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The Digital Revolution and the Coming of the Postmodern University

Author: Carl A. Raschke
Publisher: London: Falmer Press, 2002
Review Published: September 2004

 REVIEW 1: C. B. Crawford

Carl A. Raschke, a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Denver who has published widely on subjects ranging from postmodernism to the reform of higher education, places great importance not just on the inevitable and trivial fact that the fabric of higher education is changing dramatically, but on the idea that fundamental changes are occurring at the most basic stratum -- the classroom. For the first time in centuries participants in higher education (not just faculty and administrators, but accrediting bodies, legislators, parents, among others) are attempting to understand the best models of instruction and to whom they should pertain. The idea that those desiring an education should receive one has changed to those desiring an education should get one that works for them.

At the center of Raschke's postmodern prototype is the notion of a "hyperuniversity" which is comprised of a new anthropological knowledge space. He writes, "digital learning is radically reconstituting our intuitive, or common sense, views of the 'space' in which education takes place . . . Instruction [was] something conducted by a particular person in a particular place at a particular time" (7). Hyperspace, though not a new concept for our friends in the computer labs or philosophy departments, has not found a large following in higher education for obvious reasons. If learning can happen anywhere and anytime, then what keeps ANYONE from teaching? The implication precipitates the ultimate destruction of the traditional models of instruction that the professorate holds sacred. Raschke considers the issue of "contentism" as a fallacy and quickly notes that information is a point and click away. Contentism, a highly parochial concept, is lost on Raschke's emerging model of instruction because information sharing is not limited to the printed word -- enter the digital knowledge space. One hopes that this radical change, or re-spatialization as Raschke terms it, does not bode ill for our colleagues and ourselves.

Raschke details the notion that our larger knowledge system is entering its third revolution -- the digital revolution. The first revolution came from the introduction of a formal language and a common form of communication -- a verbal narrative. Predictably, the second revolution comes along when the Gutenberg press is introduced -- a written narrative. Our final revolution comes on the heels of the unsuspecting personal computer and the internet -- a digital narrative. In an attempt to provide a more concrete instructional model which we associate with the digital narrative, and to debunk the aging paradigm of the traditional instructional model that guided our learning, Raschke speaks of the new hyperuniversity. While the traditional Aristotelian instructional model of teacher and pupil focuses on fixed learning experiences in a controlled environment, the new hyperuniversity must thrive on episodic learning, rapidly expanding knowledge bases, and learning emerging from content, not just from the professorate. Raschke contends, "The question is not whether the university is going to change dramatically in the next five years. The question is simply whether it can change" (20). The hyperuniversity is comprised of the following characteristics:
  • Instruction based on competency exams, tutorials, and certifications;
  • Interaction via networks and in person, courses available online and location based;
  • Universities built around certifications, programs, competencies, and clusters rather than departments and colleges;
  • Student life is focused on hypercampus experiences, support, and tutorials for success.
The obvious question emerging from this discussion coalesces around the issue of what counts as learning. Answering this in the traditional higher education system has been based largely on outcomes fixed in the minds of individual professors. Learning, simply put, has been the ability to pass the test. The hyperuniversity necessarily places the responsibility of learning squarely on the backs of the learner in that it requires active learning rather than playing the role of the passive knowledge receptacle. Rather than learning content in a vacuum, knowledge comes from many venues simultaneously. Furthermore, the relationship between teaching and research becomes more integrated and collaborative, a positive change that if realized alone, would improve the university immensely. Most see the downside to this mode of learning is that of dependence on the unreliable -- multimedia and the computer network. Most educators have seen the transition from new systems of dubious effectiveness toward more expert knowledge systems designed to ease the learning curve for both professor and student. Raschke implicitly asks us to assume a continuation of the trend toward "smart" technical systems. While our computers cannot create meaning, they can create an environment in which interaction thrives across multiple channels. With the emergence of new knowledge rich systems (like Dertouzos' semantic web), learning not only happens in a much broader learning space, but in a hypertextual manner where concepts are linked by the learner's episteme rather than predefined categories (like the professor's notes or the textbook). Learning becomes presentational rather than representational, hypertextual rather than textual, creating a richer non-linear education.

Finally, education becomes much more a performance or a narrative waiting for existence. In the postmodern sense, education is transformed from a Medieval system of information transfer from the knowledge holder to the knowledgeless to a system that embraces the idea that no one expert possess all that is worthy of knowing. Raschke writes,
    Knowledge will no longer be transmitted en bloc, once and for all, to young people before their entry into the work force: rather it is and will be served "al a carte" to adults who are either working or expect to be, for the purpose of improving their skills and chances of promotion, but also to help them acquire information, languages, and language games allowing them to both widen their occupational horizons and to articulate their technical and ethical experience. (77)
The new knowledge space of the hyperuniversity exists where the university and the students collide, be that on campus in a classroom or hallway, or at home after the children are in bed for the evening.

Raschke makes a compelling case for the future of the university, yet there are more questions left unanswered than addressed. First among the nagging questions is the notion that these changes, while perhaps inevitable, are also quite costly. It is one thing to assert that learning will go online and be traditional, but quite another thing to create a fiscally viable model that will sell to university administration and boards. While more players come into the fold of distance learning, the entry barrier is higher than some anticipate. Raschke has it right when he suggests that the top flight institutions can avoid this transition, but he fails to understand the fiscal yoke placed upon any college attempting to plow forward into the land of distance education.

Second, the idea that the modern university must fall by the wayside may be short-sighted. Just as technical schools, community colleges, private liberal arts colleges, regional comprehensive, doctoral institutions, and for-profit degree centers have all carved out their niche, why would the hyperuniversity not be yet another niche waiting to mass market itself to the digital world? While Raschke asserts that our society is seeing a paradigm shift -- a third revolution -- there is no reason to believe that this shift will end up the exclusive storefront on the corner. What makes this assertion more compelling than Raschke's is the idea that there is more value in education than what you get via the network, the hypertext, or even the professor alone. The educational experience is not in the network and cannot come from the ignorant (in most cases). While the metaphor may be antiquated, there must still be a wise one to carry the flame from one student to the next. Even though the experiences may be more diverse than the traditional classroom, there must be a content expert to guide the curriculum of the hyperuniversity or there will be academic credibility. Raschke must realize that universities have (and will continue to have) a learning space because professional educators still add value to the university experience.

Finally, the notion that what Raschke advocates is a university, albeit a hyperuniversity, is a cultural enigma. If we look to the tradition of the university, adding a descriptive prefix like hyper- should simply enhance the excellence of tradition. Rather, what Raschke espouses is far different from the canons of liberal education that are broadly seen as the cornerstone of higher education. To talk about a university without a professorate is to really not talk about a university. I am not so naive as to believe that the university has not undergone significant -- revolutionary -- changes with the rapid integration of digital tools, but to suggest that this institution will no longer exist as we have come to know it seems to ignore the essence of what the postmodern revolution is about -- embedded knowledge spaces. The fact is that the modern university does a great job of localizing knowledge -- people, libraries, and other learners. Sounds like a learning space that might be able to survive.

My arguments might indicate my lack of interest in the future of the hyperuniversity. Quite the contrary! Most of what Raschke details I also believe, but I cannot do it without question. It is obvious that higher education has not found the correct adaptive frame for dealing with the digital revolution, but I'm hopeful that if we put enough smart folks around the task we can find a way for education and learning to happen in these rapidly emerging innovative knowledge spaces. Raschke details a world that is closer than many of us care to realize and should be commended on his insightful ability to show the new digital narrative that we will soon encounter.

C. B. Crawford:
Chris is the Assistant Provost for Quality Management and Professor of Leadership Studies at Fort Hays State University. He has published widely in the areas of argument, person-centered communication, transformational leadership, innovation, and most recently in knowledge management.  <ccrawfor@fhsu.edu>

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