A. Preface

"The history of New College is the history of its buildings. They began as a magnificent conception, far exceeding any educational experiment which had gone before." A. R. Woolley, in the Clarendon Guide to Oxford

"We shape our buildings and afterwards, our buildings shape us." Winston Churchill

"We make our networks and our networks make us." William J. Mitchell

If one could somehow travel back in time to Plato's "Academy" one would find a single teacher talking to his students in an olive grove. This was arguably the first European university. There was little in the way of infrastructure, not even walls.

Sometime in the early middle ages, significant infrastructure was added to the wandering scholars who managed to attract students around them. Anyone who has visited universities such as Oxford and Cambridge cannot help but be impressed by the large and substantial buildings, largely residence halls in today's terms, which clearly were built with the future in mind. It is amusing to note that Oxford's magnificent New College was founded in 1379. The Gothic colleges rival cathedrals, and as with cathedrals, their construction is awe-inspiring in its commitment, planning, labor, intelligence, and craftsmanship. Also quite remarkable are the castellated walls dividing the colleges from the rest of the world, even from the urban centers in which they developed.

At first American universities, particularly the private universities, tended to reflect their medieval paradigms, with walled compounds preserving class distinctions much as they did in the old world.

But American universities, particularly public universities, gradually changed in their architectural paradigms in support of their missions and their commitment to access for all. A visitor to a residential campus at an American public university is impressed by the large, open, sprawling physical plant, much of it built in the academic expansion that has occurred since WWII. To residence halls and a few classrooms and laboratories were added lecture halls, research facilities, language labs, libraries, administrative facilities, advising centers, museums, concert halls, athletic facilities, alumni centers, and a myriad of other facilities undreamed of by Plato. Modern urban campuses which have developed in the past several decades may be more compact, but their architecture still carries the message of openness and union with their communities.

A similar expansion of facilities is now taking place in universities, but it is far less visible. Much of it runs underground, through walls, sits on desktops, or is carried in brief cases. The most important part of it is literally invisible, except by the use of special instruments called monitors. But it is no less important for being so difficult to perceive. Of course what we are talking about is information, which in its digitized form consists of invisible electromagnetic bits. This same information can be printed (or even written) on paper, communicated verbally, etc. Many philosophers would in fact argue that information itself is an abstract notion with no physical parts.

Whether the basic units of information are incorporeal, or simply "very tiny," it is obvious that the physical realization of information has important consequences for the world in which we live. The way in which the tiny bits, whether in our computers or our own heads, have incredibly profound effects can be taken as an example of the so-called "Butterfly Effect" from Chaos Theory: small causes can have enormous and remote effects.

The effect on all of us may be summarized by a series of what have already become platitudes: we live in an information age, we are all enlisted (voluntarily or not) in an information revolution, more of us are becoming information/knowledge workers, we are entering an information-based economy, etc.

Our aim here is not to play at being futurists, but rather to point out the obvious. A university by its nature is concerned with information, its production and transmission, and the role of information in the conveyance and creation of knowledge.

Plato defined knowledge as warranted true belief, and distinguished it sharply from mere opinion. Later thinkers came to see "warrant" as having two aspects, rational justification and social authentication. Universities have a special role in the information economy, with their historic role of critically evaluating information with the aim of identifying structured information that can legitimately be called knowledge. Universities provide both rational justification and social authentication as a basis for knowledge. By contrast, there is a lot of information on the World Wide Web, but it is far from clear how much of it constitutes knowledge.

Research, scholarship and the creative arts produce and organize information, and teaching transmits it. To teaching we add learning, understood in an active dimension, because a university-trained person must be an active participant in the processing and interpreting of information. Information is also collected and made available through such facilities as publications, databases, and libraries.

Just as Indiana University has by virtue of careful planning and stewardship built and maintained impressive physical plants (the campus at IUB has been ranked among the six most beautiful in America), we must make similarly wise investments in our information technology. We have a chance to catch up with, even surpass, historically better funded universities by timely and well-chosen investments in "e-infrastructure."

Information technology goes beyond computers. It includes the networks that connect them, electronic databases and other electromagnetic storage of data, and increasingly, with convergence of media, it includes all telecommunications: not just transmission of data, but also video, voice (and audio generally).

It is interesting to note that there is not a single item relating to the building of information technology infrastructure listed in the Historical Milestones in "Indiana University Facts 1997-98". It would be surprising if this were still to be true when the "Indiana University Facts 2000-2001" is published.

Just as "bricks and mortar" were essential to the architecture of the post-WWII university, "bits in order" are essential to the architecture of the university of the 21st Century. And unlike the old bricks and mortar, information technology does not build walls, it breaks them down. The World Wide Web opens the Indiana University to the world, and the world to Indiana University. It also connects each campus to the community that surrounds it.

This does not mean that information technology will replace the old bricks and mortar. We are not prophesying a "cyber university." At least in the foreseeable future the University still needs well-maintained buildings, and if anything we need more of them to house the space needs generated by information technology. This may or may not be a transitional period, but if it is a transitional period, it is certainly going to be a long one. The usefulness and appeal of a residential campus, of an urban-centered campus, or of community-oriented campuses, are not going to go away over night. But we must think of information technology in much the way we think of bricks and mortar: an absolutely essential part of the university infrastructure that must be built and maintained, with planned capital investments and provision for ongoing expenses.

If there is anything constant about information technology, it is change, even accelerating change. The pace and persistence of change calls for support even greater than might be suggested by the analogy of "bricks and mortar." Just as the need for space is not entirely displaced by information technology, neither is the University's need for people. As Professor Annette Kolodney writes, in Failing the Future: A Dean Looks at Higher Education in the Twenty-first Century,

"accelerating technological innovation will transform all aspects of teaching and learning in ways that cannot yet be predicted. What is certain, however, even from the current successes with self-paced computer learning programs and video transmission to off-campus learning sites, is that there is no substitute for the inspiration, rigor, and focus of direct contact between a teacher and her students."

This plan is predicated on the dual expectations that information technology has the potential to transform higher education, and that research, service, teaching and learning that is, the vital activities of faculty and students remain at the heart of this transformation.

Foreword  |  Table of Contents  |  B. Background

June 1998
Comments to ovpit@indiana.edu
Copyright © 1998, the Trustees of Indiana University