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.