Winner's talk sparks debate on teaching/technology issues
By PATRICIA DONOVAN
It was a complex and-particularly at the end-provocative discussion of far too many issues in too short a time.
Nevertheless, when political theorist Langdon Winner presented his performance piece, "Introducing the Automatic Professor Machine," in the Student Union Theatre last week, he did more than satirize the application of information technology and marketing lingo to education. He provoked discussion of the relationship between power and technology, the way things are shaking out at UB and on campuses throughout the country, and how technology is changing the concept of education itself.
The program was the first in a series of spring symposia on information technology at UB, sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Faculty Development.
The presentation was introduced by Provost Thomas E. Headrick, who said he hoped the series would provoke the faculty to pursue "pedagogical goals that promote authentic teaching and authentic learning." He added that the university community must understand and direct "how new technologies affect our civic culture," but emphasized that no university "can afford to ignore the benefits of technology without being rendered obsolete."
Weighing in on one side was Winner, a professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and long-time critic of runaway technology and its consequences, who presented himself to the UB audience as "a critic who has now gone over to the other side" to form EduSHAM Corp., a company that markets educational products and offers "90 Day Limited Warranty on Knowledge, customized First Name Basis software, lectures and seminars by only the top-10 minds in every field."
The purpose of this not-so-far-removed-from-reality company, said Winner, is to drain the bloat from the $600 billion education industry, level its expensive infrastructure, raze its antiquated guild approach to pedagogy and get rid of its high-cost, low-production personnel, including librarians and professors with high wages and cushy lifestyles.
He slipped easily into the persona of Glib Marketing Manager, whose reductionist approach to cheap, easily obtained and absorbed intellectual products is cloaked in the Howdy-Doody language ("Wow, Buffalo Bob!") of infomercials and upbeat, you-can-do-it seminars.
His purpose in coming to UB, Winner claimed, was to introduce Edu-SHAM's new mechanism for delivering education products online: the Automatic Professor Machine or APM, "soon to be found in gas stations, convenience stores, hotel lobbies and other sites all over America."
Flexible, user-friendly, just-in-time pacing, low-cost (certainly cheaper than most colleges), APM, he said, is the face of education tomorrow.
Winner's talk produced anxiety in at least some members of the audience, annoyance in others.
His faux point of view was offset by upbeat and insistent responses by Voldemar Innus, senior associate vice president for university services; Deborah Walters, associate professor of computer science, and Logan Scott, a member of the Baldy Walkway technical-support staff with more than 20 years of experience in pedagogical applications of information technology.
On Winner's side of the issue was Henry Steck, SUNY Distinguished Professor at SUNY-Cortland and UUP statewide vice president for professionals.
Innus began the response by maintaining that information technology, or IT, while oversold, "is just a tool, an enabler...a neutral technology." He acknowledged that IT funding at UB had "been a lightning rod for all kinds of viewsŠand all kinds of issues we should be talking about, like quality."
Walters took issue with Winner's satire, claiming that fear of technology is like "Socrates' reported fear of the written word.
"Commercialization of education began long ago," she said, "and is not the result of technology." She argued with Winner's supposition that education is a right, and that university research already is commercialized through patents and other forms of profit privatization.
Walters maintained that the commercialization of teaching through Web-based software is no different than commercialization through textbooks, and that if the university does not enhance technological offerings, students will not attend school here. She made a strong pitch for computer literacy among faculty, proposing that IT use can improve collegiality and community on campus through e-mail, newsgroups, listserves, online assignments and the increased availability of reference materials, reserved readings and other course materials.
Scott agreed that commodifica-tion already is part of higher education and that it is unfair to tar IT in education with the same brush used to lament the deregulation of banks.
Scott disagreed with Innus, however, that technology is politically neutral. "Any technology can be used to our benefit-in this case that of the university-but you get the government you deserve," he said, a reference to what some have called an absence of faculty-staff-student input in the IT planning stages at UB.
Steck noted that satire takes over where rational discourse fails, and "were it not for my tears, I would have found it a lot more amusing.
"Minerva flies at twilight farther over the edge into a new era than we'd like to think," he said. "...I'm just a Tory socialist, slow to change, suspicious of change, suspicious of raw individualism in the marketplace. I value ritual, ceremony, the whole set of rituals we perform every day in a university-the getting of coffee, the whining and whinging of faculty to one another.
"Regardless of what others have said here," Steck maintained, "We are a guild-we are in control of our tools, our product, our entry into our profession, the validation of the knowledge we pass on to others."
Moderator Hank Bromley, associate professor of educational organization, administration and policy, noted that there is much discussion of technology on the UB campus, but remarkably little attention to the anxiety, excitement and fear over where it's going and who's making the decisions.
Stuart Shapiro, chair of the Department of Computer Science, called IT "a marvelous machine that should not be shoved down people's throats."
The discussion that ensued arose from issues raised during the question-and-answer period. These included "corporate process" and "group-think;" the idea that UB must provide "what business wants;" control and decision-making within the university; dimensions of social activity lost when one dimension, such as speed or convenience, is enhanced; the York University strike over technology issues, and the need for collective and representative direction of technological innovations at UB.
The next scheduled symposium will be on March 26 at a time and place to be announced. The guest speaker will be William Graves, founder of the University of North Carolina's Institute for Academic Technology.