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Originally published in Texas Alcalde, September/October 1999

The Cyborg Campus

Balancing the traditional and the virtual in the college of the future

by Nick Montfort

The University {of Texas at Austin} offers classes that are entirely online — they don't require pen to be put to paper or mandate that students meet in a classroom. I know because I enrolled in such a course in 1994, a correspondence course that had just begun to use e-mail for lesson submissions and instructor comments.

My experience wasn't filled with multimedia excitement, as people expect computerized distance education to be. More unusually, I took this online class while enrolled as a full-time student — I was completing an undergraduate thesis for the Plan II Honors Program and also taking classes for a computer science degree.

On-campus internet education will become more typical, since learning online doesn't have to happen only in the context of distance education. For while a "cybercampus" is now offering accredited degrees to undergraduates online, the highest-bandwidth connections can't substitute for the traditional learning community. The physical campus won't be defeated by the cybercampus, but it also won't see online educational technology fail. These two paradigms of learning will instead combine, forming what might be called a cyborg campus.

A cyborg has some "cyb"ernetic aspects, with computer or robot components, but it is also partly a person, or some other "org"anism. The concept has solid academic credentials, thanks to Donna Haraway's influential document, "A Cyborg Manifesto." It also has great popular cachet, as one of my favorite anecdotes, from about six years ago, illustrates.

Michael Starbird, the student dean of the College of Natural Sciences, was introducing award recipients at a ceremony. He kept us on our toes by asking each person to briefly answer a question. One particularly studious and serious-looking computer science student stepped up, a young Asian man who must have been a year or two ahead of me in the department and whom I hadn't met.

"What field of computer science are you interested in?" Starbird asked.

"Artificial intelligence," he said. A bit of laughter rippled through the room, because this was exactly what every one of the computer science students had replied.

"So..." Starbird said, thinking of something new to ask. "What type of artificial intelligence system would you like to build?"

Without missing a beat, and looking just as deadpan as before, the student replied, "Have you seen The Terminator?" The crowd went wild.

All of us in computer science have some desire to build a cyborg, like the Terminator. That's not to say we want to make killing machines. Rather, we want to combine the best aspects of computation with those of human life in a way that enhances us, even transforms us. That doesn't necessarily involve surgery, neural implants, and bionic limbs. In fact, perhaps the most extreme cyborg entities on the face of the planet today — the ones we can expect to lead the way in the near future — are not individuals. Rather, they are communities, groups of people interacting with each other both in person and online, living and working in both the "real world" and cyberspace. Some communities are fortunately equipped with advanced technologies. Some of these have a constant need to interact in discussion, research, and learning, as they pursue knowledge. This most interesting group of emerging cyborgs, so important to understand, are college and university communities.

Studies in the Bitstream

The flashy technological side first leaps out in looking at the two components of the university cyborg. Distance learning is a clear case, since it is a prime way in which new higher education technologies are being widely used. The concept isn't new; formal distance education started in the 1890s, when the telegraph was the medium of choice. Looking at course offerings now reveals how widely network technologies are being applied to teach college subjects. An Associated Press story in April estimated that 26,000 courses are online now, with about 750,000 students enrolled.

Some students "virtually" attend class through teleconferencing. Other courses offer online exercises and resources, chat rooms for question-and-answer sessions, and course bulletin boards for updates. Many classes, though, are based simply on stand-alone software providing programmed instruction. Some are just correspondence courses that substitute e-mail for the post office. The important thing is whether the courses work well, not whether they use the most advanced technology. Although every course isn't a success, there are plenty of students who are very happy with what they've learned online, and how they learned it.

In March, Jones International University became the first accredited university without a campus. The school enrolls undergraduates in a bachelor of arts in business communications program, although this is only open to those who can transfer in 60 hours of credit. There are also plenty of extensive online educational programs affiliated with existing campuses. Distance-education consortia include California Virtual University, the multi-state Western Governors University, and the UT System's TeleCampus.

Numerous schools offer MBA programs online, including Duke, though not UT Austin. Stanford has 100 engineering courses online, taught using streaming video. Through online studies at Concord University School of Law, students can earn a juris doctor. An overview of online options can be seen at Austin-based ED-x (, which lists about 3,800 college courses, many from well-known schools.

Bricks, Mortar, and Something Else

The cyborg's organic component is missing from Jones International University and other degree-granting programs that operate only online. Not all distance-education programs are exclusively online. Duke brings its far-flung MBA students to campus for five short sessions during the course of their studies. But those programs that lack the experience of campus life are leaving out an important educational aspect, no matter how well-stocked their online library is and how busy their student chat rooms are.

It may be true that by 2010 "the majority of education [will take] place in people's homes, in people's offices, on the production line, wherever it is needed." That's what Douglas Van Houweling, head of the consortium dealing with Internet2, told The Wall Street Journal last year. Expanding the situations in which people learn is not at all bad. But the traditional college campus shouldn't be razed for redevelopment yet.

A UT education is greatly enhanced by the academic community of the 40 Acres. On campus, conversations and interaction allow students to learn from faculty members and their peers in many settings besides the lecture hall. These college experiences include getting help at the physics tutoring tables, figuring things out at a late-night study group, hearing a lecture from a writer or political figure, even debating a visiting campus preacher on the West Mall. My own education at the University included hearing talks from professors at the house where I lived, having lengthy discussions with fellow Harper's magazine readers, and getting help from nearby classmates at Taylor Hall's computer lab. From the cybercampus perspective, there's one big problem with these sorts of informal opportunities: They can't be packaged as e-commerce products.

Mark Edmundson, an English professor at the University of Virginia, writes that there is only one reason students in "the future cyber-dominated world" will wish to talk to and learn from professors. He explains, "It will not be because we know things (the machines will know more), but for precisely those qualities computers can never have: our ability to pose crucial questions, and also to venture answers to them." This is clearly a good justification for keeping professors around. But the whole campus experience provides opportunities for raising questions and discussing issues related to different courses of study. Fellow students can also be thought-provoking in campus situations that can't be duplicated online.

Besides providing the context for discussions, a university also offers a host of other activities that can enhance the educational experience. Learning how to work as a team in a varsity or club sport is one example. Writing about issues for a campus publication and learning both about the subject matter and the craft of writing, is another. Although one can have many such experiences while not enrolled, those experiences can reinforce and complement the learning that takes place in the lecture hall. These things, likewise, can't be delivered electronically. But they can be experienced on a campus that provides online courses alongside its traditional lecture and seminar classes.

Putting the Pieces Together

With both digital and physical courses, the campus can be more than the sum of its parts. My own experience with online learning is not too dramatic, but it did allow me to finish my Plan II degree in time for graduation. I was writing my undergraduate thesis at the time and loaded with upper-division computer science courses. World history was a requirement, but the most appealing options for classroom study didn't fit my schedule. Any six extra hours of classroom time would have burdened me that semester, but independent study seemed like a possibility. So I chose the e-mail correspondence classes. If I didn't finish by the spring semester's end, I could drag on into the summer without additional hassle. As it turned out, I did find the time to complete them and wrap things up by the end of the academic year.

I could compare these two world history courses to some of the Plan II and computer science seminars that I took, but there's really no comparison. Such classroom experiences helped me approach learning and problem-solving in a whole new way. These e-mail courses, on the other hand, only did a few things: taught me facts, helped me to understand the consequences of different historical events, and got me writing and thinking about the subject under the guidance of an instructor. It isn't really fair to stack an e-mail course up against the best seminars the University has to offer. If I were to replace a classroom course with online study, I wouldn't choose to replace my favorite class. I'd pick the worst one.

That would have been Chemistry 301, with an enrollment of more than 600. The professor tried earnestly to amuse and inspire the massive assembly of students. Still, all I can remember is that during each of the very few classes I attended, he held a stick-mounted candle to balloons filled with flammable gasses, exploding them. This was supposed to demonstrate something, but I have no recollection of what it was. I stayed home and read the textbook instead, coming in only to take tests. It was similar to a correspondence course, but without any correspondence. I don't think it was much better for my classmates. When he asked during the first day how many were repeating the class after failing it, a forest of hands came up.

Such courses are the best candidates for assimilation into the computerized side of the cyborg campus. The University already offers self-paced classes during the term, and many courses that have extensive online components. Online courses can develop students' ability to work and investigate independently. They can also leave students with a more flexible schedule, allowing them to register for in-person classes that are less densely populated. Just as some courses will continue to do fine without using computers or even texts, there are some that would benefit from switching to an entirely online format. Educators, who also stand to gain, should look with a critical eye to see what can be done, instead of reacting with horror.

Some Assembly Still Required

As UT and other universities try to bring these two types of education together, there will be times when the parts don't seem to snap in place. Professors will resist what they see as being replaced by machines — even if a floundering mega-class is bowing out to a more effective and individualized online course. Some classes will be computerized, but to poor effect. After choosing the right courses to move online, those setting up the curriculum and instructing the students still have to do a good job. By evaluating efforts honestly, educators can make the best use of all available technologies. Concerns that computers will replace professors are unfounded. On the contrary, they will allow them to focus on the kind of teaching they do best.

Will the cyborg campus make for a happy future for all colleges and universities? The obvious answer is the one from Star Trek's "Borg": resistance is futile — so don't even bother questioning it. The truth is different. Some campuses will resist. Just as all-digital schools like Jones International University will find a niche, a few colleges will flourish without integrating computers into the curriculum at all. Certain students will find that the right thing for them is a contemplative, isolated campus without the latest technology — without its advantages or frustrations.

Those who want the many challenges and opportunities of a large state university, on the other hand, will find their college years enhanced by online learning. If well-crafted, online classes will provide flexibility, individual attention, and immediacy. Computer education can also integrate well with the traditional office hours, seminar discussions, and rambling philosophical conversations at the coffee house. Educators, administrators, and technologists will just have to keep the University's true goals foremost in their minds, realizing that education is fostered by faculty members in an academic community, not handed down from professors to students. And, of course, they will need to attend to all the details, doing a lot of work to make sure the cyborg campus they build stays healthy and well-oiled.

article text 1999-09 / nm 2002-05