The idea — or perhaps ideal — of the fast-approaching electronic university has many attractions, not the least of which is the economical, almost inevitable, sharing of resources among institutions of widely varying size, endowment, focus, and stature. Similarly, the economical development, maintenance, and use of materials for interdisciplinary approaches, like the way networked hypertext resources create course and institutional memories, has enormous appeal for many. Then there is the promise of increased involvement of students in their own education and of their ability to obtain more self-paced instruction, particularly for the advanced or interested student.

Such gains, however, have implicit in them certain losses, such as have always happened with shifts in technological and informational paradigms. Plato rightly feared the devaluing of memory by those who read and write, and those who earlier feared the democratizing effects of earlier changes in information technology, such as those introduced by books, copy machines, and calculators were, from their point of view, absolutely correct.

One can conceive of other possible losses to which the wonders of the electronic university may lead, among which are decreased institutional loyalty — why, for example, feel sentimental about Alma Mater when the most interesting materials one encountered came from another institution on another continent and when the most important discussions in which one participated took place in electronic space and may not have originated within any particular institution at all?

Another interesting — and potentially troubling — change in the nature of higher education involves cyberspace and possibilities of computer simulation, which already have proven in certain circumstances to have great educational value. Airlines and air forces have long known that complex computer-based simulations prove economical in human and material terms, and recent projects have shown the clear benefits of such simulation for students of chemistry, trauma surgery, and other fields, including training the handicapped, in which it is better to experience simulated, rather than actual, dangers. In addition, comparatively simple text-based simulations for students of history and culture have suggested that such methods have value in the humanities and social sciences, too.

Given the obvious gains implicit in such educational uses of simulation, where might the losses appear? Cyberspace, or virtual reality as it is also known, involves more or less fully immersing users in a virtual world; or to describe the technology in another way, users experience themselves within the data and not facing it or in opposition to it as they do a printed page and a computer screen. This information technology, which has potentially enormous power, offers three possible dangers. First, since any description or representation of reality takes the form of a selection that embodies certain assumptions, all instantiations of virtual reality come with built-in, often unexamined ideologies. Of course, one might reply, so do all books and all libraries — just try to carry out research on materials once or now considered unfashionable or beneath academic interest, such as certain areas of nineteenth-century popular culture or religious thought!

Second, both hypertext and virtual reality to differing degrees threaten to devalue intellectual skills that have traditionally been considered of the utmost importance. All information technologies thus far current necessarily demand various forms of abstraction. Language and writing to a certain degree compensate for that which is not present. But what happens to skill at abstraction, selection, quotation, or emphasis in an information technology that permits one to offer an apparently realistic simulacrum of an object? Similarly, what will happen in literary studies when one does not have to quote a brief passage but can simply link to it. Hypertext might well do much to prevent authors from quoting material outrageously out of context, but will it also encourage the loss of skills related to selecting, quoting, and discussing of extracted passages? Will the ability to make connections, or to proffer particular kinds of examples, become more important than certain kinds of argument based, essentially, on the absence of the material discussed? I do not know the answer to such questions, but given the example of the way education changed, many would say for the better, with the coming of print, I can only point to the likelihood of new rhetorics, new stylistics, and new modes of reading and writing appropriate to the utopian — or nowhere — space of the electronic university.

Last modified 18 October 2005