First Monday

Letter to the Editor

Date: Sun, 8 Feb 1998 14:36:10 -0600
From: gregory byshenk
Subject: Digital Diploma Mills, and responses

To the editor:

Let me first note that I have only recently discovered First Monday, and thus am only now responding to the issues under discussion. If others (perhaps David Noble, himself) have already addressed this point, feel free to disregard this letter. If, on the other hand, the points I make have not yet been raised, then I think that they should be.

I hope that I was not the only reader distressed by the responses to David F. Noble's article titled "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education." While many of the points made in response are valid ones, they seem largely to misapprehend the central issue raised by the article in question. Certainly there are numerous issues surrounding the implementation of instructional technologies - including, as Brad DeLong notes, those relating to the granting of PhDs - and certainly there is a place for instructional technologies in the classroom. Again, as DeLong notes:

professors will be extremely happy that they have access to computer-and-telecommunication tools that will also be complements to - not substitutes for - personal engagement with their students.

The problem with this particular line of argument is that it seems to beg the question that Noble seeks to address. I, at least, do not read Noble's point as being "anti-technology" per se. Indeed Noble seems to recognize that new technology can "contribute to a genuine enhancement rather than a degradation of the quality of education; Rather, the central issue raised seems to be whether instructional technologies will be "complements to" or "substitutes for" engagement with students.

Or, to state the same issue in a different form: who will control the implementation of technology, and for whose benefit will it be implemented?

It is no doubt true that there are many instances of the beneficial implementation of new instructional technologies, and it is almost certainly true that some opposition to the implementation of new technologies is based on a Luddite aversion to anything new and/or technological. But this is all beside the point.

At issue here is the forced imposition of new technologies against the wishes of both the faculty and the students. While it remains a possiblity that both groups are simply too blind to see the benefits to be realized by such technologies, such combined opposition might at least suggest that motivations are involved other than the pure desire to improve the quality of education.

All of which is not to suggest that the motivations of facutly and students are always pure, nor to disgregard the various issues surrounding the implementations of new educational technologies. But let us suppose that DeLong's reading is correct, and that faculty opposition is rooted in the fear of loss of status and priveleges. It must then be asked: to whose benefit is such loss? Is it to the benefit of currently-unemployed PhDs that a few more temporary and/or part-time teaching positions become available? I submit that such is small benefit indeed, if it is a benefit at all.

Gregory Byshenk
Chicago, Illinois, USA

-- + gregory byshenk - - +
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Date: Sat, 21 Feb 1998 01:02:02 -0800
From: Brad De Long
Subject: Re: Noble

Dear Mr. Valauskas:

I find myself agreeing with most of what Mr. Byshenk has written. But my thoughts do diverge from his at one point--where he writes of the "...forced imposition of new technologies against the wishes of both the faculty and the students."

If new technologies are ineffective and imposed against the will of the students, students attending private institutions are very capable of voting-with-their-feet for other private institutions that avoid such new technologies. Students attending public universities have parents who are taxpayers--and discontent on such students' part can quickly make the lives of public-university presidents, chancellors, and provosts who are responsible to elected legislatures very unpleasant.

If the new technologies turn out to be ineffective and alienating, they won't last.

But my bet is that they will last: that there will be some students who will find an education based around new technologies an improvement. And there will be some professors - me for instance - who will welcome the ability to leverage modern technologies to do a better job in teaching our already too-large classes.

Brad DeLong
Professor of Economics
U.C. Berkeley

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