IT boom may force colleges back to the basics

January 22, 1999

According to one professor, information technology could make universities return to their core values of nurturing young minds. Julia Hinde reports.

The explosion in information technology will fundamentally affect universities - and probably not for the better, says a Columbia Business School professor.

Eli Noam, professor of finance and economics at the business school's Institute for Tele-Information, was expected to tell the AAAS today that the information technology that has been embraced by many in universities threatens to weaken their positions.

If universities are to keep hold of their students and finances, he argues, they must return to their traditional emphasis on mentoring students and nurturing minds.

Professor Noam says universities fulfil several functions, including producing and storing information and passing it on to future generations. Each of these three roles is threatened by IT, he says.

On the research side, Professor Noam says, research no longer requires the physical proximity of the past. "As the amount of information increases, the amount of specialisation increases," he says, so that neighbours in a lab may not necessarily study the same area. Communication will need to be on a worldwide basis.

As for teaching, traditional methods are extremely expensive and could be replaced by online lessons, Professor Noam says. "If you provide a cheaper means of distribution, people may choose this. I would not argue this is superior, but it is cheaper. This will weaken the universities. There will be fewer students and therefore less public support - and probably a lot fewer universities."

Professor Noam adds, however, that the rise in IT does not mean universities will become unimportant. "They must understand what their core value is," he explains. "It is not simply the production and distribution of information, but they should also provide the intangibles of mentoring and nurturing of intellect.

"These are the things that have been lost in the mass education process. My advice to universities is not to become just electronic, but to return to some of their traditional ways."

* Lita Nelsen, director of the Technology Licensing Office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says that universities' increasing commercial activities have not shut out or alienated students.

She says that many students are highly motivated by course modules that deal with product development and intellectual property. These have become common even at universities with very theoretical, science-based engineering courses. What is more, students at universities such as MIT can see the potential value of spin-offs in the many start-up companies that are based on licences for exploiting university research.

But Ms Nelsen lists some problems in the growing commercial orientation of universities. One is in the minds of researchers, some of whom think that too much patenting and commercial activity might be seen as evidence that they are not keen enough on their work's academic aspects. In contrast, others think that a technology licence is useful for showing the tenure committee that one's research is significant.

Ms Nelsen points to research that shows that more than 200,000 jobs have been created in US firms based on licences for university technology. While many university technology transfer offices are not massive money-spinners, a small number of high-profile patents, such as one for fax technology owned by Iowa State University, have made tens of millions of dollars.

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