New Dawn or the Perfect Storm?

At Educause meeting, James Hilton catalogs the threats and opportunities that technology presents for higher education.
October 25, 2005

Those stumbling out of James Hilton's rapid-fire speech at last week's Educause meeting might have been forgiven if they weren't sure whether to return to their campuses absolutely terrified or terrifically excited about the explosion of technological innovation in higher education.

Hilton, associate provost for academic, information and instructional technology affairs at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, described a landscape in which "disruptive forces" are radically altering the state of publishing, threatening to diminish the role of libraries, and rendering obsolete traditional methods of delivering information. Those forces threaten to relegate colleges to the periphery of society, he suggested.

But the technological advances are also creating enormous opportunities for colleges and universities to become key players in democratizing the collection and sharing of knowledge, Lipton said, offering "hope amid the disruption.”

“We are seeing a redefinition on the scale of the rise of research universities after World War II,” he said. “I’m not talking tweaked, not tuned -- fundamentally redefined.”

Hilton, who warned the audience that his favorite student evaluation had suggested that he could improve his teaching if he would only “breathe occasionally,” framed his torrent of a talk with two images: one of a rising sun, and the other of the bestseller “The Perfect Storm.” “It’s difficult to predict which of these” better describe the situation facing higher education, he said.

The “pain side, the depressing, challenging side” of his speech focused on the changes being wrought to the knowledge economy by digitization, and the challenges they present to scholars and administrators:

  • The iPod-led revolution in the distribution – and, not unimportantly, in the pricing – of music (and now video) through “unbundling.”
  • Intensification of the legal wrangling over copyright issues, in which, Hilton asserted, the Jeffersonian ideal of copyright as a way to promote learning has been replaced by a world in which “you’ve now got students asking professors to sign NDA’s so they don’t steal their ideas.”
  • The shift from producers of content “pushing” their material out to consumers wanting to “pull” the information they desire.
  • The “ubiquitous access” of content of all kinds thanks in large part to Google (yes, thanks, Hilton insists to those Google foes out there), whose goal is to “organize and make searchable all the information in the world.”

The great risk to colleges and universities, Hilton warned, is that they view themselves as providers of information rather than knowledge. While higher education has “profited from the fact that we’re seen as gateways to information,” the ease with which people are now and will increasingly be able to get information from other sources makes that an insufficient role for colleges to play, he said. “To the extent higher education is seen as being about access to information,” as opposed to imparting knowledge and teaching people how to think, “we’re doing something wrong.”
In a climate that could give keep higher education officials up at night, though, Hilton, an unabashed fan of technology, finds promise amid the problems, that “hope amid the disruption.”

He heralds the creation, for instance, of digital repositories of data and images have transformed research and resulted in large scale experimentation in which innovators are “aggressively pursuing ways of archiving and publishing information.”

Hilton applauds the “mass digitization” of information, which has a “broad and democratizing impact” on the sharing of knowledge. And he welcomes the growth of open source technologies like Sakai, the course management system that Michigan and other universities have developed.

These technologies have the potential to transform higher education positively rather than negatively, Hilton suggested, positioning higher education for an era of intense collaboration among researchers, improved learning, and full engagement with society.

In case anyone at this meeting of technology fans had any doubts about how Hilton ultimately views the intersection of technology and higher education, he closed his talk with the sunrise image, which was popular with his audience.


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