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2022nd Stated Meeting: Evolving Role of Technology in Higher Education

Watch video of this event.

On September 17, 2015, Jonathan Fanton introduced a panel discussion convened at New York University on the changes in higher education as a result of advances in digital technology. Academy member and NYU President John Sexton welcomed the group to the university. The discussion featured Academy members Daphne Koller and Nicholas Lemann, along with President of ITHAKA Kevin Guthrie. Koller is the President and Co-Founder of Coursera, Inc., and the Rajeev Motwani Professor of Computer Science at Stanford University. Nicholas Lemann is the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Academy member and NYU Senior Vice Provost for Academic Affairs Matthew Santirocco moderated the discussion.

The discussion served as the 2022nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy.

Under President Sexton’s leadership, NYU has been in the vanguard of the digital revolution in higher education, offering nearly 700 courses and programs that are delivered either wholly online or in hybrid learning environments. It is, therefore, fitting that we meet here for this important conversation, at an institution that takes learning innovation so seriously.

It is now my pleasure to welcome you, and to call to order the 2022nd Stated Meeting of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

As many of you know, the Academy was founded in 1780, during the American Revolution, by John Adams, James Bowdoin, John Hancock, and other leaders who helped to establish the new nation. The Academy’s founders believed that a strong republic must be grounded in open discourse, engaged scholarship, and an informed and active citizenry. Over time, the Academy has expanded to include leaders in all fields and disciplines, many of whom work together, through the Academy, to address issues both of timely and abiding concern.

The topic of tonight’s discussion is the evolving role of technology in higher education. In recent years, the pace of change has quickened, and digital technology now touches nearly every aspect of the educational experience, from web-based academic advising to blended learning, where students receive a portion of their instruction online and a portion in person.

The American Academy has explored this topic at several points in the past. Fifty years ago, in 1966, the Academy held a Stated Meeting titled Some Impacts of the Computer on Society. Two speakers, Ithiel de Sola Pool, Professor of Political Science at MIT, and Robert Mario Fano, Ford Professor of Engineering at MIT, analyzed the effect of emerging large-scale computer facilities on American education.

According to a summary of this discussion that appeared in the Academy’s Bulletin:

The computer helps the student to select his courses on the basis of information which has been programmed into it; the information includes requirements for high school graduation and college entrance, the records of a student’s past performance, and statistics compiled from the records of other students in a similar situation. In this way, the student receives advice pertinent to him alone and is not confused by extraneous material.

Nearly a decade later, in 1975, Northeastern University President Asa Knowles wrote in an issue of Dædalus titled Cooperative Education: The Catalyst for Innovation and Relevance:

Patterns of instruction have been broadened to make use of the many new methods made possible by the growth of educational technology. From the language laboratories of a generation ago, we have moved into an age of computer-assisted instruction, cassettes, videotapes, closed-circuit television, and radio. Courses are given by public television. Library networks and microfiches have made vast areas of knowledge instantly available. New calendars based on new patterns have been introduced to allow for a greater variety of educational experiences.

As a society, we are still responding to the changes that Pool, Fano, and Knowles identified. And as an Academy, we continue to examine their implications for the creation and distribution of scholarly knowledge.

Many of these issues will be central to the work of the Academy’s new commission on postsecondary education. That commission, supported by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, acknowledges that postsecondary education continues to be one of the most important avenues of opportunity in America today, and that there are ever more options for how, where, and when Americans receive their postsecondary education. New populations of students, for whom the traditional four-year degree from a residential university was once an impossibility, can now pursue undergraduate education in two-year, four-year, for-profit, and online institutions, according to schedules that fit their own lives, with content delivered in modules adaptable to their own specific needs.

At the same time, the rising costs of postsecondary degrees have reduced the effectiveness of student aid. Indeed, a recent Gallup-Lumina Foundation poll found that just 21 percent of respondents believe that higher education is affordable. The Academy’s commission will examine the current state of postsecondary education, imagine what the nation’s education needs will be in 20 or 30 years, and offer recommendations for addressing the rising costs of college and ways of financing postsecondary education that protects wide and equitable access.

The commission will be chaired by Michael McPherson, president of the Spencer Foundation, who is with us this evening, and will include experts from a wide range of fields—among others: Rebecca Blank, chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison; Robert Hormatz, vice-chairman of Kissinger Associates and former Under Secretary of State for Economic Growth, Energy, and the Environment; Gail Mellow, president of LaGuardia Community College here in New York; Jeremy Johnson, co-founder of 2U and now CEO of Andela; Jennifer Jennings, assistant professor of sociology here at NYU, and Nicholas Lemann, one of our distinguished panelists this evening.

It is our hope that this evening’s discussion will inform the work of the commission.

It is now my pleasure to introduce Matthew Santirocco, who will moderate the panel discussion this evening. As many of you know, Matthew is a distinguished classicist, the Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Academic Affairs here at NYU, and co-chair of the Faculty Committee on the Future of Technology-Enhanced Education. He is also an exceptionally active member of the American Academy, serving as Assistant Secretary for Humanities and Social Sciences, helping to oversee our nomination and election processes. We are all very grateful for his efforts, his support, and his enthusiasm for the Academy’s work. Please join me in welcoming Matthew Santirocco.

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