead. The cardinals have assembled to choose a new Pope, and the world anxiously awaits their decision. Finally the moment comes. The smoke is visible from the Sistine Chapel chimney. Within minutes, wikipedia, the online open-source encyclopedia, has an updated article on the new Pope, with a photograph, a brief biography, and an analysis of his theology and ideology. Minutes later the article changes subtly as users add information, links to other sources, and links to other wikipedia articles. And minutes after that, it changes again, but much less subtly. The photograph has changed to a new one—that of the evil Emperor Palpatine of the Star Wars movies. But within, literally, one minute, the photo is changed back to the accurate one (which is still there now), and the vandal who placed the Palpatine photo has been banned from wikipedia.

In Brooklyn, New York, a professor of art history, looking for images of sculptures and Renaissance architecture, goes to flickr, the online photo sharing service. In searching for images, she finds many of the same ones that are in art history textbooks—but with a difference. These are the images taken by people in their visits to the sites. They include awkward angles, blurry passersby, bored children, or posing vacationers, and they give the sense of scale and viewer involvement that textbook images, perfectly framed and lighted, standing in isolation on a glossy page with a caption, cannot. The professor looks at the tags which are connected to these pictures, searches for and finds more, and adds tags of her own, forming a new set of photos, a slideshow of images which are related to each other not just by content, but also by perspective and experiential context.

In Massachusetts, at a major research university, a young part-time teacher gets a phone call from her department chair. He wants her to take a look at the student evaluations of her class, which students have posted using an online system, and which she can view online. She calls up the site, enters her username and password, and starts to read. Before she has even scrolled halfway down the page, she is nearly in tears. Several students’ comments, rather than focusing on her pedagogy or communication of content, directly address her appearance, and personality, with explicit comments about her body, her style of dress, even her hygiene. Her department chair doesn’t hold it against her, or even see it, but it is in her mind every time she walks into the classroom. She does not return after the next semester.

The New Tools

These four vignettes, all of which are true, share a common theme—good or bad, they all grow out of the recent and revolutionary change in the structure of knowledge, information, research and criticism which has been enabled by the internet. The arena of online interaction and communication which the internet provides–the ability to rapidly publish, categorize, and distribute information and opinion–has allowed the growth of tools which put users, people, in control of the distribution and content of information in ways that are decentralized and non-hierarchical.

Let me describe and explain in more detail the new tools (some of which are not really so new at all, as we will see) from the four vignettes above, and then I will return to those vignettes to suggest some possible uses of these tools in the academic setting—to exploit their strengths and avoid their weaknesses.

Google is a search engine, of course, one of many since the earliest days of the Internet, but since its invention in 1996, Google has rapidly become the dominant, in fact the default, search engine. There are many reasons for this, but three in particular are relevant to this essay. First, Google provides an unparalleled scope of comprehensive coverage. The entire internet, from my daughter’s gallery of photos of her cute kitten to the homepages of the United Nations, the White House, and Exxon, are crawled and cataloged and kept on Google’s immense servers in Mountain View, California (a mundane location, although in my imagination, those servers always look more like they should be found in the Emerald City).

In addition, the index Google provides, the ranking and relevance of search results, is completely machine-produced, and machine edited. No person or group of people decides how to reference or cross-reference the items; this done by an algorithm. And that algorithm (while its exact nature is a closely held proprietary secret within the walls of the Emerald City…or Google’s campus) is the third feature of Google which makes it unique, and which places it within the realm of social software—socially constructed information and knowledge. Google’s algorithm ranks sites by how many other sites are linking to them (with more complex variables such as the ranking of the sites doing the linking)—so that it is users, in a diffuse, enucleated cooperation, who make the decisions about which results are relevant and important.

It may seem that this kind of ranking will inevitably lead to a kind of tyranny of the popular, where sites that are most important, or most reliable, are displaced by sites which provide a kind of lowest denominator of common knowledge. And that does sometimes happen. But almost mysteriously, an opposite result is far more common. The site which is most appropriate, and most valuable, frequently turns up near the top of the list of the results, so that even a worried father, with the tiny screen of a cell phone and dying battery, can find, in a matter of minutes, the exact medical journal article which the emergency room doctors have not even seen.

When the web was first “invented” in 1989 by Tim Berners-Lee, he wanted his system to work at CERN for collaboration, where he could put up content (research results, ideas for new projects, general announcements) for others to read and see, and modify, add to, or correct. Of course, the web itself quickly moved away from this vision and became a more locked-down environment, with mostly static pages, and a one-way relationship between creator and consumer.

But the new tool known as a wiki is a direct successor to Berners-Lee’s conception. A wiki (“wiki” is a Hawaiian word meaning “quick” or “fast”) is a website where pages can be quickly and easily created and edited by users. Users do not need to know HTML, or programming, or anything other than (at most) a very simple markup language for formatting. Wikipedia (which we saw in the vignette above) is an attempt (of long standing now, with close to a million articles and over half a million registered users—and far more casual, unregistered users, since no one is required to register) to create an encyclopedia based on the concept of a wiki.

Pages can be created, edited, modified (even vandalized—as in the case of Pope Palpatine) by any and everyone. There are differences, of course, from the Encyclopedia Britannica, or from any other “traditional” encyclopedia. Sometimes these differences are negative (the openness to editing also allows an openness to vandalism) but other times they are uniquely positive. As in the case of Google, wikipedia can provide the quickest, most relevant, and often, surprisingly, most accurate results—because the terms of the search and even the content of the results of the search, are determined without centralization or imposed artificial perspectives, without a hierarchy, by users themselves. It is negotiated, shared, open knowledge. In wikipedia, the links and references between and among articles are provided by users, incrementally, with relevancies added as they are noticed, or as they emerge.

This process has recently encountered a much-publicized challenge at wikipedia, seemingly even more serious than that posed by the vandalism of Pope Benedict’s entry described above. John Seigenthaler Sr., a retired journalist, found that the wikipedia entry referring to him contained a false, and insidious, piece of misinformation linking him to the Kennedy assassinations. Mr. Seigenthaler’s response, unfortunately, was completely contrary to the philosophy and the most effective principles of wikipedia and other social softwares.

Mr. Seigenthaler responded by trying to force a restructuring of the wiki tool–rather than simply fixing the error by editing the page (and publicizing that change, bringing the community editing force to bear), Mr. Seigenthaler attempted an appeal to authority. He attempted to track down the source of the misinformation, and then to push wikipedia to cease allowing anonymous edits. He moved to lock down editing, rather than participate in the editing. While this response was perhaps understandable, it reflected an estimation of the new tool, wikipedia, as the equivalent of the old tool, the encyclopedia or newspaper almanac. Mr. Seigenthaler’s “solution” to the problem of false information actually avoided all the advantages of the new tool, and enforced its disadvantages. I will return to this theme below.

Flickr, as an image-sharing site, is also an example of social software, which uses “folksonomy,” rather than a taxonomy, to categorize and reference the items in its database. As the term implies, a folksonomy is a taxonomy which is created and maintained by users, organically, rather than one which is imposed externally and a priori. Flickr is one example of this type of system, and works similarly to other folksonomy-driven social softwares, like del.icio.us, furl, and technorati. In all of these, when users post photos (in the case of flickr) or bookmarked websites (in the case of del.icio.us and furl) or weblogs (in the case of technorati), they do not post the content into predetermined categories (Michelangelo, Hajia Sofia, David, Napoleon), they post the content first, and then add the tags (as many as they want) which seem appropriate to them. And later viewers, creating their own search paths and sets of content, can add new tags, new slices through the datasphere.

Serendipitous searching, stumbling on connections, can produce new views of the material (the human in the artwork, the experiential perspective), and connections that were not easily seen before. The Hajia Sofia or Michelangelo’s David become not only “architecture” or “Renaissance” but also “vacation” or “gaffe.”  Seeing how others have categorized and linked and cross-referenced material provides a reconsideration of one’s own categories, and leads to an encounter with new material that wasn’t even on the radar before.

In preparing this very essay, I used furl (which allows online storage of a “favorite” or bookmarks list), to keep the sites I found useful. And because my links, and others, are publicly available, I was able to see that someone who had “furled” a site I wanted to use had also “furled” other sites with which I was not familiar, but which were relevant and helpful. There was a shared search, a communal hunt for information, with people I do not even know, have never met, but who know and have found things that I need to know.

User Reviews
The last new tool I want to discuss is user reviews. These resources are probably much more commonly used, but have received quite a bit less attention as a phenomenon, than the others I have discussed above. There are many instances of this type of resource, from epinions, to the user reviews on Amazon.com, to ratemyprofessor.com and the online faculty evaluations in the case of the unfortunate professor in Massachusetts in the vignette above.

In all these cases, users (or students) have the ability to post ratings, comments, and discussion of products, websites, classes, professors, or even individual lectures. At ratemyprofessor.com, for example, students can leave anonymous comments about their professors, rating them in each of three categories: helpfulness, clarity, and easiness—with an added category (denoted by a red chili pepper) for hotness. The site is not sponsored by any school, it is completely independent. There are guidelines prohibiting some of what the Massachusetts professor experienced, and the enforcement of those guidelines is heavily reliant on user reports of violations. Like in wikipedia, the community itself provides the bulk of the policing and correcting.

Of course, this type of evaluation has always been possible in newsletters, or letters to school officials or paper evaluation cards, but the difference when these responses move online is significant. In online reviews, users can make their ratings and comments—and respond to one another’s ratings or comments—with complete anonymity, and with extremely wide circulation and availability.

There are huge advantages to this type of tool. Leo Laporte, the “Tech Guy” on KFI radio, a professional, experienced and knowledgeable journalist and technology consultant, explicitly admitted this in a recent episode of his call-in radio show. A user called in with a question about a set of wireless headphones. Laporte, on the air, tells the caller that he is really not sure about the answer, “but let’s check the user reviews on Amazon.com. I think these days,” he says, “more than the journalists (and I’m a journalist myself), it’s real people who really know how things work.” As he chats with the caller, Laporte goes to the Amazon website (the clicking of the keyboard and mouse are audible over the radio) reads the user opinions, and finds that the sound quality is excellent on these headphones…but that the headphones will not work with the caller’s treasured Ipod Nano.

Because there are so many, many user reviews on Amazon, posted by real people with real experience, it becomes possible to derive a consensus, a report with some real reliability which includes an unparalleled diversity of experience from users of many levels, with many needs. On the other hand, like in the vignette of the Massachusetts professor, the anonymity and the “culture” of the web (a subject for another essay) leads to an acceptance of flaming, harsh hostility, and irrelevant or inappropriate remarks (like the vandalism in wikipedia). In the best of cases, these are self-correcting, and the holistic picture which arises from the combination of all the reviews can even be more accurate, and certainly more accessible than “expert” reviews.

The anonymity of these reviews, while it is at one level unlimited, is at another level only a partial anonymity. Even the persona, the screen name or username (which is not a “real” identity), of an online reviewer is an identifying mark, and it does allow the reviewer to build a following, and a foundation of respect and reputation. A good name, even when it is only a screen name, becomes a very valuable resource when that name is literally all a person has as a credential for being a member of a community. Every login name, or screen name, is in itself a tool, a technique to be deployed and protected.

What Can We Do with These New Tools?

So we have this constellation of tools—these new methods of creating, sharing, categorizing, accessing and critiquing content. And in all of the cases, these tools, these resources, lack a central authority or a hierarchy of editorial control. In all of these cases the content and the conclusions and the references are communally negotiated and collaboratively assembled. And our students are using these tools. They are going to use them, whether we want them to or not, or whether we have thought about them or not.

I want to present some suggestions for how we, in the academic world, the college context, can use these tools to the advantage of our teaching and our students’ learning. In looking at any pedagogical tool or technology, I think the best approach is not to try to force it into a mold which does not fit (teaching online is not the same as teaching face-to-face, wikipedia is not Britannica). The best approach is not to reject the new tool as being unable to serve the same function as the old tool. A hacksaw is not a hammer. So when you try to pound a nail with one, and it doesn’t work very well, it makes little sense to blame the hacksaw. What I am suggesting here is not ways to hold the saw while hammering, or alter the shape of the nail, but ways to use the hacksaw as a hacksaw–or the new tools as new tools.

It is the very features that make these new online tools different that provide the places where we should look for strengths, and for practical uses. These social softwares raise a collection of questions, and those are the questions from which the practicalities arise. When we look at Google and wikis, at flickr and ratemyprofessor, we have to ask (and teach our students to ask) questions which are valuable and relevant in any academic endeavor—questions which are crucial to learning. Those questions include challenges to the nature of expertise, the limitations of expertise and narrow fields of specialization. They include questions about how to evaluate information, what criteria to use when judging sources. They include standards for what is appropriate critique, what is civil disagreement and what is offensive hostility. And they include practical lessons about how to use these tools successfully–how to formulate search terms, and how to identify posters and categories which work successfully.

All of these questions and issues can become tools for use in the classroom, once they are recognized as such. Practically speaking, I would suggest four areas in which activities can be designed. First, students can, as a class activity, actually use the tools—they can post user reviews, or upload their own photos or websites to flickr or delicious, and tag them. They can edit wikipedia pages, or start a class wiki.

All of these tools are, by their nature, user-friendly. More than that, and more important for the classroom context, they are (or at least can be) public. This means that students gain the increased motivational force of having their work open to a real (and wide) audience. When a student reviews a book or a film or a product or a service (or even a professor or class) for the purposes of the course or an assignment, the audience is the professor, or at most the professor and the other students. But when a student’s work is published, in a forum which is open and has the potential to attract acclaim and attention (whether positive or negative), the responsibility for the quality, efficacy and accuracy of that work is deepened.

Another way to use these tools is to have students evaluate them—and challenge them. Testing different resources one against the other, and against the students’ own experience and prior knowledge, can help them to explore the questions of authority, and introduce and reward a healthy skepticism as well as the critical thinking skills which college students (and all media consumers in contemporary society) desperately need. Of course, this kind of challenge and evaluation can and should lead directly back into the public participation. A more appropriate flickr or delicious tag can be added to an item, and subsequently explained, just like a wikipedia entry can be edited and the reason for the edit enumerated. Similarly, when students evaluate and compare the different items in the result of a Google search, they can also explain why those results differ, and provide an alternate, human-generated (student-generated) rather than machine-generated, ranking.

Many of these new tools (wikipedia is a prime example) include resources which explicitly foreground the contrasts, tensions, and challenges in the tools. Wikipedia’s discussion page for each entry offers the perfect opportunity for students to see (and take part in) the push and pull of deciding and negotiating answers and information. In the discussion pages, authority, credibility, agendas and biases are openly confronted and debated–so that the process is visible and accessible, and open to participation. In the earlier tools, in the Encyclopedia Britannica, for example, this process takes place only behind the scenes, and users are presented only with a seemingly seamless, complete, product.

The third practical use of these tools is one that I have been exemplifying in this essay with the vignettes I provided at the beginning. Students need to know, and must internalize, the difference, for example, between an article in a medical journal and the opinion of a member of an online community. They need to learn how to judge and apply reputation points, or recognizable standards of reliability. They need to see the way that a ratemyprofessor.com rating can work on a real human being, whether a student considering a course, or a professor teaching a course. They need to think about how these posts come about, and why and from whom, so that they will come to understand the rule of the extremes (reviews come from people who are very pleased, or very displeased—the middle is often excluded). The ready availability and ease of comparison of these tools permits them to serve as object lessons, as examples and instances, in the course of teaching students to ask themselves, and challenge themselves with, the questions the tools imply.

Finally, these tools can work in the classroom setting to promote and reward a feature of learning which is too often absent in the classroom.  Serendipity (I would argue), is at the heart of any learning which hopes to produce commitment and permanent attachment. Serendipity, chance encounters, the lucky strike, and the joy of discovery are feelings that every successful learner has experienced.

I remember, as I am sure most other academics do, in the days before web research, browsing library stacks, wandering related sections, and discovering books I did not know existed, even topics or genres which were completely new to me, but which immediately engaged me and which I could immediately make part of my repertoire of interests, ideas, and information. The new online tools lack the sensual element of those library searches (the flickering fluorescent in one back corner of the library, the stained carpet—forbidden coffee?—in the medieval literature section—that particular smell and lovely crackle of opening a book which nobody, perhaps, had ever before removed from its shelf).

But these tools provide more fluid and multi-faceted connections than physical browsing ever can. Online, the link from Renaissance architecture to the sociology of crowd movement to Camus’ The Stranger can be just a single click, rather than two flights of stairs or six banks of bookshelves. Because of this, the new tools can make that kind of serendipitous discovery easier to achieve, and easier to incorporate into classes and assignments. The trail of breadcrumbs which might have been necessary in physical space is automatically constructed in cyberspace, so the joyful surprise can be rediscovered by others, or analyzed for later re-creation.

Caveats and Conclusions

There are some caveats and potential problems I want to emphasize before closing. The first of them is less a warning and more an exercise for the reader. I am a professor of English. I teach writing and literature, and I do realize and have to acknowledge that these tools may function differently for different disciplines. But the exercise for the reader, of course, is to think about how the suggestions I have made, how these tools and resources, can work in your own teaching in your own discipline. The principle remains the same—look for the benefits of the hacksaw, instead of trying to make it work as a hammer. So what kind of uses can a hacksaw have in your discipline, in your academic area?

The major warning, the major possibility of abuse, is the one that is exemplified by several of the vignettes with which I began. That danger begins if students, or we as professors, or (potentially much worse) administrators, decide that ratemyprofessor.com, or wikipedia or Google or flickr, really are hammers. If we try to use them without reflection,  as being the same as other (objective, authoritative, traditional, edited, hierarchical, obsolete media, pick your own adjective) resources, we will be abusing them, and we will end up with a broken hacksaw, an undriven nail, or worse, a serious injury, as in the case of the professor from Massachusetts.

The title of this essay, “Three Stars and a Chili Pepper” of course refers to a possible rating at ratemyprofessor.com—the place where not only the quality, but also the “easiness” and the “hotness” (that’s the chili pepper) of a professor can be revealed. In thinking about these new tools, the tools of social software, reviews, and folksonomy, we need to be sure to think about how we are judging, and what we are doing with, the material that is judging us, and that we and our students will continue to use.

Adventus Internetus and the Anaerobic Soul

by Stephen Healey, University of Bridgeport


As a teacher, I was not prepared to encounter students accessing information too fast. With the search-engine-ready internet, digitized journal content, lectures by podcast, ubiquitous wireless networks, and content-rich RSS feeds, not to mention libraries increasingly serving as portals to the Chutes and Ladders of a virtual canned-e-land of effortlessly available information instead of acting as repositories for good books, all that has changed. Before adventus internetus in 1994, students writing papers were schooled in the basics: the library, journals, and books. Taking advantage of these resources assumed things even more basic: reading skills, curiosity, and initiative. In 2006, I sometimes wonder whether these attributes have gone into hibernation in the cold, dark winter that curiosity is enduring.

My analysis can be expressed as a single overstated worry: everything that is wrong with learning can be summarized as The Internet (T.I.). By T.I., I designate all those readily accessible sources of information that can be searched using find-for-me terms, accessed at the touch of a mouse pad, and cited using a few deft mouse clicks. (Here’s an out-of-the-blue Google search: “GDP of Bangladesh;” I select “I’m feeling lucky;” I can now report—with no analysis, no effort, and less than complete confidence—that the “total net worth of the hundred richest Americans” is more than double the “GDP of Bangladesh;” http://www.gristforthemill.org/050703persp.html; the first of 221 hits in a search of 0.38 second.) In 1993, it may have taken the President of the United States an hour to find what a ninth grader can pull up in 0.38 second. Just imagine President Clinton asking a presidential intern to “call the CIA and get this information, now.” (Google: “Monica Lewinsky;” my wife is in the room, so I resist clicking “I’m feeling lucky;” 2,880,000 hits in 0.55 second; that’s 13,300 times the number of hits for “GDP of Bangladesh” in only 0.17 second longer.) [Author’s note to readers: On April Fool’s day, 2006—no kidding—I originally conducted the Google search described in this paragraph. Since that time, the link above has become inactive.]

Even put to foolish use, T.I. has tremendous power, and we shoul  d not diminish it. But these ready-made sources of information differ from books, which require effort to find, effort to carry, effort to read, and effort to understand—effort, effort, effort. T.I. sources stream in effortlessly. Books are heavy to carry. These heavy and difficult sources provide aerobic conditioning to the soul. A colleague requires students writing papers for his classes to lug their sources (heavy bags of books) into his office. I am starting to appreciate that.

A moment of honesty. I like T.I. and use it frequently. With some good fortune, I will publish this jeremiad online. With even better fortune, many internet searches will retrieve this essay, and it will be widely read, or at least widely (as in world widely) available.

Some readers may wonder whether I am being inconsistent. In a sense, I am, but I learned to read books before adventus internetus. In fact, I still spend more time reading books than I do searching T.I. More to the point, I do not worry that students use T.I. Rather I fear that they use T.I. to reduce time they spend working on assignments, instead of using its time-saving features to spend more time reading, writing, and thinking. I also fear that students have become suspicious of the more time-consuming labors of reading and digesting non-virtual material. Reading through dusty pages and inhaling a century of dust mites have been disvalued in today’s need-for-speed, need-for-ease culture. In the past, a good term paper took a term to write. Now such a paper can be searched at cable-modem speed and tacked together in an afternoon. In the past, a term paper might have cited a dozen hard-found journal articles and might have referred to books that seemed more-or-less ancient, at least to an eighteen-year-old.

I remember reading a book in college that my professor assured me was a classic. Not missing the moral in his impassioned inflection, I beat a path to the library, found the book in the card catalogue (remember those?), and tracked down my quarry. At first, I immediately sat in the cold, dimly lit aisle and started reading. I understood almost nothing of what I read. But the very idea of a classic text motivated me.

In my dorm room, later that night, I noted that the book had last been taken out some fifteen years earlier. I laughed. Classic? My amusement notwithstanding, the professor was right.

I mention this story, because I fear that when aliens land on this planet in 2000-something that they will eventually go to the library to examine human classics. Cervantes, Shakespeare, Plato, and others. Not to mention the more scholarly sources of our wisdom. The Journal of the American Medical Association, the Journal of the American Academy of Religion, Science, Nature. And so on.

I imagine that some of these aliens will understand that books could be borrowed from the library, and that they will note that this borrowing plummeted after adventus internetus. Around this time, college students realized that T.I. contained everything one would ever want to know and that it would make it available without effort. I imagine that one of the more recondite aliens will propose in a scientific conference that human civilization collapsed because people stopped reading books.

She’d be more or less right. This is anaerobic soul syndrome (you do the acronym) and the death of civilization. Actually, I’m not so sure about this harangue, but the genre requires stating the rant directly, not hedging it with decorative qualifications.

What has happened to this generation of students? I ask this question, and am writing this essay, because I recently reviewed a lot of student papers as part of an assessment in the university where I teach. The papers had been collected in ePortfolios. T.I. made them readily available to me, and I could read them with minimal effort. I read a bunch.

A salient and disturbing finding was that these papers cited T.I. as nearly the sole source of information; assigned class readings were not even cited as sources. Ostensibly well-researched papers were awash with blue hyperlinks, the default color my version of Word assigns to hyperlinks. Less well-researched papers sported blue links about every third page. Virtually none of the papers referred to print journals or hard cover books. Those that used journal articles used copies made available through T.I. These citations were rare. My guess is that electronic journal articles are far harder to plunder for useful information.

Question: Is this a bad thing?

Answer: Yes.

Question: Can’t we say maybe?

Answer: No.

Put simply, when T.I. is used without reference to hard copy resources, learning is transferred to a realm that contains all the information one would ever want to know but that lacks context and the unwieldy substance of life. Context and life are those heavy and dense materials that surround nuggets of quotable sources and ideas in books and journal articles. Context and life get in the way of hyper-access, and learning context and life—materials that are learned along the way but not used in the papers—are a primary reason why college instructors assign papers. T.I. provides tools to decontextualize and plunder information. If a website contains too much information, a little ctrl-f searching can cut through the blather and disclose the info-nuggets. (Why does T.I. fail when I really need it? I vaguely recall a source that inspires this part of my diatribe, an essay published in the Chronicle of Higher Education a few years ago that argued for the importance of inefficient, time-consuming means of learning. Alas, not even T.I. can call back the actual source.)

The papers that I read in the ePortfolio assessment, for example, referred to detailed accounts of the GDP of foreign countries, the percentage of abortions in backwater places, and literacy rates of developing countries. Most hyperlinks beamed this esoterica directly to my machine. In days of old, one might have read for hours to find information like that, and the act of reading provided much unwanted information along the way. This more time-intensive approach also encouraged analysis, the act of discriminating nuggets from fool’s gold. It seems that the pain of reading and the power of analysis have been replaced by the ease of searching and paradise paved in fool’s gold.

My review of these papers also suggested that the thesis statement is in decline. (Thesis declinus is a symptom of anaerobic soul syndrome.) Information turned up through T.I. searches often is assembled without an organizing argument or consistent perspective. My hypothesis is that pre-T.I. students were not morally superior to today’s students, but that in looking for relevant ideas they discovered their own points of view.

My nervousness above about a source I failed to pin down also seems not widely shared. Countless recent high-profile cases of plagiarism suggest that intellectual theft is on the rise. One reason is the ease of doing it. There is no longer a tree of knowledge of good and evil, but an entire forest. In the past, to steal a paper required retyping it. A paper can now be cut-and-pasted in a matter of seconds. But T.I. also equals the playing field: ease of stealing is matched by ease of proving theft. But I think plagiarism’s rise is more related to anaerobic soul syndrome than anything else.

At the deepest level, anaerobic soul syndrome is threatening the social construct of the individual. Net-savvy college-age users find it more difficult than their book-reading forebears to answer the question, who am I? I believe that the individual self is experienced as a metaphor of the collective experience of any generation. Today’s generation is authored by multiple sources, like an ongoing Wikipedia entry. I find evidence for this view in student reactions to ubiquitous information. Faced by a surge of information sources, students have difficulty recognizing where another person’s ideas end and where theirs begin. Plagiarism ultimately is a symptom of a deeper problem, one related to thesis declinus, and tied to anaerobic soul syndrome. Thesis declinus results when an information-barraged mind fails to imagine an alternative. Plagiarism draws from available information packages one that best seems to fit the assignment. Both are cries from the oxygen-starved soul.

I do not suggest that we ban students from using T.I. Its power is too great to ignore. We should ask our students to invest the time they save using T.I. back into reading, writing, and thinking. T.I.’s power, however, renders those time-consuming activities dubious.

Thus, I am pondering ways to thwart the power of T.I. I can—at least for now—assign papers that elude T.I.’s omniscience. No GDPs, no calorie indexes, no birth rate tables. Just queries about the self: who are you? Where are you going? What do you think? I can assign books—out-of-print books that have yet to be plundered by T.I.—and ask for analysis of them. Who are you in relationship to this book? Where are you going? Is it the same place as this obscure character in this anti-T.I. book?

Just last night, I was putting my two-and-a-half year old to bed. We read good books. Good Night Moon, I Love Trucks, Curious George’s Big Book of Curiosity. After reading these books, he pleaded, “Read them again, Daddy. Read them again.” I wondered whether T.I. would eventually diminish his curiosity.

Whats So “Liberal” About Higher Ed?

by Jo Ellen Parker, NITLE


Are new digital technologies compatible with the aims and traditions of “liberal education?” Or do instructional technologies pose an inexorable threat to higher education understood as anything more than vocational training?

The answers to these much debated questions are yes and yes; it all depends on how the aims and traditions of “liberal education” are understood. My observation, admittedly as a practitioner rather than a researcher, is that there is no consensus in the higher education community about what liberal education actually is; rather, the term invokes a range of sometimes-conflicting academic practices and values. Specific instructional technologies support some of these practices and values and challenge others. Both “liberal education” and “instructional technology” are terms that point to a wide array of different things. In discussing their relationship it is therefore necessary to unpack our assumptions about liberal education and to specify which instructional technologies are at issue.

Some hypothetical, but familiar, cases might offer a useful starting point:

College A is trying to decide whether to create a learning commons in its library integrating the help desk and reference functions. Even though projections from the business office suggest that this move would save money, the librarian, the IT leader, and the faculty are all rather passionately opposed to the idea. Their (much more expensive) priority is to add smart classrooms in other buildings. Meanwhile, a mile down the road, College B has a merged organization with a librarian at its head and combined its help and reference services years ago, largely in response to demands for better research support for both faculty and students, but it has yet to install wireless access in its student union and outdoor gathering spaces.

College C spends more and more every year on subscriptions to electronic journals and databases but has not yet implemented a course management system because the faculty technology committee doesn’t see why so much should be spent to just “put our syllabi on the web.” College D, whose campus abuts College C’s, spent its first discretionary IT dollar on a course management system, immediately requiring its deployment in all courses and creating modules to make it an environment that student organizations can use — even though it has not yet been able to increase its budget for digital subscriptions for several years now.

Colleges E and F, meanwhile, have both decided that Internet 2 connection is a high budgetary priority. E’s reason is that a handful of leading faculty members have research agendas that require the transfer of enormous data sets. At F, the decision was driven not by the faculty but by the administration, which is concerned that if the campus isn’t on I2 it will be less attractive to strong prospective students. Asking anyone at College F what they will do with an I2 connection once they have it gets a blank look in return.

And then there is College G, which has made all its course materials open to the secondary schools and community colleges in its region by putting them all on the open web with what some might see as a rather casual attitude toward intellectual property. College G equips students who are going off campus for their required internships with digital cameras and PDAs for data capture, even though it can’t afford to create the GIS lab several science faculty have requested.

And in each of these cases, when these IT decisions are explained to the community, they are justified as “consistent with our college’s core commitment to liberal education.”

One could conclude that there is little logic to the decisions campuses make when it comes to IT strategy. But the issue may actually be that there are multiple competing logics, all bundled together as “liberal education.”

“Liberal education” is a little like “freedom” or “excellence” – a term invoked to convey a sense of undisputed good while encompassing a wide range of contested meanings. Academic institutions aspiring to offer anything distinct from vocational training justify important curricular and resource decisions with reference to it. (Of course, the value of non-vocational higher education itself is not universally assumed by either families or policy-makers; the high value on liberal education within the academic community is not currently shared by American society at large.) However, the claims and aspirations of colleges and universities reflect various theories of “liberal education,” some incompatible and some complementary.

These competing understandings of liberal education are not discrete schools of thought so much as interwoven threads in institutional discussions: colleges end up looking different from one another in part because they weave the threads together in different proportions and patterns at different moments in their history. Tracing the threads can be a useful way of framing the values and goals that shape specific strategic decisions about the adoption and deployment of digital technologies. Further, understanding how their institutions think and talk about liberal education can help IT leaders frame important issues in terms of educational values and purposes, making them more influential advocates by creating a sense of shared mission with their faculty and administrative colleagues.

The most venerable thread in the tapestry of liberal education is the curriculum-focused definition of “liberal education” as the study of the liberal arts and sciences – that is, as study liberated from the pressure of immediate circumstance and pursued by people free to explore the liberal arts disciplines without regard for immediate application or benefit. It is the commitment to learning for learning’s sake. The idea here is that liberal education emphasizes “pure” rather than applied disciplines and requires familiarity with the major areas of intellectual achievement in the Western tradition. By this standard, business, education, nursing, performance, and other applied studies are not seen as properly part of a liberal education. This is the logic that has some colleges giving credit for music theory and history but not for music performance, for economics but not for business or accounting, for developmental psychology but not for counseling, and so on. Further, in this view liberal education is above all else an academic pursuit. Colleges in which this tradition is strong are often leery about giving credit for non-academic work, so that internships, community service, and experiential learning are not highly valued.

This definition has been on the decline for several years now and relatively few institutions remain “pure” liberal arts colleges from this point of view, but it still echoes loudly through discussions of curriculum, requirements, and mission. Just the other day, for example, I was seated at dinner next to someone from a college that doesn’t give credit for the study of introductory language – on the grounds that language acquisition is not itself a liberal study but simply a tool which enables the liberal studies of literature, history, philosophy, and so on. A college where language is taught specifically to enable literary analysis but just as specifically not to enable tourism or business dealings is, for example, acting on this logic of liberal education.

A second, and increasingly influential, logic defines liberal education as operating from a pedagogical methodology that emphasizes active learning, faculty/student collaboration, independent inquiry, and critical thinking. This view is more pedagogical than curricular and emphasizes the development of intellectual skills and capacities over the study of any specific materials or content areas. To return to the example of language, in this approach the justification for teaching language is to develop the capacity to understand how languages work, to problematize the assumptions inherent in the native language, and to master new syntactic and lexical structures – goals that can be accomplished equally well in the study of any language without regard to the literary or historical inquiries that might follow.

The defining characteristics of liberal education in this logic are not disciplines but practices — practices like group study, undergraduate research, faculty mentoring, student presentations, and other forms of active learning. From this point of view, a discipline like nursing or education, for example, can be taught either liberally or illiberally, whereas in the first view nursing would never be seen as a liberal study. If nursing students are engaged in active learning with peer and faculty colleagues, doing direct research on important current issues in their field, encouraged to question dominant assumptions and procedures, and expected to solve complex problems independently, they are seen as being liberally educated. On the other hand, nursing students who are attending lectures, assigned material to learn by rote, rewarded for mastery of “correct” answers, and drilled in unvarying standard procedures are not. Liberally educated nurses are in this view learning to exercise judgment, understand the reasoning behind protocols and standards, and to be lifelong learners, while nurses who are illiberally educated are seen as being trained to be proficient technicians.

This view of liberal education is strongly influenced by social-constructionist theories of knowledge, research in learning theory, and a high value placed on the questioning of authority. Colleges that emphasize small classes over large ones, seminars over lectures, student research, faculty mentoring, peer study groups, and similar educational practices, while including applied studies in the curriculum, tend to be acting on this logic.

These two views reflect the complementary but tense relationship that exists between scholarship and teaching in the reward structure for faculty. Most colleges and universities are committed to both views of liberal education, just as they are committed to both scholarship and teaching. The ideal on many campuses is to teach a liberal arts and sciences curriculum (as in the first definition) using student-centered pedagogies (as valued in the second.) Just as with scholarship and teaching, however, while it is easy to agree that both the curricular and pedagogical understandings of liberal education are valuable, negotiating their competing claims presents real and specific choice points in setting institutional priorities. Colleges C and D took very different paths when investing in IT, for example, C choosing the discipline and content focused priority of subscriptions and databases while D chose the student centered and pedagogical priority of a course management system. These choices suggest that C acted more on the first view of liberal education and D more on the second.

A third notion of liberal education, related to the second but distinct from it, holds that the defining characteristic of liberal education is preparation for democratic citizenship and civic engagement. The AAC&U, for example, has in recent years emerged as a strong advocate for this understanding. In terms of curriculum, this approach tends to value the development of skills specifically believed to be central to effective citizenship — literacy, numeracy, sometimes public speaking, scientific and statistical literacy, familiarity with social and political science, and critical thinking. It tends to value curricular engagement with current social and political issues alongside the extracurricular development of ethical reflection and socially responsible character traits in students, seeing student life as an educational sphere in its own right in which leadership, rhetorical, and community-building skills can be practiced. Where this view is influential, you will find things like community-service requirements or credit-bearing service-learning projects, a high level of intentionality about the paracurriculum offered by student government and residential life, a tendency to focus course modules and assignments on recent or local cases, a sense of shared mission between faculty and student life staff, and a strong concern with extending access to higher education. (For many colleges, the framing of liberal education as preparation for service and citizenship dovetails with values derived from their founding religious traditions.) Campus G, providing open access to its materials on line and equipping students for their mandatory community service projects even when there are unmet needs on campus, is investing in this view.

Finally, a fourth view associates liberal education with a specific institutional type — the small, residential, privately governed, bachelor’s granting college. From this point of view the sum of the experiences such institutions provide is “liberal education.” Identifying liberal education with liberal arts colleges tends to emphasize structural characteristics and institutional settings as essential to liberal education and leads to skepticism that institutions with other characteristics can provide a truly liberal education. Do residential community, small size, and undergraduate focus in fact create conditions in which a distinctive educational experience can be crafted? Certainly there has been acknowledgement of the educational value of these institutional characteristics as an increasing number of large institutions have created units imitating the small, residential, living-learning community typical of the small college, often as honors colleges. And historically it is institutions of this type which have nurtured and attempted to combine all the educational priorities I have mentioned above. But even these small colleges, when attempting to do it all, face strategic choices and have to prioritize what to do when.

To the extent that liberal education is seen as the product of an institutional type, keeping the small colleges alive and vital is essential to its preservation. Technology, from this view, is valued in so far as it supports the survival of this sector of the higher education industry. The president of College F, who feels his institution must have I2 connectivity to remain viable in the marketplace even though he isn’t quite sure what it’s good for, is thinking this way.

There are no doubt other factors interwoven among those I have mentioned. But in general, this broad typology describes the main threads of the current discussion of liberal education: the curricular, the pedagogical, the civic, and the institutional – threads which are woven together on every campus but in different proportions on each. What, though, has all this to do with technology?

Let’s return to the first, curricular, understanding. When a college or its faculty is strongly influenced by this view, it is likely to regard technology as valuable primarily as an extension of the library offering new access points for scholarly resources. These are the people who are most excited about technology’s potential to allow them to view incunabula on line, access massive scientific datasets, or share documents with a remote specialist in their subfield. Institutions influenced by this view are likely to see digital scholarly resources as a priority area for investment, to assume that faculty research priorities should drive many IT decisions on campus, and to see the library as central to planning for information technology and services. These may be institutions that will prioritize digital subscriptions and put a librarian over the information organization – but not really see much point in spending a great deal on a course management system or creating collaborative student work clusters. When College E connects to I2, even though only a handful of its faculty will actually use it regularly, it is acting on these values, as is College C every time it prioritizes subscriptions over course management in the budget process.

What are the resistances to instructional technology that are likely to follow from this view? First, there is often a concern about ascertaining the quality and authority of materials located on line. This view worries that students, exploring cyberspace without the guidance of faculty members or librarians, will be misled about the value of what they find or will not be able to distinguish authoritative sources from irresponsible ones. Calls for “information literacy” programs therefore often come from this angle. There are also faculty concerns that technology offers distractions, erodes student’s ability to “read” and “reflect,” and values the quick and thoughtless over the deliberate and well-informed. In this view technology is valued for expanding the content of study but not for its potential to change the method or nature of study. In this model, the IT organization on campus is often most valued for supporting a powerful network with little or no downtime and easy access points and interfaces for accessing digital materials, but it may not be especially engaged in instructional partnerships with faculty or with maintaining student learning spaces, for example. Typically, in institutions where this view in influential, the IT department is seen as serving the library and faculty.

The second, pedagogical, point of view is much more invested in what technology allows teachers and students to DO than in what it gives them access to. These folks are excited about the way technology can transform study, about new ways of thinking and perceiving that might arise from digital interactions and resources. To the extent that this approach is influential, institutions tend to emphasize a student-centered vision of IT and to prioritize spending and support for communications tools, classroom presentation tools, course and learning management systems, and the like. The hypothetical faculty at Colleges A and D who were advocating for more technology in the classroom and for more robust learning management systems are probably influenced by this view. In this model such tools are valued for their ability to encourage communication outside class, facilitate group study, and allow students to author multi-media assignments. Colleges where this approach is strong might therefore also prioritize upgrading multimedia centers or teaching and learning centers, for example, or might approach the design of networks and spaces by thinking about how collaborative groups as well as individual users will use them. From this perspective, the IT department can be seen as offering important professional development to the faculty, as creating important learning opportunities for students, and sought after as a partner with the faculty in instructional design.

As for the negative side of this coin, resistance can arise when a commitment to digital pedagogy creates a sense of strain in faculty roles. The need for faculty to master new tools and develop the pedagogical skills to use them effectively leads to the perception of IT as an additional, onerous, and sometimes resented job expectation. Faculty and deans complain that there isn’t enough time for faculty to keep up with technology. Those faculty members who do engage in creative digital teaching may wonder if their efforts will be rewarded by tenure and promotion committees. Facing new demands to develop faculty skills and partner with faculty innovators, the IT staff itself feels pressure of time and staffing. And when the faculty/IT relationship is strong and focused on classroom pedagogy, it can be difficult to see what the appropriate role of the library can or should be, leading to tensions between the library and IT departments.

To the extent that the third, civic, approach is present, campuses may be likely to emphasize the ways technology can help them extend beyond their own borders and engage with non-academic materials and activities. These campuses may develop digital projects in partnership with the local secondary schools or public libraries. These will be faculty who are excited about the way technology allows their students to mentor local high school students by offering 24/7 homework assistance or to document their experiences during a community service project. These educational values might lead, for example, to e-portfolio requirements integrating academic and extracurricular learning or investment in videoconferencing technologies to support the integration of on and off-campus learning. These institutions might be more interested in making campus collections and course materials available to community partners, like our hypothetical college G, or to using technologies to support extracurricular activities than in purchasing highly specialized database subscriptions or equipping smart classrooms.

With its strong emphasis on community and ethical relationships, this is the position from which concerns about the impact of technology on the campus community and on relationships among and between students and faculty can give rise to resistance. I sit, as it happens, on the editorial board of a journal. At a meeting of this group we recently had a lively discussion related to a possible future issue. The discussion ping-ponged back and forth between excitement about expanding access to previously excluded students through technology and concern about the erosion of real, carbon-based interactions threatened by these same technologies. Both the excitement and the resistance were born of a commitment to liberal education as preparation for civic and community life.

For those who understand liberal education as essentially identified with one institutional type, much of the value of IT is in making sure that small colleges remain competitive with larger institutions able to offer a more extensive range of opportunities to students and faculty. Many small colleges and faculty cherish the hope that IT will help them to offer the virtues of small and the benefits of big, leading to optimistic ideas about the ability of IT to help small institutions do more with less and save money to boot. However, as we know, technology demands scale, something these colleges cannot muster, leading to continuing and especially difficult assessments about technology costs on small campuses. Will an expensive application be bought for the one faculty member who is likely to use it? When an IT staff has only three positions, how many optional applications can it actually support? Collaboration is an obvious strategy for small colleges to achieve some scale and lower some costs, but it is a difficult strategy for this point of view to consider – since the primary goal is institutional survival, and since collaboration can appear to threaten institutional distinctiveness, collaboration can appear to campus leaders as a counterproductive strategy. Further pulling against the need to control costs is a strong awareness of the need to keep up with the Joneses, leading to resentment and a sense of coercion on the part of decision makers.

All this is not to suggest anything more complex than that the discussion of technology and liberal education is entwined in debates about broader educational priorities and value. When institutions are facing decisions about where to put their IT dollars, they are often indirectly struggling over what their academic and educational values and priorities are. And this struggle can be particularly difficult for institutions committed to “liberal education” because of the multiplicity of competing goals and agendas subsumed within that term, particularly when resources are limited and difficult choices must be made.

Faculty and administrators who express concern about the impact of technology on liberal education are sometimes dismissed by technologists and CIOs as simply resisting change or failing in imagination. However, campus resistance to new technologies is often a matter of defending perceived threats to important educational and professional commitments. IT leaders, for their part, do well to explicitly connect specific IT challenges and issues to the educational values and practices characteristic of their institutional and campus clients. IT leaders have a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate to their colleagues that technology can indeed serve many of the goals of liberal education. They also serve their institutions best by framing technology choices in terms of the various and competing goals of liberal education and promoting discussion of which should be central to institutional strategy and why.