Teaching, Learning, and Technology
Founders Day: January 18, 2012 by Barry Mills, President of Bowdoin College
about technology and higher education, delivered the keynote
address for Founders Day on Wednesday, Jan. 18.
Good morning. I am honored to be with you today and to join in your Founders Day celebration.
Saturday will mark 193 years since this esteemed college received its charter from the Kentucky Legislature. My own college is slightly older, but there are important similarities in our past, in our values, and in the challenges ahead.
Centre traces its roots to a time when Kentucky County was part of Virginia. Bowdoin was founded in what was then the District of Maine within the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Centre was established by Presbyterian leaders; Bowdoin by Congregationalists. John Adams was one of the initial donors to your predecessor institution; his cousin, Samuel, signed Bowdoin’s charter. Today, our two colleges promote and advance liberal learning as the best way to build leaders and to change lives. Centre embodies all of the principles that are important to me as a person and as an educator. That’s why I’m thrilled to receive an honorary degree from this fantastic institution.
I also have a more personal reason to be excited about this honor and to be counted as a member of the Centre College community. My wife, Karen, went to Harvard, and my youngest son, George, is a first-year student at Harvard this year. And there is no more devoted Harvard football fan than my father-in-law, a member of the team there in the early 1940s.
You know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
October 29, 1921—a contest that The New York Times has called “arguably the upset of the century in college football.” Centre travels to Cambridge to play the undefeated Harvard Crimson—Rose Bowl and national champion of 1919 that had not lost a game in three years.
Final score: Centre 6, Harvard 0.
My alma mater, Bowdoin, has been playing football since 1889, but we’re 0-17 against Harvard. We’ve seen nothing in Brunswick like the football prowess displayed in 1921 by Centre, when you also defeated Arizona, Alabama, Clemson, Kentucky, Tulane, and Virginia Tech by a combined score of 163 to nothing!
So, today—as an honorary graduate of Centre—I now have some serious bragging rights.
If anyone has an extra “C6H0” hat, I’d like to drop it off in Cambridge for my son.
I’d like to speak to you today about two sets of issues. One involves new opportunities and challenges for the future of higher education. The second focuses on what I believe is the underappreciated and undervalued benefit of a liberal arts education at a residential liberal arts college.
The first set of issues I find complex, confusing, controversial, and potentially and likely transformational in the context of liberal arts education over the next period in our history. Beyond our form of education, these forces are likely to be fundamentally disruptive, certainly in the K-12 educational arena and even more likely in a higher educational world that seeks to educate large numbers of students to be employed in a growing, successful, and just society supported by vibrant U.S. and world economies—something we all hope to achieve once again. I am referring to the role of technology in education.
Shortly before I became president of Bowdoin, our trustees, like many in our society, were caught up in the tech boom of the late 1990s. I remember well a trustee retreat back then on the future of Bowdoin that was centered in large part on this very issue. Many shared the conventional wisdom of the time that technology would fundamentally change the educational landscape in profound ways. If one goes back to the literature of those days, there were grand predictions about the role of technology in the educational landscape. Then came the dot-com bust, and the projected impact of technology was to a significant extent discounted by these very same folks.
Yet, the impact has been undeniable: email, text messaging, Facebook, Linked-in, Twitter, wireless, iPhones, iPads, Android, SKYPE, BlackBerry, Blackboard, mobile apps, the Cloud, Wikipedia (except not today) and on and on.
I own an iPhone, an iPad, an Apple computer, and an iPod. My son, George, calls me "Apple Redundant."
I think it's fair to say that we actually find ourselves on the brink of that revolution or evolution envisioned in the late 90s, but it happened organically and through innovation, surrounded by less hype and without the market exuberance—at least until recently.
In a Wall Street Journal op-ed on August 20, Marc Andreessen—the venture capitalist who co-founded Netscape and has backed Facebook, Groupon, Skype, Twitter, Zynga and Foursquare—wrote that we are on the verge of a new time, when “software is eating the world.” Why? Because, as he writes, “six decades into the computer revolution, four decades since the invention of the microprocessor, and two decades into the rise of modern Internet, all the technology required to transform industries through software finally works and can be delivered on a global basis.”
As Andreessen tells us, over two billion people now have broadband Internet access, up from 80 million a decade ago. In the next decade he expects that five billion people worldwide will own a smartphone—“instant access to the full power of the Internet.”
Today, the world’s largest bookseller is Amazon. The largest video service is Netflix. The dominant music companies: iTunes, Pandora, and Spotify. And it goes on and on. Just ask the Class of 2015 about video games! We are in a moment of change; disruptive change that is altering the landscape, and Andreessen's view is that health care and education are next in line for fundamental software-based transformation.
I connected Andreessen's views with a book called Information by James Gleick—a history of the way we have thought about and chronicled information over human history. Many years ago —but not so long ago in human history—information was transmitted only through the spoken word. The world was fundamentally changed by the invention of the printing press, which allowed us to reproduce facts and information and to make them widely accessible. Today, we live in a society of the web and mobile applications that is equally or perhaps even more transformational. I understand I am conflating years of transformation to make a point, but I think of it this way.
Last Saturday, as my sons and I were watching the Patriots/Broncos game on TV, I wondered how big Tim Tebow is. Not long ago, we would have needed an almanac or sports encyclopedia for the answer. With Google, in ten seconds we discovered that the guy is 6-foot-3 and weighs 240.
My point is that we are gathering, storing, sorting, and filtering information today in ways that are vastly different that we did even 50 years ago.
Now, I am very willing to concede that it is just not the same to do art history research without traveling to a dark archive in France and looking directly at a priceless piece of art. And I am also willing to concede that generations have found it invaluable to walk through the stacks in the library and to locate books and treatises that they didn’t even know existed. I understand the power of these experiences and this scholarship, but one must also concede that the transmission and organization of facts and information has changed, and has changed forever.
In the future, we are less likely to be limited by one surprising find in a library, discovered only because a librarian or past colleague decided to purchase a particular book. Instead, we will be surprised because an algorithm has placed a particular source at the top of our search list on Google, or the next Google. Of course, the future will decide if the process of discovery is as equally rewarding.
The last dot I want to connect is the work of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who has done work throughout his career studying “disruptive change.” Christensen studies industries that are convinced they are serving their clients and customers well, innovating to serve their most important needs. Until one transformative moment, their clients are willing to pay the costs of the service or product they deliver. Then one day, the business is replaced by lower cost, more effective modes that provide the client or customer what they need at a lower cost and by more accessible means—often driven by the power of technology.
Most recently, Christensen has focused on technology as the disruptive change agent for education at the K-12 level. But given the economics of higher education and the skills required of our workforce, Christensen also sees the advent of distance learning as a powerful change agent for higher education.
So, what does this mean for a Centre College or a Bowdoin? First, let me be clear that I think there will always be a place for the mode and substance of the liberal arts education and residential life experience that our colleges provide. And in a Google and Wikipedia world with a high degree of access to facts and information, there will be a premium on a liberal arts education that helps students learn which facts are worth knowing, what is reliable, and how to interpret these facts. I believe society will come to value our form of education even more because what we do, at our best, is more than simply impart information. We enable our students to develop judgment, perspective, and subtlety.
Going forward, a college education will be less about merely accumulating facts that are a keystroke away, and more about evaluating the veracity of the information and developing powers of interpretation and judgment. But given the reliance on talent that our model demands, it will be by its very nature the high cost model of education. That’s why we must be excellent, sophisticated, and the very best at imparting the wisdom and judgment our students will need to be important citizens of our country and the world.
Rather than being disruptive to colleges like Centre or Bowdoin, I am convinced that technology and modes of learning emancipated by technology will have the power, potentially, to improve our educational model incrementally rather than disruptively.
One can imagine innumerable ways that technology and the power to connect with colleagues nationally and internationally could allow us to expand our course offerings, or to become more global. How we utilize this technology while also preserving our core—the connection between our faculty as teachers and scholars and our students as learners—will be critical. But in my view, it would be a mistake to turn away from these opportunities to expand the sophistication of our programs in ways that adds depth and strength. Not only because the opportunities might be cost effective, but because the quality of the education we provide will be directly linked with the excellence and sophistication of these programs.
For those of you who see technology as the path to a more efficient and “productive” educational model that shrinks the cost equation, I think you will be disappointed—at least in the short to medium term. There are opportunities in large universities to create some innovative educational models that will be more productive, but these changes are not generally consistent with the current view of our residential liberal arts model.
In fact, as we advance our excellent form of education and take advantage of new opportunities afforded by technology, we may just see our costs increase. Just think of our libraries, or student information systems, or learning assessment technology. We clearly have to be very thoughtful about how we implement and take advantage of the technological revolution. But I am convinced that in order to maintain our position as places where students and faculty are afforded the most sophisticated and advanced educational opportunity, we will have to take advantage in creative ways of new advances in technology and educational pedagogy.
Simultaneous with the bombardment of technology, we are also hearing constantly about the social and economic importance of innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Colleges, especially liberal arts colleges, have been particularly self-conscious about how well we teach and encourage innovation and entrepreneurial skills.
I note that as part of the Centre College “guarantee,” each student is assured of at least one internship during their four years, so you are clearly focused on life for students after they graduate. And I happen to believe that what we do on our campuses is excellent preparation for life.
I recently read an intriguing article in The Atlantic by University of Toronto Professor and Atlantic Senior Editor Richard Florida. Florida describes how cities spark innovation and promote human creativity. I experienced this correlation first-hand when my wife and I lived and worked in New York City. But the phenomenon can also happen elsewhere.
Florida writes that innovation and a creative economy require highly developed social skills, and he draws a distinction between these skills and “mere sociability.” According to the author, these social skills include “persuasion, social perceptiveness, the capacity to bring the right people together on a project, the ability to help develop other people, and a keen sense of empathy. “These,” he says “are quintessential leadership skills needed to innovate, mobilize resources, build effective organizations and launch new firms. They are highly complementary to analytic skills—and indeed, the very highest-paying jobs (and the most robust economies) usually require exceptional skill in both realms.”
Florida also notes that given the importance of this social sensibility, it is remarkable how we devote so few educational resources to the development of these skills. In a world so focused on math, science, and technology, our educational focus is much less focused generally on social intelligence.
Florida writes, “today’s students need a stronger focus on teamwork, persuasion and entrepreneurship; a better integration of the liberal arts with technological literacy, and an emphasis on the social intelligence that makes for creative collaboration and leaders.”
In the broadest sense, a liberal arts education develops the analytical skills and intellectual capacities of our students, while our residential life programs build and focus their social skills. This intense environment, where students live together for four years and are involved in so many ways on our campuses, also develops the social capacities of our students to lead.
At Centre, you can be justifiably proud of the education and learning that happens here. This is a place where students unquestionably receive the sophisticated education necessary to be important citizens in the 21st century. But, it is also a place—through its size, the composition of its community, and the opportunities available to each student—that is especially suited to the development of the “social” capacities necessary to lead. Because of this, Centre College, like the college I have the privilege to lead, holds a very special and enduring place in the educational landscape.
Thank you for this honor, and congratulations on this important milestone in the history of Centre College.
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Centre College, founded in 1819 and chosen to host its second Vice Presidential Debate in 2012, is ranked among the U.S. News top 50 national liberal arts colleges, at 42nd in the nation, and ranks 27th for best value among national liberal arts colleges. Forbes magazine ranks Centre 34th among all the nation’s colleges and universities and has named Centre in the top five among all institutions of higher education in the South for three years in a row. Centre is also ranked fourth in the nation by U.S. News for its study abroad program. For more, click here.