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TRANSFORMING HIGHER EDUCATION: VISION OR MIRAGE?

By Irving Hexham]

Copyright 1996

 

[From: The University of Calgary Gazette, 5 February, 1996, p.6]

 

 

At the Dec. 7, 1995, meeting of the Faculty of Humanities Full Council, Dr. Howard Yeager, associate vice president (academic and planning) sai that it was “essential for the university to reconceptualize its programs.”

 

To help faculty think about heis task he recommended a book by Michael G. Dolence and Donald M. Norris, Transforming Higher Education. Elevator telegraph claims this book is now referred to as “the Bible,” by some administrators.

 

Since most faculty members are already overburdened, I suspect few people took Dr. Yeager’s advice, but this is a great mistake. After reading the document I wish to urge all  my colleagues to obtain a copy and read it. It seems that this book is the blueprint for the ways we are about to be led.

 

The authors tell us: “Given the ethos of academe, the development of shared values must be a process of cocreation, consultation, and testing of ideas if it is to succeed. But rank and file faculty and administrators have such a low level of cognition about Information Age potentials that they must be led – and strongly. The most important leaders on campuses over the next decade will be the presidents, provosts, vice-presidents for academic affair, deans, department chairs, and other academic leaders who have the insight and the vision to lead and stimulate a far-reaching campus dialogue on the emerging Information Age university [p. 88, italics mine].

 

Of course throughout the book, the authors pay pip service to “dialogue” and “consultation.” But, their doublespeak is made clear when various suggestions are made for rewarding “champions” [p. 90] and, by implication, punishing those who resist by the withdrawal of funding. All of this will become increasingly practical as administrators re-engineer the university. Ominously, administrators are to be transformed into “general contractors.” [p. 66]

 

But what of the faculty? To be honest the future role of individual faculty is masked in jargon and hype using terms such as “researcher, synthesizer, mentor” etc. [p. 61] Faculty are also described as “Tutors, proctors, or monitors” [p. 78] and facilitators.” [p. 23] But, the implication surely is that all but a chosen few administrative trainees become sessionals.

 

In this Brave New World students become “Information Age learners” who “need to be genuine ‘knowledge navigators’” [p. 26] Thus, “Under the Information Age model, learners will pilot their own learning journeys, acquiring new skills and tools. Faculty will serve as navigators.” [p. 66]

 

Many observations could be made about the arguments presented in this document. Here are a few that concern me.

 

First, it is a utopian vision lacking solid evidence. In fact everything is described as “metaphor” [p. 27], while the authors repeatedly say things like “Looking to the year 2000, futurists estimate …” [p. 7] and, “It is becoming increasingly difficult within our traditional courses and degree structures to produce graduates who are competent critical thinkers, knowing enough about selected specialties, and have the capacity to learn to navigate to obtain information germane to their needs.” [p. 23]

 

Yet no evidence or documentation is provided to support such sweeping claims beyond a bibliography at the end of the book [pp. 96-97] The fact that some authors are cited in the bibliography, Peter F. Drucker, for example, strongly disagree with the arguments and conclusions drawn in this work is conveniently overlooked. Here the authors use a vision of the future to reengineer present reality. This is something Drucker warns against because he sees such utopian thinking as courting disaster [Cf. Peter F. Drucker, Managing in a Time of Great Change, New York, Dutton, 1995, pp. ix-x]

 

In short, we are asked to accept this vision on blind faith.

 

The authors say, “This does not mean we lack evidence to support our assessments of current conditions and future opportunities. Precisely the opposite is true. But our experience with the envisioning and developing Information Age tools suggests that if we wait until the vision is perfectly clear and risks have vanished, the opportunities will have passed, as well.” [p. 4]

 

This evasion of evidence does not prevent them from presenting many examples, all undocumented, to support their arguments. Thus after providing several idyllic examples of how their techniques are changing people’s lives they admit that they are purely fictions. They justify this use of fictional examples with the comment “Technologically, these hypothetical learning vignettes are possible today.” [p. 20]

 

Second, this is a revolutionary document which, in the tradition of utopian revolutionaries, calls for nothing less than total transformation. The authors, of course, deny that they are advocating revolution. What they want is the establishment of “transformative expectations – not revolution.” [p. 89] But, such caution is doublespeak used as a means of ensuring their desired transformation. Thus, they scorn gradual change and experimentation.

 

“Interactive, multi-media systems are growing in use. Some institutions are offering on-line learning … However, these are transitional efforts, not transformation.” [p. 12, for a few more examples see pp. 20, 25,31]

 

Third, like all true revolutionaries the authors are presenting a vision, not reality. Given their commitment to change, it comes as a surprise to realize that the authors repeatedly admit the type of transformation they “envisage” is still a purely theoretical concept depending on future innovations.

 

“Experts expect the 1990’s to witness many advances in cognitive science.” But, these changes will only come about “Once we break the classroom-bound, lock-step metaphor for learning.” [p. 28]

 

In other words the utopian vision they present can only become a reality once our present educational system has been destroyed. Such dubious comments remind one fo the promised Utopia of the Communist Manifesto’s classless society. Framing their vision in this way is essential because it depends entirely on a step of blind faith, something they come very close to admitting when they write, “One of the problems that plague the transformation process is a lack of models and successes to point the way.” [p. 82]

 

Later, at the end of the book, they say: “Our vision of the future is still ephemeral. But by accepting transformation as a guiding vision and using existing learners to perfect the tools of transformation, academic leaders can position their campuses to respond to the opportunities of the Information Age.” [p. 93]

 

In other words we, faculty and students alike, are to be used as guinea pigs. Or, more bluntly, students and researchers are to be sacrificed on the alter of transformation for the sake of an untried and unproven vision which may be a complete mirage.

 

Forth, the vision presented here may be “new” in the way it targets universities but the educational philosophy, actual techniques – such as the use of “monitors,” and audio-tutorial instruction, - the jargon of social and educational transformation using technology originated, as the authors admit, in the 1960’s. [p. 77]

 

Later, in the early 1970’s, identical ideas and methods were adopted by the ACE school system, which prides itself on its innovative use of computer technology. ACE stands for “Accelerated Christian Education,” and is one of the leading fundamentalist “Christian school” movements in America. Therefore, contrary to what the authors say, the techniques they actually promote, as opposed to promises they hold forth, are being used today and can be seen in practice.

 

We do not have to change our universities before we judge the value of these methods. If we really want to know how well these methods work in practice all we have to do is examine the record of ACE schools.

 

Fifth, in another place we are told that the traditional classroom will be replaced by “network scholarship.” This, we are assured, is how “The debate over cold fusion was framed, waged, and settled … over a period of months.” [p. 25] Thus we are told, “New concepts and standards of personal best will” replace our outmoded notions of scholarship. [p. 28]

 

Behind these changes is the belief that in the future “Information Age: The teaching franchise will be joined by an emerging learning franchise … the learning franchise provides access to powerful learning systems, information and knowledge bases, scholarly exchange networks, or other mechanisms for delivery of learning. Learning modules and systems are open to anyone who wishes to access them and has the resources to compensate the provider.” [pp. 9-10, italics mine]

 

Sounds enticing doesn’t it. But, don’t forget the Internet is also the place where it has become respectable to question the reality of the Holocaust. On the basis of the logic of this book the Province of Alberta should be prepared for the day when Jim Keegstra wins a lawsuit for unlawful dismissal and loss of earnings.

 

If we trust the net then, in time, enough people may subscribe to the providers of Revisionist materials making the Holocaust an invention of Industrial Age propaganda. Thus, backed by some wealthy patron, Keegstra may be able to argue that he was right after all because his views were censored by owners of the teaching franchise. Problems such as this are simply ignored by these authors.

 

Sixth, example after example could be presented and analyzed to show the weaknesses of this document. But, I will leave my colleagues to read it for themselves. I suspect that if colleagues take the time to study Transforming Higher Education they will discover many other problems I have not mentioned and will be shocked by what they discover. At its core this is a religious vision, reminiscent of TM and similar New Religious Movements, which lends itself to fanaticism.

 

Finally, make no mistake. I am not against the use of technology, innovation, or thinking about the future. What I object to is the pseudo-religious vision found in this document. If implemented it will, in my view, destroy the academic reputation of this university. Our university will, of course, be an administrator’s paradise.