Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 24, 1997

University Symposium
Stresses Technology

Mike Field
Staff Writer
Warning that "not only will the unimaginable happen, it will happen very fast," Mario Morino of the Morino Institute challenged an audience of nearly 300 gathered in the Homewood campus's Shriver Hall to rethink the role and function of the university in the next century. "Change comes hardest to those with the deepest traditions," he said.

Morino's remarks formed the keynote address of a university symposium held Feb. 21 in honor of President William R. Brody's inauguration. Organized by an intradivisional faculty group to highlight how new technologies are likely to affect higher education, the event brought together deans, department chairs, faculty, students and staff in a wide-ranging discussion titled "Rethinking Institutions in the Information Age."

Morino, founder and former president of Legent Corporation, one of the largest software companies in the world, headed a distinguished panel of theorists, businesspeople and educators, all involved in applying new technologies to education and research. The panel was chaired by Provost Steven Knapp.

Haroutune Armenian, professor of epi-demiology in the School of Public Health and chair of the inaugural symposium committee, welcomed participants by noting that, through the ages, "technology has outpaced sociology."

It was a thought that informed much of the subsequent discussion, with Morino suggesting "the space between sociology and technology is no longer a gap, but a chasm." He made several predictions of how the new era of digital communications might affect higher education in a 45-minute presentation that roamed freely across the academic landscape, but was grounded in the supposition that knowledge and information are key components of the new economy.

"Which corporation will be the first to acquire a university?" he asked at one point, noting that as unthinkable as the idea may be, it is no less unlikely than the purchase of academic health centers by private corporations, which, he said, has become a reality. "Don't assume you're competing only against other universities," he warned. "Because all sorts of other players are going to come out of the wall and go after your space."

Although much of the three-hour symposium concerned the ways in which new electronic technologies will affect institutions, and in particular higher education, most of the panelists agreed that the social impact of change was the real crux of the issue.

"It's far deeper than simply being about technology," Morino said. "We've been grossly overfocused on the technology, when it's the people and personal interaction that are truly at stake. We are witnessing the creation of an entirely new communications medium at the same time the force of anxiety, of unrest and uncertainty--magnified by the approach of the millennium--are profoundly affecting social interactions."

In the response time that followed Morino's presentation, panelist Douglas Becker, president of Sylvan Learning Systems, one of the nation's largest private sector education services firms, amplified Morino's assertion that the effects of the new technologies were of greater consequence than the nature of the technologies themselves.

"In particular I would say that the elements of distribution--not a concept usually discussed in education--will become critical in the years ahead."

Becker wondered how colleges and universities will react if new interactive modes of communication eliminate the advantage of geography. "Historically, education was a geographically based concept. In certain regions certain schools have had the benefit of dominating the market. But if technology allows you to get knowledge when you want it, where you want it--and perhaps even continue to work a full-time job while acquiring it--then distribution becomes a very important issue."

In this vision of the future, said Becker, the concept of marketing and even brand name recognition becomes exceedingly important, as a large number of similarly competent schools compete for students spread across a national or even worldwide marketplace.

It is a vision that panelist Jeffrey Abramson, professor of law and politics at Brandeis University and author of several books on the impact of technology upon popular democracy, found objectionable. Voicing strong disagreement with Morino's and Becker's business analogies, he questioned whether it was even appropriate to view higher education in those terms.

"Is Hopkins a brand name like any other brand name?" he asked. "Why are universities not just another business?"

Abramson contended that "a certain kind of economically rational model is not the basis of our experience as teachers," and that therefore the analysis of technology's impact in purely business terms was inherently misguided.

"Technology never has politics," he said. "Will new technology do something fundamentally different and more equitable in the delivery of education? I am not an optimist. It is the human institutions that will need to be changed."

Earlier, Bernard Gifford, founder, chair and chief instructional officer of Academic Systems Corp., a Silicon Valley educational software developer, had suggested just the opposite.

"I believe there is a basic democratic impulse to extend the prospect of higher education to more people," he said. "As someone who has tried to improve teaching, I am excited and elated by what I see. These technologies can make students more powerful self-learners, they can teach meta-cognitive skills and allow us to create communities of learners. I believe the American destiny will manifest itself through higher education in the 21st century."

Panelist Toni Carbo, dean and professor at the School of Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, stressed that the new technologies would require a change in "what we understand to be an educated person." Employing a concept she termed "mediacy," she suggested that in the future, institutions of higher learning would have to teach "information literacy, the ability to explore information and evaluate and manage and synthesize the results. This requires many different skills. We need to come to an understanding of the ethical implications of the revolution."

Summarizing and concluding the event, President Brody thanked the panelists and audience participants for starting a discussion bound to continue for some time.

"Fundamentally, it's not the technology that is at issue, but the way in which information will be managed and used," he said. "We at Hopkins have long prided ourselves on delivering a hand-tooled education specifically tailored to each student. We need to begin considering how to balance this residence-based approach against the new opportunities that interactive technologies afford us."

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