Higher Education and Information Technology

Defining the Relationship

 

By Rajesh Kumar Sharma

 

A modest claim that we may advance on behalf of higher education is that the ‘higher’ in it points us to the ideal of cultivating disengagement from the dominant discourses of the time. Never before has this been truer perhaps than at this moment when a powerful discourse has grown around information technology which makes it look like a universal source of validation for various activities that fall under the rubric of education. This has resulted in a distortion of perspective the symptoms of which can be noticed in the deeply fraught relationship that currently prevails between education and information technology. The tendency is to grant autonomous value to information technology, snapping it loose from its anchorage in education. The source of this new valuation lies, probably, in the competitive economics of the global marketplace which has found in information technology the capacity to generate quick and sizeable revenues on the one hand and the ability to discipline and disperse the ‘human capital’ on the other.

But this has turned upside down, particularly in the developing economies such as India, the vision of education in relation to its subsidiary activities of professional and occupational training. Even as information technology comes increasingly to be seen in these economies as possessing an autonomous value, only a derivative value is conceded to education. Attempts are made to restructure education for the needs of and on the paradigm of information technology, instead of finding an enabling and empowering role for information technology in the larger project of education.[1] Information processing threatens to replace education, with the human subject vaguely fancied as a processor at best and an interface at worst. In all this, education as the defining human project falls by the wayside.

The conjunction, under the pressures of a globalizing world economy, of the digital divide and ‘the risk society’ further complicates the problem.[2] Vertically, societies remain sharply divided in terms of economic as well as information resources; yet they must break into a blind future without any more procrastination.  In this situation, information technology continues to generate pathologically high degrees of expectation. It evokes fantasies of salvation at the hands of some techno-economic avatar, especially when there is a profusion of intractable problems all around.

Of late, the old debate has been simmering again in higher education – between the proponents of its immediate public (read economic) usefulness and those who advocate the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake (the pursuit beyond, at least, the short and myopic flight of utilitarian reason).[3] The expected favourite target of the polemical assault (sometimes delivered in the polemics of silence) are the humanities which suffer widespread abandonment at the hands of not only students looking to get the best value for their money in a culture of economics but also the corporate funding agencies and the national economy managers. While the West seems, by and large, to be still capable of seriously debating the issue, there is very little attempt in the developing countries to take a balanced view. With little information and poor information management, soft states, and the strong ‘underhand’ of international finance capital and lending institutions, the swing for immediate usefulness usually translates – in practice – into private profit and political opportunism.[4]

It is unfortunate that the academy the world over has generally remained silent against an essentially hollow discourse of a rather narrowly conceived usefulness. It has failed to deliver a counter-discourse for the sake of even a good public debate. Even the humanities, with their glorious legacy of rhetoric and philosophy, have not shown any inclination to adequately answer the assault.  Usefulness is not anything despicable, but usefulness understood only in terms of modes of production, with absolute disregard for the modes of creativity, cannot be the only criterion, nor can it be always a valid criterion. Things not useful may also have their uses. Innovations, for instance, do not necessarily arise from projections of specific future utility. The idea of ‘creative irresponsibility’ – to use a phrase by Charles S. Maier, the Krupp Foundation Professor of European Studies at Harvard – cannot be separated from the idea of higher education.[5]

In the context of education then, there are broadly two ways of looking at information technology. One is to see it as a tool; the other is to see it as a paradigm. To do the latter is to commit a categorical error. But a categorical error committed rampantly and repeatedly may eventually take the shape of a categorical imperative. This is what seems to have happened. To become a tool of technology and/or a processor of information cannot, by any stretch of reason, be a human being’s existential goal. Information, technology, and information technology – these must remain subservient to the greater project of human self-reconstruction and invention which education is essentially all about. In any case, neither information nor technology is anything altogether new insofar as education is concerned. Only forms and formations are new, and of course the speed, and these too only relatively. Therefore when we contemplate the project of education with reference to information technology, we have to remember that education is more than professional and occupational training and that it cannot be adequately modelled after information technology.

The human being is after all more than a mere processor with an accidental spark of consciousness. In our infatuation with models, we tend to forget that higher education does not so much denote hierarchy envisaged in terms of structural design as the nobility and distance of ideals. We tend to forget that higher education is the space in which a civilization conducts dialogue with its memories and charts its future trajectories. That it is the space in which the intellectual conscience of a society articulates and confronts itself. Higher education, in other words, cannot be visualised except as, fundamentally, an institutionalised public space for rigorous reflection, including self-reflection.

In the larger enterprise known as higher education, the role of the humanities is thus crucial; for it is here that the institution of knowledge meets its own conscience. Substituting the sublime inner spaces of the humanities with manageable information ‘bits’ amounts, for this reason, to dehumanizing the great adventure of knowledge (which presumes a human being who would ‘know’) and reducing education to the mechanics of friction-free data processing. The ethics of scientific research, the repercussions of globalization and the traffic rules of the information superhighway are matters for thought, not for data processing, and require new engagements between the sciences and the humanities. They will always elude the algorithmic grasp of the information technology paradigm because they require not machines that are programmed to react in given ways but people who are trained to reflect intellectually and imaginatively. Information can be of great assistance here. But the plain fact that by itself information technology cannot self-reflect should be sufficient to disqualify it from staking any claim on either the central space or the paradigmatic architectonics of higher education.

Ideally, the easy and instantaneous access to vast amounts of information should fit nicely into the project of education. Faster processing and better information management should, of course, help education. In practice, however, a slippage takes place: processing insinuates itself into the place of education and displaces it. This is likely to occur more frequently with increasing shrinkage of the space for ‘idle’ thought, given the imperatives of a knowledge ‘economy’ which is modelled on information management systems.

Among the things that may be done to prevent the slippage is, as Jeffrey D. Sachs points out, focussing not on disciplines but on problems.[6] Tools and paradigms should automatically fall into place because right focus would mobilize right priorities. The complexity of the human situation today demands highly complex responses. Any worthwhile grasp of the situation depends on the comprehensiveness and speed of the information available, in which information technology can help enormously. But the ethical choices have to be made by real people.

The second thing required is radical restructuring of the institutions of higher education so that they can absorb the new forces which information technology is generating. This requires reconfiguring scholarship and the pedagogical practices. Should the academy be slow in doing this, the opportunity would be most likely hijacked by the non-academic ‘knowledge-providers’ in the marketplace.[7] The consequence could well be an unchecked trivialization and commodification of knowledge, a frightening prospect in which we leap into an electronic next version of the Dark Ages, with all that legacy of the Enlightenment simply wiped out at a so-called higher plane of the spiral.

The institutional restructuring would have to include a bolder plunge into collaborative effort and interdisciplinarity, something again forced by the speed and sweep of information technology. Already the major breakthroughs are happening at the boundaries as information technology makes it imperative and even easier to cross the boundaries and reach out to new knowledges. The democracy of knowledge also goes into a faster update mode, with a consequent leveling up (not down) as the grand architecture of the ivory tower gives way to the nano-architecture of interconnected neural pathways. The costs of universal access to good education should also come down eventually as the content and quantity improve and the pedagogical and learning waste is minimized. Indeed, the accumulation and better distribution of the intellectual capital directly depends on free access to information capital and on improvement in the small savings of time, something that information technology alone can help us achieve so fast.

The future, then, lies in integration, no doubt. But it certainly does not lie in integration as the disappearance of education into information technology. That, however, is what the hawkers of information technology at the service of a soulless global electronic capitalist order are marketing for now, evoking the seductive dreams of an electronic Elysium. The future lies in the integration of information technology in education envisaged as the grand and open universal project of human self-reconstruction and invention.

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April 2005

Rajesh Kumar Sharma

Ph. D.

Lecturer, Department of English

Punjabi University, Patiala

Punjab, India

mailto:rajeshkr@sancharnet.in

tattvamasi@indiatimes.com

http://litarkay.tripod.com/

 

*The essay has been published in Tangentium:

http://www.tangentium.org/may05/feature2.html


 

[1] Various state governments in India have introduced computers and information technology as a compulsory subject of study in schools. The central government also liberally funds such programmes of study in colleges, especially through the University Grants Commission. A large number of these programmes lack adequate infrastructure and are taught by part-time teachers. The most significant feature is that space for most of these half-baked programmes has been created by squeezing the curricular and financial share of other programmes, mainly those in the humanities.

[2] Anthony Giddens identifies the modern society as “the risk society”. It is characterized by “the attempt to break away from the past and confront an open future”, particularly in terms of risk defined as “the active assessment of future hazards”. See Anthony Giddens and Christopher Pierson, Conversations with Anthony Giddens: Making Sense of Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press, 1998. Pp. 100-101.

[3] For instance, Harvard Magazine published a symposium titled “Whither Harvard?” on the subject in the specific context of the future of Harvard in its issue of January-February 2001 (Vol. 103, No. 3). The Chronicle of Higher Education of February 13, 2004 (Vol. 50, Issue 23, Page B7) carried “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg. The latest issue of New Literary History (Vol. 36, No. 5, Winter 2005) is devoted to the “crisis” in the humanities precipitated by the technological challenge. 

[4] Even as this article goes into press, the government of the state of Punjab (India) is getting ready to hand over to private management groups more than a thousand government schools which primarily meet the needs of the economically underprivileged children. The reason given is the state is short of 28000 teachers and cannot afford to employ them (Ironically, this goes along with the licenced mushrooming --in the last three or so years-- of colleges for teachers’ education in the state). At the same time, unproductive expenditure (such as on the bureaucracy) scales new heights.

[5] See “Whither Harvard?” above.

[6] See “A Manifesto for the Humanities in a Technological Age” by Cathy N. Davidson and David Theo Goldberg above.

[7] Scores of companies in India  have over the last more than ten years exploited the IT dream and fleeced thousands of unemployed and desperate young people by offering a poor apology for IT training for incredibly exorbitant fees.