University Alert:
The Information Railroad Is Coming


Wm. A. Wulf
University of Virginia

It's New Year's Day, 1895. My name is Hans. For seven generations my family has made the finest buttons in the region, using the good local horn.

Today I learned that the railroad is coming to our village. My friend Olaf says that cheap factory buttons will come on the trains, but they will never compete with my craftsmanship.

I think he is right, and wrong. They will come, but they will compete with my buttons. I must make some choices. I can become a distributor for the new buttons, or I can invest in the machinery to make buttons and export them. Or, closest to my heart, I can refine my craft and sell exceptional buttons to the wealthy.

My family's business is dead. I cannot stop the train; I must change.

Universities are in the information business, and the information railroad is coming.

With 20-20 hindsight it's easy to accept the demise of a quaint industry -- or more accurately, the demise of a quaint method of manufacture, distribution and sale. The button industry flourishes, of course. Even the craft of hand made buttons is doing well, if my local art fair is any indication. However, the nature of the industry changed dramatically as technology allowed the manufacture and distribution of vastly less expensive but highly serviceable buttons.

It's harder to look inward at the university, with its tradition and obvious social value, and introspect about whether it might change in dramatic ways. But, although their roots are a millennia old, the university has changed before. In the early nineteenth century it embraced the notion of secular, "liberal" education. In the late nineteenth century it included scholarship as an integral part of its mission. After World War II it accepted an implied responsibility for national security, economic prosperity, and public health in return for federally funded research. Although the effect of these changes have been assimilated and now seem "natural", at the time they involved profound reassessment of the mission and structure of the university as an institution.

Forces are always acting on universities. Some of them, notably the political ones, have great immediacy and hence get a good deal of attention . In the current milieu these include the reassessment of the rationale for federal funding of research, the desire for greater "productivity" from the Professoriate, and so on. In spite of the attention accorded these issues, I believe information technology has a far greater potential to provoke fundamental change in our system of higher education. Moreover, I am certain these changes are much closer than most people realize.

Let me be clear. Higher education will flourish, just as does the button industry. If anything, the need for advanced education is increasing simultaneously in multiple dimensions. A greater percentage of the world's population needs to be educated to be productive in an increasingly technological workplace. The period during which particular skills are relevant is shortening, and so the need for "lifelong learning" is increasing. The knowledge and skills necessary to function at the frontier of knowledge are increasing as well, and so with it the need for advanced degrees.

Higher education is not in danger. But we would be wise to ask whether the particularly quaint way that we manufacture, distribute and deliver that education will survive the arrival of the information railroad. They may, but I don't think so. I think there will be major changes - changes not only in the execution of the mission of universities, but in our perception of the mission itself.

As Clark Kerr pointed out , the relative ranking of universities changes slowly, but there are times that are more propitious than others for change, and the next decade is one such. Because of the speed with which information technology is advancing, decisions are being made now - or more likely, defaulted now - that will have material effect on the real and perceived quality of institutions of higher education. In my experience almost none of the current generation of senior university administrators understand what is happening.

Thus, I feel we must engage in an intellectually honest exercise of understanding the implications of technology on our institutions - at least as best we can. Stimulating that discussion is my purpose here. But, before proceeding we need to dispense with two issues: First, is the button analogy valid? Second, is the technology for higher education really going to change all that much?

Certainly some specifics of the button parable are inappropriate - universities don't make a product that can be mechanically mass produced, for example. But while pointing out the differences, it would be a mistake to dismiss the similarities. Both are highly labor intensive and depend on the skill of their master craftsmen. Both have been regional, requiring collocation of the producer and customer. Both have long traditions. Both contributed to the prestige of their locale. Both evolved powerful guilds to protect the masters. And, now the university is also faced with a technological revolution.

Universities share at least some of the attributes of other vertically-integrated industries as well. We "manufacture" information (scholarship) and occasionally "reprocess" it into knowledge or even wisdom, we warehouse it (libraries), we distribute it (articles and books), and we retail it (classroom teaching). Information technology has already changed each of these, and the future change will be much greater. Like industries that have been overtaken by technology, we need to understand its individual and collective impact on our basic functions. It's not a comfortable thought, but we must at least consider that a change in technology - a change that will facilitate the flow of our essential commodity, information - might provoke a change in the nature of the enterprise.

As for information technology - one of the hardest things for most people to understand is the effect of its exponential rate of improvement. For the last four decades the speed and storage capacity of computers have doubled every 18-24 months; the cost, size and power consumption have become smaller at about the same rate. The bandwidth of computer networks has increased a thousand-fold in just the last decade, and the traffic on the network continues to grow at 300-500% annually. For the foreseeable future, all of these trends will continue; the basic technology to support them exists now.

The compound effect of this rate of improvement is hard to appreciate - but, speaking of ENIAC, the first fully electronic digital computer, a 1949 article in Popular Mechanics said:

" ENIAC contains about 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, but in the future computers will contain only about 1,000 tubes and weigh only 11/2 tons."

Thirty five years later a typical microprocessor is about 100,000 times more powerful, contains the equivalent of ten million tubes and weighs substantially less than an ounce. Imagine the nanoprocessor of the a few decades hence.

To my knowledge, there has never been a similarly rapid, sustained change in technology, especially one with such broad social application. By comparison, even the industrial revolution seems modest in scope and leisurely in pace. Lacking a precedent, we need to work harder to imagine the impact of future computers and networks. Thinking about the current ones, in fact, can be misleading; it's all too easy to assume that something won't change just because today's technology doesn't support that change. Instead, it's almost better to hypothesize a change and then ask how soon the technology will support it; the answer will often be surprisingly soon.

Don't think about today's teleconferencing technology, but one whose fidelity is photographic and possibly three dimensional. Don't think about the awkward way we access information on the network, but one in which the entire world's library is as accessible as my desktop files. Don't think about the clumsy interface to computers, but one that literally listens and talks in your jargon, not mine. Don't think about the storage on today's PC, but one with terabytes (millions of megabytes). We can't afford it now, of course, but that is the power of the equipment that will be affordable in a decade or so. That is the equipment that will shape the future of the university.

How will we use this equipment to change education and scholarship? That seems like a simple question, but as both an academic and a Computer Scientist, I don't know. Certainly knowledge, its creation, storage and communication, is part of the essence of a university. The ability to process information, the "raw stuff" of knowledge, thus sits at the heart of the university mission. A technology that will alter that ability by orders of magnitude cannot avoid having a impact on at least how we fulfill our mission - and possibly on the mission itself.

To borrow a phrase from the business world, information technology is a "core competence" of our industry; the leaders in developing and exploiting it will be the leaders of the next century. This is one of Kerr's "propitious times".

Perhaps as a start we might look at several functions of our vertically integrated information business and note how they have been and might be changed.

Scholarship: The impact of information technology on science is both apparent and pervasive. Scientists now routinely talk of computation as the "third modality" of scientific investigation, on a par with theory and experimentation.

The easy examples are those that simply automate what was done manually: the reduction of data, the control of instruments, etc. The profound applications, however, are those that lead to whole new areas of research and new methods of investigation - and thus to science that was not, and could not be done before: the final proof of the four color conjecture, analysis of molecules that have not been synthesized, measuring the properties of a single neuron by growing it on a silicon chip, watching a model of galaxies collide, and letting a scientist "feel" the forces as a drug docks in a protein. These applications have transformed the nature of scientific investigation; they led to questions that would not even have been asked before.

I don't think science, however, will be where we see the most dramatic impact. I say that despite a recent report from the National Research Council that I helped coauthor - a report that paints an expansive image of the transformation of scientific research. Instead, I believe that a more dramatic transformation is about to shake the foundations of scholarship in the liberal arts. Humanists more than scientists will lead the way to innovative applications of the technology in the university.

The comfortable stereotype of humanists as technophobic just doesn't apply anymore. The availability of both text and images in electronic form coupled with the processing power of modern computers allow the humanist to explore hypotheses and visualize relations that were previously lost in the mass of information sources. The presentation of humanists' scholarly results in electronic form is moving even faster. Precisely because of the complexities of the relationships they need to present, the subtle webs of relation and inference they need to express, electronic "hypertext" books and journals are emerging. Indeed, they are emerging faster, with more vigor, and with more effect on their disciplines than their counterparts in the sciences.

We all expect scientists and engineers to use computers in their research, but the notion that information technology could be central to humanistic scholarship is a bit more startling - at least to me. It was in large measure talking about the application of computers to historiography and the theory of text that opened my eyes to the larger issues that I am trying to raise here.

Textbooks: I don't know anyone who prefers to read from a computer screen, and besides you can't take a computer to the beach - or so say the nostalgic. They are right, and yet so profoundly wrong.

There are two fallacies here. The first is the assumption that electronic books will contain only text, and hence be the essentially the same as paper books but presented differently. In reality, it will not be possible to reproduce an electronic book on paper. They will not be a simple linear presentation of static information. They will contain animation and sound. They will let you "see the data" behind a graph by clicking on it. They will contain multidimensional links so that you can navigate through the information in ways that suit your purpose rather than the author's. They won't contain references to sources, but the source material itself - the critique of a play will "contain" its script and performance. They will have tools that let you manipulate the equations, trying them on your own data or modifying them to test scientific hypotheses. They will let one annotate and augment the documents for use by later readers, so making it a "living document".

The second fallacy is presuming today's technology. We should not be talking about reading these electronic books from today's screen. The advantages of the electronic book will be so strong that engineers will make the "form factor" of the medium humane. Screens already exist in the laboratory with a resolution about the same as the paper you are reading right now - as do flexible ones of somewhat lower resolution. Why would anyone lug around several heavy books when something the size, clarity and weight of a single one contains them all? I mean them all - all the ones in the Library of Congress. I will take my computer to the beach!

Libraries: For thousands of years the focus of libraries has been on the containers of information, books. The information itself was the domain of the library's users, not the library. Information technology turns that premise on its head, and with it many of the deepest unstated assumptions about the function of a library.

Tracing back to Alexandria and before, the principal objective of librarians has been to build the collection - to amass a set of materials was their measure of worth. But, in the future a library will not "collect". Electronic information can be communicated virtually instantaneously, so its source location is irrelevant. Instead of a hoarder of containers, the library must either become the facilitator of retrieval and dissemination, or be relegated to the role of a museum.

If we project far enough into the future, it's not clear whether there is a distinction between the library and the book. The "technology" of the bibliographic citation pales by comparison to the hypertextual link - to the ability to gain immediate access to the full referenced source, and hence to browse through the context of the reference. It will take a long time to build the web, and especially to incorporate the paper legacy, but the value of a seamless mesh will doom the discrete, isolated volume.

As the library and the book merge, it seems compelling to me that another merger will accompany it - a merger precipitated by devolving disciplinary boundaries. Knowledge isn't inherently compartmentalized; there is only one nature, there is only one human record. The division of the sciences into Physics, Chemistry, etc., and their further subdivision into Physical Chemistry is a human imposition, as is the division into History, English and Anthropology. For very practical reasons, paper texts have mirrored this artificial division, but those "practical" reasons evaporate in the electronic world. Clearly the "long pole in the tent" will be human rather than technical; disciplines are complex and idiosyncratic social structures that will not easily dissolve. However - and here I can only speak with the even the smallest authority about technological disciplines - much of the most interesting work is already happening at the boundary of traditional disciplines. That's not new news; Einstein opined that most of the important science lay at the interstices of traditional disciplines. What is new is that we have a technology that facilitates incremental accretion of knowledge at these interstices.

Finally, note that the book as we know it is passive; they sit on shelves waiting for us to read and interpret them. While there is an intellectual thrill in discovery and interpretation, passivity of the text is not required for that. As Marvin Minsky, a Professor at MIT, said: "Can you imagine that they used to have libraries where the books didn't talk to each other?". One of the profound changes in store for libraries is that parts of their collection will be active, software agents collecting, organizing, relating and summarizing on behalf of their human authors. They will "spontaneously" become deeper, richer, and more useful.

Teaching: The notion of computer-aided instruction has been touted for thirty years. Frankly, it has had relatively little impact, especially at the university level. The reason is obvious: chalk and overhead projectors have been perfectly adequate technology given the current nature of scholarship and texts.

If, however, the bulk of the Professoriate are using information technology in their scholarship, and the results of that scholarship can only be exhibited using the technology, the classroom will follow rapidly. How will it follow? Not, I think, by the "automated drill" scenario we have come to associate with Computer Aided Instruction, CAI.

Beyond automated drill, the obvious application of technology is telepresence - the possibility of involving remotely sited individuals in a seminar, for example. Again, do not think in terms of today's teleconferencing technology; as the fidelity of communication improves, telepresence will certainly happen. While now it's a big deal to bring a leading authority to campus, and access to the person is often limited to research colleagues and graduate students, this will not be the case in the future. The technology will give an increased number of undergraduates access to these authorities. Removed from the overhead of travel, who among us would not cherish a few hours each week with the bright young minds at a remote Harvard or Yale?

These are interesting but mundane applications - mundane in the sense that they do not change the educational process in a deep way.

More fundamental is the opportunity to involve students in the process of scholarship rather than merely its results. We like to say that we "teach students to think, not merely to learn rote facts", but in truth

- we mostly limit them to thinking about what has been thought before. We can't ask them to explore new hypotheses, because of the practicalities of access to sources and the sheer grunt work of collecting and analyzing data. Information technology eliminates those "practicalities".
- they are forced through the linear sequence of the text, course and curriculum before we judge that they "know enough" (facts) to embark on a scholarly project (think).

A hint of this kind of change can be detected in a report in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the impact of the release of Thesaurus Linguæ Gaæce on scholarship and education in the classics. The article noted that the release of this database, which [now] includes virtually all Greek Literature from Homer through the fall of Byzantium, has enabled undergraduate participation in research.

One cannot leave the subject of teaching without at least mention the subject of "productivity" - the current code word to capture the public's frustration with the rising cost of college education and the perceived emphasis of research over teaching. Its simplistic translation is to have professors spend more time in the classroom and less in the laboratory. Particularly given the recent wrenching restructuring of industry, the public has ample cause to ask why an elitist academe should be exempt from a reorientation toward greater customer satisfaction.

The irony, of course, is that one of the oldest figures of merit for any school - a low student/teacher ratio - is diametrically opposed to "productivity". Information technology is not going to resolve this tension; in the end, for our own children we want relatively individual attention from the most qualified, intellectually alive professoriate possible. Information technology can, however, shift the focus of the discussion to the effectiveness and quality of the student/teacher interaction rather than just the number of contact hours.

Indeed, in modest ways it already has shifted that focus. By removing the barriers of both space and time for example, email has given my students have much greater access to me than ever before. Involving students in the process of scholarship and giving them greater access to international authorities are more profound shifts, but I suspect that these are still just pale precursors of what we can do. Part and parcel of rethinking the impact of technology on the university is addressing precisely this issue.


Let's return to the main thread. Whether or not you agree, I hope that this discussion has at least suggested that activities in the academy might change. Even so, that does not imply that the nature of the university as a whole will change. Will it?

One approach to such a question is to examine unstated assumptions; that's hard, but I would like to examine just one.

Historically a university has been a place. The stone walls of St. Benedict's cloister at Monte Cassino were the bastion that provided defense against the physical and intellectual vandals of the dark ages. In colonial times, Jefferson's Academical Village provided access to scholarly materials as well as collegial interaction by collocation. In contemporary times, scholars flock to scientific instruments and library collections. And, where the scholars assembled, the students followed.

In his influential nineteenth-century essays on the Idea of a University, Cardinal John Newman wrote :

If I were asked to describe ... what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of a Stadium Generale ... This description implies the assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot.

The Cardinal then goes on at some length to emphasize that books were an inadequate source of true education that must be buttressed with discourse - which is obviously only feasible if the discussants are collocated. Thus the notion of being "in one spot" is, to him, essential to the very definition of the university; as he says, "... else, how can there be any school at all?"

But, with the possible exception of teaching, to which I'll return in a moment, I believe that information technology obviates the need for the university to be a place.

Once again, please remember that although we are presuming technology better and cheaper than today's, it is not hypothetical- the trends are clear, the capabilities for at least the next decade are predictable, and in many cases the technology is already in the laboratory. Only how we will use the technology is at question.

With this powerful, ubiquitous computing and networking, I believe that each of the university's functions can be distributed in space, and possibly in time. Remote scholarship and authoring are the direct analogs of telecommuting in the business world, and every bit as appealing. Academics tend to identify more closely with their disciplinary and intellectual colleagues than with their university. Freed from the need to be physically present in classroom, laboratory or library, grouping by intellectual affinity may be more appealing. But even then, physical grouping may be unnecessary and even undesirable as such things as location preference are taken into account.

There are some disciplines that need shared physical facilities, say a telescope, that suggest the need of a "place". But note that large scientific instruments such as telescopes and accelerators are already run by consortia and shared by the faculty from many universities, and many of these facilities do not require the physical presence of the investigator - they could be "on line" and accessible via the network. Indeed some instruments, such as those for space physics at Sondre Stomfjord in Greenland, are already accessed on the Internet. The university as "place" is already irrelevant to at least some scientific scholarship.

As with instruments in the sciences, direct access to archival materials is necessary for some humanistic scholarship - but hardly all, and certainly not all of the time. Ponder the excitement, for example, caused by the recent release of the images of the Dead Sea Scrolls even though the scrolls themselves are not accessible to most scholars. If anything, the ubiquitous information infrastructure will provide greater access to archival materials to a much larger set of scholars, of a quality that's "good enough" for most purposes.

As for teaching, we don't really know whether it can be distributed or not. I do know that even asking the question is considered heretical by some good teachers - teachers who contend that physical eyeball-to-eyeball contact is necessary. Others, including me, contend although they need feedback to teach well, there is a threshold of fidelity beyond which one does not need to go; student and teacher probably don't need to smell each other, for example. Thus, there is some finite amount of information required to produce an adequate representation of the parties. If true, when that threshold of fidelity is reached electronically, high quality teaching will be distributed. The fallacy in Cardinal Newman's reasoning was only that he could not imagine quality discourse at a distance - but that is precisely what the technology will enable.

Can an institution such as universities that have existed for millennia - icons of our social fabric - disappear in a few decades because of technology? Of course; if you doubt it, check on the state of the family farm. Will the "university as place" in particular disappear? I expect not; the reduced importance of place does not imply no place. However, just as farming has been transformed, so will the university. The everyday life of both faculty and students will be very different.

I have more questions than answers as to the new shape of the new university. Having now laid the groundwork, let me pose a few of them:
- I believe that higher education will not only survive, it will flourish. But, are the choices for universities, like for Hans, to become mass market manufactures or distributors, or niche tutors to the privileged?

- Does it really make sense for every university to support the full complement of disciplines, or should they specialize and share courses in cyberspace? This might be a natural consequence of aggregation by disciplinary affinity, for example.

- Might professors affiliate with several institutions, or become "free lance" tutors to telepresent students? Indeed, might we return to the future of tele-itinerant scholar/tutors?

- Might some employers (and hence students) prefer a transcript that lists with whom certain courses have been taken rather than where? Presumably a student that has taken a computer architecture course from Patterson (at Berkeley) and a compiler course from Kennedy (at Rice) would at least appear to be better trained than one that took all their courses at just one of these fine schools.

- What about alumni and sports? Surely the allegiance of alumni to their alma mater has a great deal to do with place and is cemented on Fall weekends; since the support of alumni is essential to universities, isn't that very human need sufficient to perpetuate university as place? Perhaps. But broad alumni support has become essential to the university only in relatively recent times. Moreover, alumni associations and large sports programs were created to support the university as place, not the other way around.

- Will universities merge into larger units as the corporate world has done, or will the opposite happen? I can argue either side of this question. On the one hand, if a university isn't (just) a place, its major remaining function is certification - it certifies the competence of the faculty, programs and graduates. We don't need thousands of organizations to do that. On the other hand, I can envision many small colleges being empowered to provide a broad curriculum via telelocation while retaining the intimacy so valued in our small liberal arts institutions. I don't know anyone that really wants the impersonal ambiance of a mega-university. The current size of these universities seems optimized for the physical infrastructure, not either education or scholarship.

- Might the technology revive the talented amateur's participation in the scientific community? Except for a few disciplines like astronomy, the talented amateur has largely disappeared from scholarly discourse in science and engineering. Surely such individuals still exist, but they are isolated from the community of scholars. How can/should the university re-engage them?

- What about the various businesses that have affiliated with universities - the university press being an especially poignant example? My guess is that each of these will be forced to rethink its principal mission, and many will be irrelevant.

- Will more (most?) universities serve a global clientele, and how does that square with the publicly supported university in the US? In particular, will private universities have greater flexibility to adapt to globalization, thus dooming the public universities?

- Does the function of socializing young adults, which perhaps remains a reason for "place", need to be coupled with the educational function, or could it be done better by some form of social service?

Some will interpret these questions as threatening; I don't. That there will be a change seems inevitable. But, change always implies opportunity, and in this case the opportunity to improve all facets of what we do in the academy. The challenge is to anticipate and exploit the changes.

Universities are in the information business, and the information railroad is coming.