“Computers In The University”

Lots of talk, when it comes to computers and education, about those who “get it” and those who don’t. Until 2004, I figured I not only “got it” but understood well what it was I was getting. In some important ways, I was right, but in many more crucial ways, I was wrong. I didn’t understand what I had been given, or why. I didn’t understand why the people who built networked interactive computing had done so. About the time I began writing this blog, I began that journey of understanding, a journey that continues.

The other day, i was preparing for the class I’m teaching this term, a new variant of my Intro to New Media Studies course that I’ve renamed and focused on what I feel was its true subject all along (and it only took me 4 1/2 years to find the focus): “From Memex To YouTube: Cognition, Learning, and the Internet.” The eerie thing is that once I found that focus, more discoveries began falling from the skies into my eager arms. Preparing for the class on J. C. R. Licklider’s “Man-Computer Symbiosis,” I re-read some material from Mitchell Waldrup’s epic The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. I’ve read this book about three times all the way through, and I dip into it habitually to relive those defining moments of the emergent digital age–including the defining moments of rank unbridled idiocy that almost strangled the revolution in its cradle, such as the British Postal Service’s refusal to let the team that developed packet-switched communications develop their innovation, in any way, for any purpose. Too disruptive, you see; an entrenched bureaucracy and its reliable revenue streams were at stake. Precious years and opportunities for transatlantic collaboration were lost as a result. I have to think that the bureaucratic self-preservation also meant some spirits were bruised or even broken. Perhaps I’m just projecting.

Anyway, as I read The Dream Machine again, I fell upon a lovely Licklider quote that I’d seen before. This time, though, because the pupil was ready (at last–I’m running hard to catch up), the teacher appeared. Did he ever:

No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously. Perhaps the brain, like the heart, must devote most of its time to rest between beats. But I doubt that this is true. I hope it is not, because [interactive computers] can give us our first look at unfettered thought.

The letters glowed as if lighted from within. “Where do you find time for all these Internet things, Dr. Campbell? Don’t you think we’re in danger of being overwhelmed? Don’t you think Google is making us stupid? Aren’t you a little bit, well, zealous about all of this? Don’t you think all the junk on the Internet is just time-wasting drek?” And just about half a century ago, Licklider dared to give the radical answer. “No one knows what it would do to a creative brain to think creatively continuously.”

But of course if we want to find the answer, we have to take care to help fashion and nurture and value creative brains. We have to think of unfettered thought as a worthy ambition. We have to acknowledge what Blake called our “mind-forg’d manacles” and yearn for them to drop away.

This time the words were on fire in that quotation from The Dream Machine, and I had to find the source of the flame. So I checked the reference, and found that the quotation came from a volume called Computers and the World of the Future, the proceedings of a 1961 conference at MIT held in their School of Industrial Management. Such a provocative title! And such an ironic occasion: as the rest of Licklider’s remarks made clear, this great man championed the digital multiuser computer as the device that could take education out of the industrial management paradigm and into something new, something as rich and bold and full of emergent potential as the human brain itself:

The impact of the digital computer upon university education, it seems to me, will stem mainly from the changes the computer will produce in intellectual activities generally. The pedagogical responsibility of the university is not to lecture or assign problems or grade them. It is to create a situation within which most bright students will automatically learn. The multi-user digital computer opens new horizons for anyone eager to create such situations. (my emphasis)

Licklider was greatly interested in artificial intelligence, and I part company with him in his over-valuation of the idea of teaching machines. Yet the core of his ambition is, I think, exactly right. I say “is,” even though Lick uttered those words above over fifty years ago, because I have many colleagues who share the ambition, the eagerness, to create those “situations in which bright students automatically learn.” Perhaps “automatically” is a bit too strong. Students need nudging, encouragement, a few jokes and some tough love to make it through some of the more arduous roads to understanding. Yet I take the spirit of Licklider’s words to be that when we aim to perfect our lectures, assignments, and grading, we may (and typically do) neglect our own eagerness, our own continuously creative brains, and the prime pedagogical directive of education: to create situations that stimulate curiosity and self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning.

And let’s not get distracted by the word “bright,” either. Lick may have meant “highly intelligent,” but even if so, I’ll expand that to mean “any student whose eyes are capable of lighting up.” I’ve seen those bright eyes, and so have you, no matter what the Gf scores report. I’ve also seen the lights go out when school forgets its pedagogical responsibility within the compliant “industrial management” strategies of the so-called “learning management system.” We don’t need any more “learning management systems.” We need “understanding augmentation networks.”

Lick gets the last word:

The conclusion at which I arrive is that the present problem is not to assess the role of today’s digital computer in today’s university. It is to get to work on tomorrow’s computer and tomorrow’s university.

If we “get it” about computers and education, it’s because we were “given it,” decades ago, by the people who envisioned new horizons and the continuous creativity that those horizons could stimulate. So forgive me if I’m eager to create the situations Licklider describes above. The waiting is the hardest part–and I swear that I’m just about done (i.e., fed up) with it.

Works cited:

“Computers In the University,” in Computers and the World of the Future. Martin Greenberger, ed. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1962

Waldrop, Mitchell. The Dream Machine: J. C. R. Licklider and the Revolution that Made Computing Personal. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2001.

14 thoughts on ““Computers In The University”

  1. To create situations that stimulate curiosity and self-directed, intrinsically-motivated learning. Yes!!!! Couldn’t agree more! Interestingly, the notion of the “managerial paradigm” emerged while I was researching Higher Ed and sustainable development. In essence, academia has to fundamentally rewrite its own brain, to shatter its “mind forg’d manacles” as it were, before it becomes the rich, creative, vibrant learning community that Licklider portended. Digital and other technologies are merely the tools that could get us there. Ultimately, it’s up to us. Eloquent as usual Gardo, and oh how I would love a “Nightcap” session on this with you :).

  2. Ah, that “Nightcap” session would be great. Can it have been six years since we did that interview? Unbelievable.

    Yes, ultimately it is up to us. It would be a tragedy to squander the potential of this particular tool, one of the most exciting platforms for innovation and collaboration ever. We were given this gift by folks whose persistence overcame many obstacles. They gave their lives to this dream. I truly hope we do not throw it away.

  3. Perhaps, via the net, creative minds have moved beyond just thinking continuously to thinking continuously collectively…

    …and about that new “media” course title: why are you still using the plural?


  4. It pains me that so many of the seekers after new knowledge, the modelers of life-long learning in our universities, are still in mind-forg’d manacles. Give me some hope, Gardner. Tell me you see movement…

  5. Wonderful post, Gardner! Yet more new insight into Licklider (for next time around on the seminar). And just when I was wincing over “automatic” and “bright students” you tackled them. Thankful for that. Thankful for you.

  6. @Terry I do see movement. Unfortunately, it’s in both directions. I see some faculty beginning to understand ideas like Licklider’s in greater depth, and with greater urgency for change. I learned at ELI about a strand of research I was completely ignorant of: research into wisdom, and Chris Dede’s work on Web 2.0 communities within that paradigm. I also see more corporate interests stepping up with “next-gen” vendor lock-in strategies. I see educational bureaucracies so enmired in politics and asset protection that they might as well be cast in concrete. And I see various for-profit entities, some of them genuinely promising, and some of them almost certainly poised to make higher learning into a McDonalds. So there’s still hope, and still many colleagues who’re doing amazing work, but everything we value most about education is still at risk, and the expansive, liberatory role of “technology” (as we so casually call it) is still mostly underused or ignored.

    @Robin Thanks! I so wish Licklider had written more. When I came across these gems in that volume, I was very grateful someone had taken the time to transcribe what he said (and, presumably, offered it back to him for editing). I continue to be deeply moved by the founders’ visions, and amazed at their prescience. What a gift they gave us! And yes, I used that little nugget in our session on Licklider at VT this spring–and I can’t wait to be able to share it with your group the next time you’re in that network. By the way, your group was a tremendous eye-opener for me–talk about thankful! I am deeply so, as ever, for your ingenuity and leadership.

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  8. Gardner,

    I’m, as usual, way behind on my reading of your blog. I’ve been meaning to blog/engage with you about your Baobab post for weeks now and now I’m seeing this one just as I am finally getting around to grappling with my own class’s issues around this subject.

    I feel, in my role as faculty member, that I am constantly struggling to get that light of creativity or even, at a minimum, curiosity out of my students. At the same time, I feel like I am trying to beat a square peg into a round hole from both sides.

    On the one side, issues such as accountability and, most recently, the “completion agenda” emphasize extrinsic variables that have little or nothing to do with learning, much less education. These pressures coming from above want to encourage me to just shuffle my widgets (students) through the system.

    On the other side, those widgets, well-trained through 12 or more years on their role within the educational-industrial complex resist the lighting of any spark. In many ways I would rather have a bunch of 5-year olds with 20-year old reading and writing skills over the 20-year olds who have had 12 years of school beating the creativity out of them. (BTW, have you seen Ken Robinson’s talk on this subject – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpwy_bs3Ux0?).

    I can certainly empathize with those faculty who simply throw up their arms and give in to the system. I’ve never been willing to do that. It violates my utilitarian nature and, besides, it’s boring. But, man, sometimes it’s hard.

    On a related note, I also listened to your talk to George Siemens’s MOOC on Learning Analytics (unfortunately, after the fact) and I agree wholeheartedly with you that there is a danger that Learning Analytics will only shore up the crumbling industrial model of education. However, I am naive enough to believe that we can use Learning Analytics as a mechanism for driving faculty and students toward new ways of thinking about teaching and learning because what we have now clearly isn’t working. Maybe Learning Analytics is a way of showing that the educational-industrial complex has no clothes. That’s my hope at least and I am working hard to realize that vision as well as sell it conceptually to those who have the funds to finance the effort (that’s hard, too).

    Stay tuned for my own blog entry or entries on these subject. My apologies for tardiness, I’ve been rather busy being ground up the educational-industrial complex lately. As usual, thank you for for channeling and clarifying my thoughts in unexpected ways.


    PS: As you know, I am a big Licklider fan and I’m not surprised at all by his comments. He was, after all, a psychologist and, as such, was in a unique position to evaluate the cognitive impact of the technology he was advocating.

  9. We go from what we know to what we don’t know. Writers who first experience Google Docs *may* get a sense of “shared paper” -OR- they may get a sense of someone intruding on their private “thought-space,” or they mail feel a little disoriented. I don’t know. Regardless, there’s something “there” that’s a little bit outside our normal writing box.

    When I initially joined the PLATO community at the University of Illinois–a community that existed only in cyberspace–collectively thought there, worked there, and produced there…together–I felt severely disoriented. That sense of disorientation receded as I became more and more competent at the skills required to produce in that environment, the most critical of which was programming…essentially learning the language of the community that resided in that space and thus being able to become immersed in that culture.

    But the disorientation also came from something much bigger and I still recall the moment (not the date, you understand, but the moment) that it hit me:

    The four dimensions that constrain us in the real world do not exist there.
    Essentially, there were no limits in that place that its residents themselves did not create.

    In fact, many of my colleagues who have stayed there (and never returned the way that I pretty much have) earn a lot money by exporting to “here” stuff created “there” that has just enough limits to take us from something we know to something we don’t know without confusing us too badly.

    …and, oh, how we marvel! …and, oh, what we’ll pay! 8-\

    …those darned Kimonians!!


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