Arthur Warmoth Ph.D.
Sonoma State University

Copyright 1997, © 2005

Electronic communication and information processing technology permits information to be both more densely concentrated in virtual space and more widely dispersed in geographic space. These characteristics of the technology greatly increase the opportunities for learning activities to take place at a great distance from the location where the information to be learned is actually stored. This has led many educators and administrators to predict a rosy future for "distance learning" and other technology-based pedagogies as the answer to the problems of finance and relevance facing higher education today.

However, in generating new opportunities, the information processing and disseminating capabilities of the technology do not operate in a vacuum. They interact with the behavioral characteristics of economic systems and with the psychological processes of human learning and cognition. While it is quite likely that there will be many unpredictable interactive effects, there are also many parameters of these interactions than can reasonably be anticipated. Since the psychodynamics of human learning are relatively well known and not likely to change, the predictable changes to be wrought by the introduction of this technology are primarily in the areas of the sociology and economics of education.

Basically, we know that human learning can be understood as the capacity to process, communicate, and interpret information in cognitive--primarily symbolic--terms. Although the new technology enhances our ability to process and communicate information by orders of magnitude, it does far less to enhance the psychological ability of individual human beings to assimilate and manage information and knowledge. In addition, the philosophical insights sometimes lumped together under the banner of "social constructionism" emphasize that the processes of interpreting knowledge and information are as important as the processes of its pure accumulation, or even its management. By "interpretation," we generally refer to the collaborative creation of models of reality that are both accurate, in terms of feedback criteria such as prediction and control, and deep or meaningful, in terms of fitting into coherent shared patterns of intersubjective emotional and imaginal life-affirmation.  (See Bruffee, 1999.)

Thus it seems likely that information and communication technology will enable us to automate many aspects of the accumulation, organization, and storage of information traditionally carried out "by hand" (particularly by graduate students) in the modern university. However, the aspects of learning characterized here as the management and interpretation of information and knowledge are known to be dependent upon social psychological relationships of mentoring and modeling, as well as upon more behavioristic learning technologies such as evaluative feedback, repetition, and reinforcement. Therefore, these intellectually and culturally more complex aspects of education, research, and the application of knowledge will continue to depend on whole-person relationships. In terms of the personpower needs of society, these whole person functions of information interpretation and management will become relatively more important, compared to the traditional information processing functions of much of institutionalized education and research.

Based on the properties of the technology and the characteristics of the human learning process described above, I will venture several predictions about changes in the structure of educational institutions that are likely to follow upon widespread adoption of the new technologies. I will list ten transformations that flow from the logic of the technology, in interaction with relevant behavioral principles, in a rather categorical form. Then I will attempt to synthesize a vision of an educational landscape--a scenario, if you will--that flows from these transformational dynamics.

1. Information about everything is going to become more sophisticated and accessible. The whole world is going to become more like a university campus.

2. Any form of knowledge and information that can be capitalized and concentrated using the new technology will be capitalized.

3. Those aspects of knowledge and information which can be capitalized or concentrated will become the domain of capital intensive organizations disseminating very high quality information to very large markets at very low costs. This realm of information consists primarily of a) basic research and theory (knowledge that is discipline-based and cumulative and which--we hope--generates more or less "timeless" theoretical principles), and b) knowledge about the state of systems (system-state or "historical" knowledge) that are large enough to create a mass market for the information (for example, information about commodity and financial trade and markets, mass public opinion, information about the state of global and bioregional ecosystems, etc.)

4. Decentralized "grass roots" knowledge and insights can also be widely disseminated, easily and cheaply.

5. "Junk" information and information overload are easily created and propagated. As information becomes relatively cheaper, wisdom becomes relatively more valuable.

6. Information that challenges the fundamental assumptions and values of our basic cultural programming or worldview is easily accessible. See above regarding wisdom.

7. There will be enormously enhanced opportunities for the micromanagement of complex social, ecological, and economic systems, based on the capabilities of the new technologies.

8. There is likely to be a large shift in intellectual personpower from the academic disciplines that generate basic knowledge and research to interdisciplinary programs and projects that are engaged in this process of micromanaging systems, including generating system-state knowledge about systems that are of a scale or size that is too small to create a profitable mass market.

9. There will be increasing separation between the educational function of providing learning experiences (which will be more widely available from a multitude of sources) and of providing evaluation and credentialing (which will require increasing flexibility and sophistication).

10. The role of the typical professional educator will shift from being primarily an expert source of information to being primarily a facilitator of access to information, as well as a mentor and role model for the interpretation of information and its application to the unique historical circumstances of everyday life.

What is the scenario we may anticipate if all of these predictions are close to the target? For one thing, many more areas of social activity will come to resemble the campus of a good university, or liberal arts college, where intellectual inquiry and dialogue are engaged in and enjoyed. In the modern era, there was a tendency for education to take on the characteristics of the factory. In the postmodern era, factories are likely to become more like universities. And as automation increases and there are fewer people employed in factories, other centers of productive activity will become even more "learning intensive."

The primary functions of the typical modern university are 1) maintaining the basic academic disciplines that provide societies' basic information infrastructure of theory and research, 2) credentialing intellectual competence, and 3) providing instruction and initiation to more or less privileged young adults. The third function has often been a primary political basis of economic support for the first two functions. Higher education functions is justified to the general public by requiring the professoriate to spend a certain amount of time teaching. However, this function has rarely been satisfactorily integrated with the other two. The greater the prestige of the university, the more typically it is understood within the faculty culture to be, at best, of secondary importance. The fact that many of the functions of basic theory and research can now be managed by a smaller number of "superstars"--supported by suitable establishments of high technology and highly skilled research and communications technicians--gives us a unique opportunity to rethink the institutional and economic arrangements and priorities of our educational system.

The main outlines of an appropriate institutional restructuring in this “university society” are not hard to imagine.  There would be a shrinking?though by no means a withering away?of the personpower requirements of the modern research university, with its disciplinary and credentialing functions.  However, the center of gravity of the research agenda would shift from basic discipline-based research to more flexible, situationally-oriented interdisciplinary and systems sciences research.  Alongside the research university, there would grow postmodern colleges and regional universities that would primarily be concerned with providing learning opportunities in infinite variety, and with generating programs, projects, and task forces to facilitate the management of the complex systems of society, as well as of society’s relationship to its ecological context.

Such a university society would be characterized by widespread access to information, with both technology and learning facilitators widely available--perhaps in elementary schools, coffee houses, or other neighborhood gathering places. The facilitators would be highly skilled both at accessing information and at facilitating cognitive and emotional human development. The university society would also be characterized by interdisciplinary teams in a variety of institutional settings whose work, or vocation, would be to assure that the various subsystems that make up a society function efficiently and effectively, satisfying the Benthamite criterion of the "greatest good for the greatest number." But the criterion of "the good" must ultimately be measured phenomenologically in terms of "the quality of life," rather than in terms of partial or pseudo-objective criteria. And "the good" must include the long term health of the biosphere, as well as the short term pleasures of human beings. A more schematic version of this scenario of the postmodern university is presented in Figure 1.


A. OLD COLLEGES: A continuing base of conventional modern educational resources

B. NEW COLLEGES: Flexible learning systems designed to maximize both the application of information technology and the range of educational opportunties for a diverse student population.

Principal Functions: Principal Functions:
Foundational Knowledge (K. Bruffee)

Discipline-Based (Cumulative) Knowledge

Degree-Based Competency Assessment

Self-Directed Self-Awareness

Interest- and Competency-Based Learning

Whole Person, Skill-Based Teaching and Assessment

Principal Institutional Components: Principal Institutional Components:
General Education Courses:

These courses (located in community colleges and the lower divisions of universities) offer basic knowledge about existing social and ecological systems that currently exist in the world, as well as foundational historical and philosophical perspectives. Ideally, they will increasingly be staffed by interdisciplinary scholars for whom this aspect of knowledge is their primary interest, rather than being dependent upon the specialized academic disciplines that have been the central academic structure of modern higher education.

"Coffee House" Colleges:

The basic learning environment consists of a computer terminal with Internet access, located in a coffee house or other easily accessible community space and staffed by a team of learning facilitators. One member of the team is a computer nerd, and the other is a systems process facilitator. Both have a good "general education" knowledge of how the world works. The purpose of this open space is to facilitate individuals and groups in developing a personal sense of direction in the learning process, as well as the ability to define specific questions and goals that can be well served by access to quality information. Personal and community self-determination will be given equal weight.

Interdisciplinary Programs and Research Projects: 

As society becomes more complex and disciplined-based research becomes more highly capitalized, interdisciplinary programs will become more necessary in general education.  In addition. Majors and research programs focusing on complex scientific and social system issues will become more desirable and cost-effective.

Discipline-Based Departments:

Conventional discipline-based academic departments are the repositories of society's specialized cumulative knowledge. Individual learner's and problem-centered interdisciplinary projects need to know how to access this kind of knowledge effectively and efficiently. Because it is cumulative, much of it can be capitalized into centralized knowledge banks using information technology, but knowledge communities of qualified practitioners will continue to be needed at locations throughout a society, both as researchers and as interpreters.

Learning Communities:

Groups of learners who collaborate to define important questions and personal educational goals, as well as learning the basic skills of accessing information. These communities can grow out of "Coffee House Colleges," and they can create bridges to conventional educational resources in "Old Colleges." They would engage in a combination of for-credit and non-credit learning activities.


Degree Programs (including "learner-centered" and "distance learning" evaluation models)

The experience of existing distance learning degree programs suggests that a combination of residential and on-line learning experiences is most effective. Residential seminars provide orientation and permit interactive exploration of the "big picture." On-line study and written interaction serves for the assimilation of detail and the development of effective written expression. Society requires and technology permits more flexible, competency specific approaches to evaluation, including evaluation at a distance.

Competency-Based Certificate Programs:

Intensive programs focusing on specific knowledge and skills in a wide variety of areas. These could include hands-on systems facilitation skills at all levels of scale, ranging from the personal through community and organizations to large scale societal systems. Programs would emerge and disappear based on interest and demand. They would be self-accrediting, in the sense that they are based on the credibility of the instructors and the demonstrated competence of the persons certified, rather than on review by outside authorities. They therefore assume a certain basic level of consumer sophistication.

B.A.: The basic educated citizen.

M.A.: The 'journeyperson' level for most information era vocations.

Ph.D.: Persons who have achieved a mature historical, philosophical, and scientific level of understanding of the structure and dynamics of a major domain of humanand/or ecological systems.


Interdisciplinary Action Projects:

Business and non-profit organizations that carry out the actual work of planning for and managing the complex human systems of the information/communication society. They can involve interns in Learning Communities and Certificate Programs. They will be transitory problem-focused enterprises that will require new forms of financing and new institutional structures to provide an acceptable level of basic economic security.

The institutional changes described above are consistent with widely held aspirations for decentralization, democracy, participation, community, social justice and well-being, and personal existential and spiritual meaning. However, rethinking the economic parameters of this postmodern educational scenario runs very severely against the contemporary American grain. Our prevailing economic ideology appears to be obsessed with the elegance of markets, and with a corollary emphasis on individual economic behaviors such as consumption or competition and success. In contrast, the economics of the university society is fundamentally an economics of cooperation and collaboration, both with other people and with the environment.

Knowledge and information have the basic economic characteristic of being primarily public goods whose benefits redound to society as a whole, rather than private goods whose benefits redound to individual consumers. (This is not to deny the existence of substantial private benefits as well.) The economics and ecology of knowledge is such that the attempt to monopolize or privatize it is both very difficult to achieve and leads to serious problems of underproduction. It was this insight that led to the development of the great institutions of free public higher education in the last century, particularly the land grant colleges and the great public universities of the American West. It is a historical irony of noteworthy proportions that the democratic process is choosing to dismantle this system just as we are trying to muddle our way into the information age.

The two basic mechanisms for funding the production of public goods are public spending and philanthropy. At the present time, we are faced with a widespread distrust of the governmental institutions that are in charge of taxation and public spending. At the same time, the bifurcation of income distribution is creating a minority of the population with substantial resources that could be channeled into philanthropic support of the greater public good. However, motivation --the traditional concept of "noblesse oblige"--and an understanding of the need and possibilities is lacking, while the established institutions of philanthropy are limited by self-serving agendas and by a limited vision conditioned by the chronic marginality of philanthropy in modern industrial society. In order to fully realize the benefits of the information age, we must create public and non-governmental institutions for the funding of the public good that work and that can be trusted.

Thus the realization of the scenario of the university society is itself an educational challenge of heroic proportions. All of us, as participants in the democratic process of social evolution, must learn what knowledge is, what it is good for, and how its benefits can best be realized. We must learn what we really want; we are thrown back on the ancient philosophical question, "What is the good life?" We must learn the answer to that question both as individuals and as societies. And then we must learn how to create the social, political, and economic institutions that will enable us to realize our aspirations.

Last updated 8/17/05