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Volume 10, No. 5 - July/August 2000
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We asked six scholars and writers to recommend the best recent books on digital technology and higher education.

Hank Bromley, assistant professor of education at the State University of New York at Buffalo and co-editor of Education/Technology/Power: Educational Computing As a Social Practice (SUNY, 1998).

"Public discussions of education and technology tend to treat policy issues in both areas as a simple problem of efficiency -- a question of how best to attain presumably consensual goals. There is far too little work addressing whose interests are served by wiring our schools and colleges. Among the welcome exceptions are David F. Noble's ongoing 'Digital Diploma Mills' essays (available online at and Marita Moll's edited collection Tech High: Globalization and the Future of Canadian Education (Fernwood, 1997). For twenty-five years, Noble has chronicled pivotal moments in the history of technology, depicting technology as 'hardened history, frozen fragments of human and social endeavor.' 'Digital Diploma Mills' analyzes the motives for putting universities online and traces the incursion of market forces into the educational realm, as well as the resulting attempt to commodify core teaching functions. Moll's book similarly addresses the broader context of educational technologization, emphasizing economic globalization, the nature of educational labor, and the ongoing impact of racial and sexual inequality."

Ann Okerson, associate university librarian at Yale University and editor of Visions and Opportunities in Electronic Publishing (Association of Research Libraries, 1993).

"With the advent of the microcomputer and the Internet, information moves among people more rapidly than ever. The ease of copying undermines old rules and practices that were designed to turn words into commodities and intellect into property. Universities are caught between the pressures of old and new -- the need to foster the dissemination of information and the need to control it. Understanding these pressures is central to The Digital Dilemma (National Academy Press, 2000). Commissioned by the National Science Foundation and carried out by the National Research Council of the National Academy of Science, the book comes with suitably blue-ribbon credentials. At its core lie the complexities and ironies of intellectual property law, which puts forward restraint and control as the best means of facilitating dissemination and freedom. Outlining issues with clarity and judiciousness, the book is without polemic or rancor. The volume is an excellent handbook for faculty, librarians, and administrators seeking to understand the choices they will face as universities produce and consume new kinds of intellectual property in a new kind of information economy."

Patrick Clinton, executive editor of University Business.

"According to the popular press, the only thing inhibiting the growth of computer-mediated education is a handful of technical problems -- and the alleged Luddite tendencies of the faculty. But there are bigger, subtler problems: How does technology fit into institutional missions; how is it to be funded; what business models are appropriate for developing and marketing new courses; and how are faculty to be brought on board? For insight into these issues, I like Anthony W. Bates's Managing Technological Change: Strategies for College and University Leaders (Jossey-Bass, 1999). Bates has a solid grasp on how successful institutions have established new programs, and he is refreshingly nondoctrinaire. He also manages to talk about education and money without confusing them.

"Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown's The Social Life of Information (Harvard Business, 2000) is not really a book about education, though it has a fine, provocative chapter on universities. Rather, it examines a wide array of fields, many of them related to business and technology, to uncover areas where learning and competence are based on something other than the exchange of information. The results aren't always easy to apply, but they illuminate the extent to which classroom learning can be provided electronically, and they truly help to combat what Duguid and Brown call 'Technological Tunnel Vision.'"

Richard E. Miller, associate professor of English at Rutgers University and author of As If Learning Mattered: Reforming Higher Education (Cornell, 1998).

"Nothing is generating more anxiety and rage in the academy today than the rise of instructional technology. Given all the money that's being thrown into the machines, the wiring, and the dorm rooms, as well as all the attendant hype about the cost benefits of fully automated instruction, most of us in higher education have fallen into 'techno-despair,' a state of mind characterized by a strong sense that the venerable profession of teaching is doomed. Fortunately for those interested in a more nuanced assessment of how best to respond to the revolution in the funding and delivery of higher education, Gail E. Hawisher and Cynthia L. Selfe, longtime leaders in the use of computers in writing instruction, have put together Passions, Pedagogies, and 21st Century Technologies (Utah State, 1999). This edited collection, which includes essays by some of the most thoughtful teachers and scholars working in composition today, shows how technology has changed, and is changing, the meaning of literacy, teaching, ethics, and the self. The result is a usefully discordant and self-reflexive volume, accessible to those just entering the discussion and rewarding to those more experienced readers looking for guidance about how to make sense of this latest evolution in the form and function of higher education."

James J. O'Donnell, professor of classical studies and vice provost for information systems and computing at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Avatars of the Word: From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Harvard, 1998).

"Bill Readings, a brilliant and provocative comparatist at the University of Montreal, died much too young, in a plane crash a few years ago. His book The University in Ruins (Harvard, 1997) analyzes the university's inner politics and its relationship to its historic wider social purpose. The book renders forever questionable the language of 'excellence' in academic self-congratulation and brings intellectual passion and seriousness to debates about university futures. Hal R. Varian and Carl Shapiro, on the other hand, barely mention universities in their handbook to survival and prosperity in the network economy, Information Rules (Harvard Business, 1998). The slight is a sign of the great risk universities face: They may well become irrelevant, regardless of how much or how little we use the language of 'excellence.' We must learn again to link academic discourse with academic policy or we will become only one more sector of the service economy, awaiting restructuring and downsizing."

Karin M. Wiburg, associate professor and coordinator of learning technologies at New Mexico State University and co-author of Teaching With Technology (Harcourt Brace, 1997).

"In Electronic Collaborators: Learner-Centered Technologies for Literacy, Apprenticeship, and Discourse (Erlbaum, 1998), Curtis Jay Bonk and Kira S. King examine how digital technologies enable teachers to implement new pedagogical theories about collaboration. The writers study the effect on intellectual development of tools that move learning from synchronous to asynchronous environments. If the book has a weakness, it lies in its lack of a critical cultural perspective and its limited view of literacy as only print-based. Richard N. Katz's Dancing With the Devil (Jossey-Bass, 1999) suggests that one can no longer ignore the rapidly growing competition from for-profit, technology-based universities and colleges. The book also examines some of the emerging problems in higher education that technology might be able to address. These problems include a shift from just-in-case education ('study this in case you need to know it some day') to just-in-time education and the increased demand on higher education institutions to provide services, often at a distance, to the larger society. Katz provides a useful glimpse of the dangers and promise of technology in higher education."

--John Palattella

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