[CHWP Titles]

The Pixallated University: Weaving Knowledge (in)formation

Jeff Miller

University of British Columbia


CHWP B.31, publ. April 1997. © Editors of CHWP 1997. [First published in TEXT Technology, 6.3 (1996), Wright State University.]

[Abstract / Résumé]

student-centred learning, distributed learning, university, pedagogy; acquisition centrée sur l'apprenant, enseignement distribué, univerisité, pédagogie

A funny thing happened to this paper when I first presented it at a conference.[1] In the title, "The Pixallated University: Weaving Knowledge (in)formation", pixallated, which spelled with an a is a slang term for being drunk, was replaced by pixelated, which spelled with an e is a term which typically refers to the decomposition of an image into pixels on a computer monitor or television screen. The substitution was a happy circumstance since the topic of my paper is the effects of media transformation on universities, and certainly, the image of a pixelated university, one quantized into bits of information to be shot across a grid by an ion gun, is evocative. The second part of my title, "weaving knowledge (in)formation", which was left out of the program entirely, reinforces this notion of the effects of media on what we typically attend to at a university, a site for the production and distribution of knowledge, amongst other things. I hoped to indicate by this phrase that the weaving of knowledge (in)formation has definite consequences on what form knowledge can take and, by extension, what "patterns" the fabric of real life as an object of study. This is not a new story. As McLuhan rightly pointed out, one of the earliest assembly lines capable of producing "uniform and repeatable commodit[ies]" (McLuhan 1962: 125) was the printing press, and few would deny the imprint of Gutenberg technology that has patterned the fabric of our institutions of knowledge, even though we've so fully internalized this technology that we often mistake it as natural and neutral, our textual birthday suit. Having spent the last five centuries dutifully laying ourselves down in lines of printed text to be bound in volumes, we have forgotten just how unusual it is that we might recognize ourselves in the "body" of a text, a Procrustean bed now so comfortable we are loath to leave it.

Comfortably numb to the pain of this dis-memberment, we are perhaps somewhat pixallated, or drunk, to pick up my original term, though not so much to kill the pain. We are made somewhat drunk by the heady excitement we experience (at a distance) as a consequence of our increased powers of extension in a new medium. Through our technologies, our lives gain virtual permanence and bodiless extension. Words on a page will outlast the hardest rock, and the dance of our fingers on a keyboard, converted to flickers of light across a network, externalizes our nervous systems to the extent that our multiple bodies encompass the globe: immortality and ubiquity, achievements certainly deserving a toast. British Columbia's telephone corporation, BCTel, understands the power of media implicitly, and has entitled one of its services, a fibre optic network, Ubiquity. A power once held by god and the devil, being everywhere at once, can now be held by the most mortal of hands, providing those hands hold enough money to pay their monthly power bill. The effects of new media extend beyond a mere extension of our power, however. I want to argue as well that media transformations leave us a bit pixilated -- this time spelled with an i -- which means behaving as if lead by pixies: our fascination with images of ourselves in other media, our narcissistic recognition and embrace of anamorphic projections of ourselves, alters our very consciousness, and thus alters the institutions we use to create, store and distribute our collective (or not so collective) knowledge.

As universities are transformed by the new media, how we will recognize ourselves as subjects, not to mention what subjects we will teach, becomes an important question which we can begin to answer by attending to some rather recent developments in educational technology. In the glow of our media, in this technological twilight,[2] how we organize ourselves and our world -- as our perceptions of both ourselves and the world become increasingly dependent upon interfacing with converging technologies -- becomes an all-involving question. There is a real danger that in our excitement over the opening of a new world of perceptual extension, an effect of media transformation, or liquidation, to use Benjamin's term for the wholesale and often destructive re-ordering of cultural values attending media transformation, we will become pixallated on the nectar of information technology being proffered by pixies with bright eyes and full wallets, and be led, in-formation, into a reified world of total exchange, bounded exclusively by economic horizons.

In any medium, what passes for critical discourse is not independent of the medium in which it is produced and circulated. Media change, therefore, is far more than just a new piece of equipment: this change affects all of our technologies, be they machinic, ideological, linguistic or literary. That many working in English departments today seem more inclined to explore constructions of difference than "to purify the dialect of the tribe"[3] does not mean that people are any more, or less, interested in critical discourse; it simply indicates the ground upon which critical discourse figures, and the objects that such discourse perceives as consistent with images of its productive self, have shifted, and with it, the possibilities for producing valid knowledge. Formalized disciplinary practices, which are sometimes critical discourses, must be considered in the context of the medium in which they are produced and circulated, which in our case is the university itself, no longer a site for knowledge for knowledge's sake, if it ever was, but, increasingly, a site for the harnessing of knowledge to the information economy.

We have all heard the chorus announcing our entrance into a post-industrial world, or information age, and what should be noted in this dawn are the preconditions of knowledge as information. Rather than depend upon accounts of this age by literary critics, philosophers and academic theorists, I will depend, instead, primarily upon a slightly different group, rarely described as a chorus, and certainly not as being harmonious. I will draw an understanding of the conditions of knowledge in the information age, particularly in terms of how the University will operate as a function of this logic, from government documents, university vision statements, and research proposals of groups committed to technologically-enabling[4] the University, a process described as a retooling for the 21st century. The institutional vision of itself that guides this retooling may appear beautiful to some and monstrous to others. However, that we are at present rapt by conflicting images of ourselves, caught in the headlights of our own technologies, seems apparent by the urgency in the voices of those calling for action in the face of global competition and technological change as well as in the voices of those singing elegies to Gutenberg's machine. I should also note that most of the documents are available on the Internet and, in some cases, only on-line, which is my way to make the point that important discussions that will affect the operation of universities are taking place and it is imperative that more scholars in the Humanities attend to them. And considering the power of some of the communications systems that individual scholars now have at their disposal, perhaps now is a particularly important time to be involved. But the media transformations we are facing are not merely academic moments, to be decided by a group of scholars and administrators; students are also involved. The students we will be receiving into the universities in the coming years will not be learning in traditional ways, traditional, if one thinks of the book as tradition. Rather, they will be arriving, not only after high-school, but at various ages, with needs and approaches to learning that universities are ill-equipped to handle. I learned to read using a primer. My 5-year-old nephew is learning to read using a CD-ROM and an animated storybook environment. We will never share the same textual space, let alone the same textual assumptions. Like it or not, researchers in universities will need to develop new strategies for their work simply because neither the space in which they think, nor the tools with which they work, nor the students whom they teach will remain the same. It is a good time to be learning the grammar of new media; moreso, it is our responsibility.

It is quite fascinating to see how institutions currently charged with the production and analysis of knowledge envision themselves and their practices in this information age, where the goal of life-long learning (a condition for survival in the job market) stands side by side with the goal of providing economically significant learning, the sign of legibility, or validity, in this economy. Such a valuation of learning by the terms of its economic significance, or its utility, is an act of quantization, where "learning is translated into quantities of information" (Lyotard 1984: 4). To give you a sense of how one university recognizes itself in this information economy, here is a quote from a document entitled "Technology in Learning", a vision statement developed by the Senate Task Force on Technology in Learning at the University of Alberta in 1995. You should not imagine that the ideas under consideration at this particular university are anomalous, though they may have been produced at a time when this university was under increasing financial pressure, particularly from traditional funding sources like the federal and provincial governments (which is certainly not an unusual situation for most universities today). The terms of reference articulated in its vision statement are consistent with policy initiatives in universities around the world: if you have not yet encountered this type of vision statement, you most certainly will, and soon. According to the document, by the year 2005:

The above vision is consistent with an emerging rhetoric of wide-scale cultural retooling in the face of technological change and a world of globalized information exchange, where the imperatives of reason are understood as coincident with the imperatives of economics. These goals are identified as both "possible and necessary for the University of Alberta to achieve its overall mission of becoming an institution that is universally recognized for the excellence of its degrees in a knowledge-based global economy". This provincial university, in a climate of federal and provincial funding cut-backs, is singing a familiar tune: to survive locally, one must compete globally, and not just in research, but in teaching and administration as well.

A few key terms should be extracted from this vision, though I hope the larger image will continue to resonate, especially in terms of how the description of a student-centred, technology-enabled institution differs from a traditional university structure. The envisioned university will be based upon a learner-centred instructional model, which is to say that curricula and programs of study will be much more flexible than they currently are. They will have to be flexible because multi-modal delivery of materials will support a very different student body, from traditional students right out of high school, to adults at every stage of their careers returning for training, or just for more education, from anywhere in the world. As well, and most importantly, this goal of a learner-centred institution for a life-long learning student places emphasis on teaching over research. The university of the future is going to be a centre of teaching excellence. It had better be, because those institutions that successfully position themselves as such sites for the production of the proper learning, that which is economically significant, are the ones most likely to attract funding and students.

I must admit that I'm quite an advocate of many of these goals. Universities should place more emphasis on teaching than they currently do. However, a shift to a learner-centred institution will be, and should be, an involved and heated process. In almost all of the documents that I've come across, from universities in North America and Europe, one of the strategies for creating a learner-centred institution is to examine the current reward structures for promotion and hiring of faculty. What is needed according to the Senate Task Force on Technology in Learning at the University of Alberta, is a shift in the

It is interesting how strongly stated the mandate of teaching is in relation to research in the above quotation. More common is a recognition that the research that takes place in a university provides the institutions with one of their most valuable exploitable resources: content. In discussion with a colleague who does the majority of her work in the field of educational technology, the question of content came up. She always found herself encountering hostility, even from me, when she would bring up the term content, or content producer with a faculty member. In response I offered that the notion of content turns faculty into a mine to be stripped, a typically Canadian development of the extraction economy. I suggested that a term like curriculum might be a more useful starting point, since it implies an open and negotiated space that is not so easily commodified. However, in the information age, researchers, writers and artists -- not to mention anyone else who sends information down the super highway -- all of these "providers" are content producers. And with such a designation comes a change in the social and institutional relationships fostered by what becomes, essentially, an economic transaction.[5] Without question, a paradigm shift of this order is not going to happen by fiat, and significantly, I've not come across any statements, at least not in the Canadian documents I've looked at, that attempt to exclude faculty participation. However, in one American paper, entitled "Using Information Technology to Enhance Academic Productivity" by Massy and Zemsky, there is a cost analysis of the "benefits of departing from" what they call "the handicraft educational paradigm", in other words researchers and teachers, to an information technology based teaching, which they realize "may not be recognizable as 'higher education'". At one point, the authors almost bemoan the fact that, if offered a choice between more money for information technology or for another faculty member, "most faculty would choose the additional faculty member". "Like a brotherhood of monks", they continue, "faculty intrinsically value other faculty members" (Massy & Zemsky 1995). I wonder if any of the monks in the scriptoria secretly coveted printing presses?

For me, the most difficult issue relating to educational technology or a particular subset of it, information technology -- appropriately, IT -- is the topic of learning. Without question learners are at the centre of most theories of educational technology. However, I find that my understanding of learning is not entirely in sync with what seems to be proposed by the learning opportunities being created in a "globally-renowned centre for learning", particularly one functioning as a machine of knowledge production in a "knowledge-based global economy". In "The University of Alberta Learning Advantage", the concept of learning in the information age is made a little clearer. The report identifies the changing skills required of university graduates and notes the extent to which "society has begun to put a premium on the skill of self-directed learning and its partner, the management of information". This sanctioned couple, "backlit by the aura of advancing technology", to use Wlad Godzich's phrase (Godzich 1994: 11), leaves the university with a heavy responsibility. Referring to new interactive multimedia information sources as a digital river that students can dip into, the report states that "in order that they not drown in the river, the University needs to ensure that it is preparing its students to work in a world in which skills in the retrieval, analysis, synthesis, and interpretation of information will be a hallmark of the educated individual and a major asset for success" ("The University of Alberta Learning Advantage": University of Alberta 1995). I recognize some of these terms -- retrieval, analysis, synthesis, and interpretation -- but I'm not sure if I'd subordinate them to the realm of information. It would seem to me that the subjects concerned, in both the personal and institutional sense, are empirically grasped, and hermetically sealed by this formulation. I question whether critical discourse can take place within such an enclosure. I question whether such knowledge -- economically significant as it may be -- can interrogate the conditions of its production, its representation within the confines of such an in-formed, or enframed space. The authors of the aforementioned study, the one with the quip about handicraft educational paradigms befitting monks, even admit this limitation of information technology. As they put it, "whenever a significant portion of a curriculum includes non-codified, non-algorithmic knowledge [...] faculty maintain their historic advantage. IT provides a strong element of synthetic experience, of virtual reality fine for some purposes but not all" (Massy & Zemsky 1995). I would like to think that scholars in the Humanities will maintain such an advantage because what we produce as knowledge, when our discourse is at its most critical, is not a commodity to be codified nor an algorithmic process to be followed. Instrumental reason may be a powerful and useful tool, but it is not a very comfortable place to live, let alone think.

If the educated individual, as subject, is constituted by his ability to retrieve, analyse, synthesize and interpret information, how about a larger subject, the University? A number of national studies are currently taking place in Canada on this very topic, one of the largest being the National Centres of Excellence TeleLearning project that recently received approximately 13 million dollars of pubic money to, and I quote:

TeleLearning is a nationally articulated academic, governmental and private industry response to some very pressing concerns, not the least of which is the uncertainty of transformation when an institution that is "pickled in the aspic of the Industrial Revolution", a memorable phrase by Tony Bates, finds itself liquidated for circulation in the new global networks of the information age (Bates 1995: 17). TeleLearning is an important project, not just because it has attracted a considerable level of funding and the participation of over 125 researchers at 28 universities across the country. It is also one of the more forward looking projects of its kind in that it is taking on the academic, administrative and technical challenges of developing a broad-bandwidth educational environment that actively works to re-imagine not just the delivery of courses using networked technologies, but the very dimensions and role of the university, as well as its constituents. While I'm excited, though perhaps not quite pixilated, by much of what TeleLearning is setting out to do, I find myself uncomfortable with some of the principles it rests upon. For instance, according to TeleLearning, the idea of a "'learning society' refers to a society characterized by the combination of (a) lifelong, economically significant learning; (b) a knowledge-based economy; and (c) a vast array of overlapping and interconnected knowledge-building communities", which is to say that all sectors of society, not just universities and research institutions, will participate in the production and dissemination of information, for information, in this age, makes the world go around (TeleLearning 1995: C4). The University, thus formulated, can become a massive networked loom spinning knowledge in-formation. This is not the yarn of a storyteller.

But as I stated, TeleLearning and projects like it are important despite the fact that the equation between knowledge and information reduces the value of critical discourse. These projects are fundamentally reconfiguring the very discursive networks that largely determine the very structure and operation of post-secondary institutions. Further, telelearning is part of a much larger shift, both in funding and in the development of infrastructure that will determine the types of classrooms in which we will teach in the coming years. And if we can take some comfort in the fact that the quote from the University of Alberta vision statement was just that, a vision statement, as likely to occur as a five-year plan, let me describe for you a number of other projects that are already changing and will continue to change the academic ground upon which we think. Let me start with the University of British Columbia. In the last two years, the Ministry of Skills, Training and Labour, which has since been renamed as the Ministry of Education, Training and Skills, labour now being, of course, the subtext to all, held back a portion of UBC's general operating grant, totaling 2.67 million dollars in 1995 and 1.33 million dollars in 1996.[6] With this money, the university, through the Centre for Educational Technology, funded a number of projects to develop both the technological infrastructure on campus, as well as multimedia resources and course materials to be delivered through this infrastructure. The English department received a lot of money to set up a computer lab for graduate students, much to our delight. Though the innovation fund has been discontinued, the principle of withholding funds so as to reallocate them continues: quite rightly, senior administration recognizes that faculties will compete for funds for innovative teaching using alternate delivery methods, especially in an institutional climate where various "slash and burn committees" are making extremely difficult and unpopular decisions across campus. Such moves to develop and incorporate alternate modes of delivery quickly are part of both inter-disciplinary and extra-institutional initiatives, or partnerships,[7] which are designed to take advantage of a series of inter-connected networks that will transform UBC, for instance, into a regional, provincial and international presence, all through networked technologies integrated with its current physical plant and capital resources, human included, of course.

UBC's initiatives are connected to a larger provincial strategy for post-secondary education. In essence, the provincial government, in conjunction with a consortium of educational institutions, is designing a provincial learning network (PLNet), a broad-band network that will link: "over 1600 public schools and school districts; 5 universities; 21 university colleges, colleges and institutes; 21 community skills centres; 247 public libraries and over 425 museums, science and cultural organizations"[8] (Province of British Columbia n.d.) to each other and to all communities in the province. With the PLNet, students will not necessarily have to go to a university or a college to take a course. This will also mean these institutions will be able to offer courses to groups of students that they never had access to before. UBC is also a member of the Open University Planning Council as well as the Open Learning Agency; the former helps provincial institutions to coordinate their efforts, and the latter currently offers approximately 348 courses to students around the province, courses that are recognized at member institutions. Since 1990, enrollment in university open learning courses has increased by 50%, and one of the effects of this increase has been a blurring of the boundaries between distance and on-campus learning. The erosion of this distinction is probably best illustrated with a new principle for access to university education called Distributed Learning. UBC has adopted a definition of distributed learning from the Institute of Academic Technology at the University of North Carolina in order to focalize its energies in creating a distributed learning environment, an environment seen as critical to UBC's vision of itself in the next century.

The principles of flexible, multi-modal, student-centred learning are significantly confusing the issue of on- and off-campus activities and challenging all levels of the university, from its administration to its faculties to its students. At the same time, open access to such resources, from the perspective of students, faculty and the institution itself, is creating interesting new conditions that are dramatically altering the possibilities of education.

What should be clear in the above examples are the ways in which British Columbia is actively building a network of educational institutions that share and collectively develop the resources to free students and institutions from traditional spatial and temporal limitations. Students, at times that suit them, from the places they reside, can attend, virtually, or in person, or a combination of both, a number of different programs, carrying with them a portfolio from institution to institution. Now, let's increase the dimensions of this network. British Columbia's program to develop a province-wide network interlocks with national and international initiatives, the size and implications of which are truly staggering. The federal government, in response to what they see as "a far reaching restructuring of the global economy", is building the country's "information infrastructure" so as to enable Canadians to compete in this economy. The investment in this infrastructure, called CANARIE, which stands for the Canadian Network for the Advancement of Research, Industry and Education, is expected to be over a billion dollars, with funds coming from the government and the private sector. If CANARIE achieves its goals, and it seems it will, by 1998, "all of Canada's 16,500 schools, all federally-funded aboriginal schools, all 3400 public libraries, all universities and community colleges and 1000 rural communities will be connected to the Internet, in some cases at speeds up to 155 Mbps" (CANARIE 1996). And if you think CANARIE is big, you should also know about STENTOR, the consortium of Canada's telecommunication companies that is investing 8 billion dollars to bring broad-band, multi-media connections to 80% of all homes and businesses in Canada by the year 2004. Considering how these networks will, essentially, create classroom, libraries and universities without walls -- the challenge to those who currently work in these once relatively closed environments should be obvious: we are witnessing a fundamental reconfiguration of the boundaries that define both our physical, institutional spaces and relationships, as well as the virtual, conceptual frameworks which inform what we do in these spaces.

At this synchronous moment in an increasingly asynchronous time when we consider the extent to which techno-economic horizons enframe us, we have to question whether we will have the imaginative capacity to escape codified, algorithmic, instrumental pixelation -- spelled with an a, an e and an i. The danger is real that critical discourse will lose its edge, becoming just another instrument for financial exchange in a very liquid market, merely undifferentiated content to be distributed down the highway, its value fully exchangeable with any other commodity. To meet the challenge of media transformation, we must carefully attend to our own practices and, on an on-going basis, interrogate them in relation to the objects they bring into coherence, the practices they legitimize, and the relationships that they foster: such reflexivity is particularly crucial when the grounds of many of our assumptions are shifting. This means that we have to pay close attention to the conceptual boxes we habitually stuff our world into, and recognize that just as the earlier media forces determined our current relationship to knowledge, so too will present and future media transformations. To apply Derrida's critique of instrumentalizing reason as manifest in the modern university, we must ask ourselves, will we continue to prepare ourselves "to transform the modes of writing, approaches to pedagogy, the procedures of academic exchange, the relation to languages, to other disciplines, to the institution in general, to its inside and its outside" (Derrida 1986: 335)? Preparation of this sort will offer us some defence against the worst aspects of information technology, regardless of its vehicle, be it a rigid textuality enforced by Gutenberg traditions or an equally rigid definition of educational legitimacy in terms of information or economic significance. At the same time, this preparation will help us to more actively determine the possibilities for articulation in the discursive networks currently under construction. For whether the Academy approves or not, the liquidation of the university, in the sense of its distribution across and its realization through, networked communities, is not going to be solely an "Academic moment".

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[1] This paper was originally presented at the 1996 Learned Societies Congress at Brock University, St. Catherines, Ontario, as part of the ACCUTE - COCH/COSH panel entitled: "Literary Criticism and Computing Technology II - Shaping and Reshaping Critical Discourse in the New Medium".

[2] Though it was written almost 50 years ago, Innis' discussion of changes in communication technologies and the consequent effects on Western civilization in his 1947 Presidential Address to the Royal Society of Canada, "Minerva's Owl", collected in The Bias of Communication still provides insights into questions concerning the effects of technological change and educational institutions.

[3] See Eliot 1994: l. 127.

[4] Often, advocates of educational technologies, as well as ardent opponents, imagine that universities, up to this point in time, were technologically neutral. Such a perspective overlooks the technological origins of the university, dependent as it has been on print-technology and textuality for its organization.

[5] Students, appropriately, are redefined as "clients" or "customers", willing to pay to receive the services of a university, provision of quality and timely content by a knowledgeable and friendly staff being central selling features.

[6] For a description of the projects being supported by this "Innovation Fund" see the descriptions maintained by the Centre for Education Technology at the University of British Columbia.

[7] In 1995, UBC, for example, was named as one of thirty New Media Centres in North America, a collaborative project between high technology industries and academic institutions. Considering the scope of such a project, it is imperative that there is broadly based participation from those who teach and do research in Humanities disciplines, for without question, projects such as this will directly affect the shape of future classrooms, not to mention what is taught in them, that is, when there are classrooms involved.

[8] The objective of the PLNet is to build the infrastructure to support a common telecommunications network across the province. "It will: support the goal of equitable access to educational programs and information resources, increase cost-effectiveness through economies of scale, and support current and future innovation in educational delivery" (Province of British Columbia n.d.).