Wednesday, November 14, 2012

A Vision for Information Technology at Christian Colleges

This is an academic/philosophical and motivational paper I wrote in 2012 relating to IT and education at a Christian college.  I thought I would post it here in case it is of use for others to broaden their view of how IT is strategically related to Christian education. It starts out addressing some of the negative issues that have been associated with IT (rebutting some assertions made in publications from some faculty at my current institution) and then argues that IT is actually integral to education and that IT is enabling a new form of reformation in our generation.  

Please note: Some references are specific to the history of Wheaton College, such as Wheaton's strong stance against slavery, their initial conflict with Secret Societies, the Beltonian literary/debate society, the founders quote about this era being a "martyr-age",  Billy Graham being a prominent Alumnus, and the College Motto being "For Christ and His Kingdom".

Our ancestors were given the ability to eat either from the Tree of Life or from the Tree of Knowledge of good and evil, but not both.  In so doing God held out to them the opportunity of expressing from their hearts either an evil choice or to continue to make good choices.  They chose badly.  Fast forward to today.  In our society we live at a time of both increasing opportunities for doing evil and increasing opportunities for doing good.  As technologies, including Information Technology (IT), increase the power available to mankind, we are able to express what is in our hearts, either evil or good, in more powerful ways.  Just as the new Information Technology of the printing press was used to mass produce indulgences before it was used to mass produce the Bible1, so today we are misusing and neglecting the power of our information technologies to do good. 

Our generation has been provided a powerful gift in the form of Information Technology but, on an individual level, our sinful nature causes us to misuse or neglect the benefits of that gift.  Pride causes many to care too much about their online image, sometimes neglecting the humility needed to build close personal relationships.  Sloth causes many to use IT mostly for recreational reasons rather than being diligent to equip themselves to advance the Kingdom of Christ.  Greed contributes to causing some to take on too many online friends, be on too many email lists, try to multi-task too many items without good prioritization of their time and attention, and to neglect the God given periods of rest from the pressures of our life.  Impatience causes many to learn topics superficially without taking the time to learn a topic in depth.  And impatience may cause us to rush into using a new technology without the proper preparation.  Lack of love for truth and wisdom allows opinion and anger to rule the day in many online conversations.  But notice that the primary cause of all these problems is the human heart, not the Information Technology.  We don’t blame the tree of knowledge of good and evil for the choices of our ancestors.

On a community level, our sinful natures can use Information Technology to cause harm to the community.  We should glean wisdom from the Amish Christians, whose views concerning technology have generally been misunderstood2.  For example, many Amish use genetically modified crops and pesticides because those technologies meet their requirements for easier harvesting and greater yield.  While we may disagree with some of their decisions, the Amish are not against technology in general; rather they focus on different requirements and longer term goals.  In fact, the Amish may have the most experience of any Christian group in critiquing technology to prevent harm and to promote social virtue because they give a higher priority to avoiding risks to their community.  For example, they have a requirement to avoid debt and surety and we would do well to do the same.  They will not leave people who are trained in older technologies behind.  We should learn from their example by not neglecting training, support and time for people to adjust to new technologies.  They do not feel rushed to adopt a new technology until it is thoroughly vetted.  We should not neglect thoroughly evaluating technologies and we should encourage talking with peer institutions that have previous experience using each particular technology.  The technologies they use must be manageable and repairable over the long term.  We should thoroughly consider life-cycle maintenance costs and our degree of dependence on individual vendors.  They do not want to become dependent on choices made by the larger society.  They want to use what meets their requirements the best, whether it be “low tech” or in some cases “high tech”.  They want to be in the world but not of the world3 because sometimes society in general chooses badly.

God has a history of disciplining societies that continue to choose badly.  Perhaps the most likely form of judgment that we may see in our lifetimes is a potential coming economic judgment, a natural result of the greed, impatience and pride of our society.  We have gone well beyond wise capital investment and insurance into the areas of unwise consumption debt and surety.  Proverbs says that the debtor becomes a slave to the lender4.  Our federal government currently is in debt over $140,000 per household.  If you include the present value of future federal obligations that number rises to $640,000 per household.  But if you look at the total debt throughout all of U.S. society, including federal, state, local, commercial and individual debt, the total number come out to be just over $1M per U.S household5.  We believe we are rich as our credit limits grow, but we are actually poor, enslaved debtors to (currently) generous masters.  Proverbs says to flee surety6.  The problems related to surety are today discussed in fancier terms such as “counter party risk” or “moral hazard”.  We have arguably institutionalized the practice of surety in areas such as the FDIC insuring $8.9T in deposits and in the international credit default swap market, currently valued at over $28T7.  By neglecting the Biblical warnings concerning debt and surety we may be setting ourselves up for economic judgment, potentially causing a significant reduction in our purchasing power.  It is unclear whether that may happen tomorrow or after we retire, or whether it will happen suddenly or spread over many years.  But, whatever the case, prudence demands that IT planning prepare for the days when our collective bills start to become due.

IT can help reduce college costs and/or increase productivity through economies of scale, process optimization, better decision support, automation, and greater use of free or low cost information resources.  Also, through providing better mechanisms for marketing, advancement, student recruitment and online sales IT can help increase college revenues.

But the first order of business for effective use of Information Technology is to answer our Creator’s call to repentance and accept His forgiveness for our pride, greed, impatience, sloth, lack of love for truth and wisdom, and other sins and instead replace those motivations with humility, charity, patience, love of diligence, love of truth and wisdom, as well as the other virtues.  But if Information Technologies can be a curse when following sinful desires, Information Technology is a blessing when we work toward truth and the Kingdom of Christ.  Information Technology can help us better determine and communicate truths and it can help break down the information barriers between communities.

Christian colleges need to understand the full nature of information technology, since education itself, in its broadest sense, is a form of Information Technology.  It is no accident that the three major components of information technology, storage, processing and networking, correlate well with three leading educational philosophies: instructivism (transferring stored information from teacher to student), constructivism (students “actively assemble” new information from their existing base of information) and connectivism (building connections to information).   Also, a liberal arts education is the form of education where we motivate students to cache and index a wide variety of information, including various skills and values, that educators predict will be useful for them at a later time.  That is similar to how a computer caches the information and programs that it predicts it will need most in the future.  So, in learning and promoting appropriate uses of information technology we are actually learning and promoting the education process itself.  In fact education theory and Information Technology theory are both derived from the design of humanity.  Cut off any part of the body except for the brain and we can still be alive.  So, humans are information based creatures and our foundational brain functions of memory, thinking and perception/communication are at the root of both education and Information Technology.

An original goal of most Christian colleges was to offer an affordable education so that anyone, regardless of economic class, could attend.  We try to maintain some measure of affordability and accessibility though grants and student work programs, but as with most colleges in today’s society we have lost our ability to offer education to our students without most of them taking on a significant amount of debt.  The same characteristics of Information Technology that can help prepare us for economic downturns can help provide a rebranded subset of a Christian education to a broader constituency at a significantly reduced cost, which would in turn help promote, subsidize and maintain the excellent core liberal arts curriculum without compromising the quality of that core curriculum10.  While maintaining our Liberal Arts distinctives we should follow the lead of Harvard, Yale, Berkley, MIT, Hillsdale and others11 in the area of opening up our course content to a broader audience12.

In fact, we need to break down any unnecessary barriers to accessing any of our information, whether that be opening up course content to a broader constituency or unlocking our administrative data by providing timely reports, dashboards and alerts to a wide audience.  By definition, secret societies limit access to their information in an attempt to increase their mystery and their majesty, but in contrast institutions of education should promote access to their content as far and as wide as possible.  By unlocking course information, motivated alumni and friends will have a method of self-improvement provided by the college.  Motivated prospective students will have access to the information needed to be better prepared to attend college.  Current students will have a tool to better determine which classes they should sign up for.  Faculty will be better able to integrate and link information between courses and K-12 and graduate institutions will be able to reference course information in their classes.  

Information Technology can enable location independence, providing support for the globalization of a Christian education.  We have the ability to offer our services remotely to students traveling abroad and we can easily bring in guest lecturers remotely, allowing students to see more differing perspectives and promoting a culture of discussion and debate as existed in the early college literary societies.

Using Information Technology we can offer a subset of our services to the world, without regard for race, nationality, gender or economic class. A Christian college’s ultimate goal is not limited to educating and graduating a few hundred seniors per year and launching those individuals to go out and affect society, but rather a summary of the ultimate goal of a Christian college is, as an educational institution, to affect society and the world for Christ and his Kingdom, using any means it has at its disposal.  How can we say that we support social justice if we hide away from outsiders our most valuable resources, the knowledge and experience of the faculty, when it is in our power to make their knowledge widely available to people of all countries around the world? 

Replica of First Printing Press
It was the Information Technology of creating scrolls that has given us the Bible, as well as giving us the counterfeit gnostic gospel scrolls, but ownership of scrolls was limited only to a few.  During the reformation it was the Information Technology of the printing press that enabled both the reformation and the counter-reformation, and both movements were based on a few leaders publishing to the masses.  Today’s Information Technologies of the Internet allow for a new era of evangelism, both for Christianity and for competing belief systems.  Beginning with the reformation anyone could receive publications from competing experts and judge issues for themselves, effectively bypassing the monopoly of a face-to-face education from the priests.  Today anyone can become their own publisher using Facebook, Twitter, blogs and multiple other forms of self-publishing.  If the Information Technology of the reformation allowed every man to become his own priest, then the Information Technology of today allows anyone to become their own evangelist.  A display on the second floor of Blanchard Hall at Wheaton College graphically illustrates the dwindling number of graduates who choose to go into full time missionary service.  By providing our students with not only core knowledge but also with the Information Technology tools and skills they need to open their vendor’s booth in today’s marketplace of ideas, we can turn all of our students into lifetime missionaries/evangelists, equipped to each potentially become their own Billy Graham.  And by leveraging the scalability of Information Technology we have it in our ability to also help equip our alumni, staff and friends to be better prepared to participate in today’s battle of ideas.

95 Theses were Nailed Here
So, renew your zeal for a new era of reformation: based on truth, and overcoming barriers to information, enabling a new era of personal and institutional evangelism.  If our society is to eventually come under judgment then we need to prepare to become even more of a martyr-age13 institution, including effectively using all of the Information Technology tools at our disposal.  So, turn off the TV, stop your frivolous texting, stop reading the latest novel, sell your computer games on eBay, and start using all of your time, talents and technology in the service of truth.  Look at your hands and your feet and take it to heart that those hands and those feet will be rotting in the ground someday, until the resurrection comes.  But your soul lives on and that soul maintains its memory, thinking and perception/communication capabilities and so the concepts underlying Information Technology and education are also of transcendent and eternal value.  So repent, accept His forgiveness and enlarge your vision for what you will do with the fleeting few moments remaining of your fleeting life in this world and in this age.  Significant challenges and opportunities lay before us but could it be that each of us were placed where we are today for such a time as this14.  Remove anything that wastes your time, your focus or your resources and use what little time remains to renew again your commitment to work in this age for Christ and His Kingdom. 

1 Indulgences were printing on the printing press from the earliest days of the printing press
2 A discussion of Amish views towards technology
3 “I do not ask You to take them out of the world, but to keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world.”
4 “The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower becomes the lender’s slave.”
5 for number of households (114M households as of 2010) for current federal debt ($16,026B as of 10/2012) for federal obligations, not including federal debt ($57,000B as of 6/2011) for total U.S. Societal debt, including federal debt and obligations ($58,587B as of 10/2012)
6 son, if you have become surety for your neighbor, Have given a pledge for a stranger, If you have been snared with the words of your mouth, Have been caught with the words of your mouth, Do this then, my son, and deliver yourself;  Since you have come into the hand of your neighbor, Go, humble yourself, and importune your neighbor. Give no sleep to your eyes, Nor slumber to your eyelids; Deliver yourself like a gazelle from the hunter’s hand And like a bird from the hand of the fowler.”
7 ($8.9T in FDIC insured deposits as of 2012)  ($28T in Credit Default Swaps worldwide as of 12/2011)
10 “Higher education in 2012 seems to be on the brink of disruption, given rising costs, emerging technologies, competition from for-profits, global education, and other often-cited forces. Leaders of elite liberal arts colleges express concern that their business model, which typically involves high costs to deliver small, intimate face-to-face classes, may not be sustainable.[1] Open education ranks among those disruptive forces confronting colleges. For example, as Jon Breitenbucher (College of Wooster) argues, MOOCs may threaten liberal arts colleges by offering “extremely low cost options for obtaining skills” and replacing grades with more flexible, open means of assessment.[2] However, Breintenbucher also suggests that liberal arts institutions may be able to adapt to this challenge by adopting a “symbiotic relationship with open education resources,” so that faculty focus more on guiding learning than on delivering content.” Open Yale courses MIT OpenCourseware Hillsdale Open Constitution and History Courses
12 A description of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
13 The Greatest Story Never Told: Modern Christian Martyrdom “An average of 159,960 Christians worldwide are martyred for their faith per year.” (quoted from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (2010) )
14 "For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish. And who knows whether you have not attained royalty for such a time as this?”

Picture Source Attributions: (most are Creative Commons licensed)
Adam and Eve 


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