CLIRinghouse Number 17

Quick insight into information-investment issues for presidents, CAOs, and other campus leaders from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Number 17, July/August 2003

The Issue for Presidents and CAOs:

Fitting the Computer Into Liberal Arts Education

Summary: As higher learning increasingly goes online and becomes more oriented to job training, the values of traditional liberal arts education, based on personal student-teacher interactions and the development of the analytic, engaged citizen, are being jeopardized. A project in process will consider ways to take advantage of technology in redesigning the undergraduate experience to enhance the personally interactive context of liberal education. The result might be redefined roles for faculty, librarians, and others, and reduced facility needs as educators are freed to be more effective in creating student learning.

The Threat

The Context and Content Project posits the following, as explained by former Hartwick College President Richard Detweiler, a CLIR Distinguished Fellow who is now also CLIR’s interim president: The digital age threatens the long-held values of liberal education, which has the twin goals of developing analytic thinkers and engaged citizens. The educator at the liberal arts college believes that these goals are accomplished through an interpersonal context that creates direct intellectual, personal, and social interaction among teachers and learners. This context makes the content of education meaningful and creates the thinking person. The threat comes from the encroachment of technology on personal interaction.

The Project

The purpose of the project is to re-imagine the liberal arts educational experience in ways that can increase its impact, effectiveness, and ability to be sustained and grown in a contemporary context. The project, directed by Mr. Detweiler, is collaborative, engaging leading thinkers and academic organizations involved with change in liberal arts education, pedagogy, and the roles and uses of technology. The hope is to develop ways of maintaining or strengthening the context of learning while capitalizing on technological tools and community based learning to enhance the content of liberal education.

The Questions

The project will go beyond the typical approach of adding technology to traditional pedagogies in support of learning. To be truly transformative, liberal educators must answer questions such as the following:

  • What are the most important intellectual, personal, and social outcomes of an education in the liberal arts and sciences?
  • What must be learned-intellectually, personally, and socially-in order to accomplish these outcomes?
  • How can each of these learning goals be most effectively achieved, considering all available approaches (ranging from personal interaction to “external” instruction, including technology-based or other non-classroom methods)?

Some Possibilities

If, for example, content-based learning goals could be achieved through external instruction, the instructor could replace frequent classroom interactions with meaningful personal interactions through periodic individual tutorials (face-to-face, Web based, or both). Overall, liberal education goals could be better fulfilled, since content can be effectively delivered by technology, and tutorials can be effective in stimulating analytic thinking as well as in clarifying content. This would change the role of most faculty members in the United States, who are currently valued for their group information delivery abilities; the implications of this change are manifold. Similarly, the role of the librarian might be redefined from that of information access specialist to that of learning resource specialist, with responsibility for knowing about and managing the full range of technology-based learning resources. Operating in this way, a college might need few if any classrooms, a small or completely virtual library, and, because students might spend less time physically on campus, reduced residence halls and recreational facilities. Such a college, with its enhanced focus on providing the context of learning without loss of content, might more effectively produce fully educated graduates at less cost.

For more information

Publication of the project’s findings and conclusions, when available, will be announced, on CLIR’s Web site:
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