Begin with first principles. Academia may become more useful to our society at large by communicating electronically. When electronic scholarship is more valuable, our institutions will invest more.
Scholarship plays three roles in our society. First, academia educates the next generation of professionals, managers, and leaders. Second, it makes formal knowledge available to society at large, stimulating the development of new products, informing debates on public policy, and improving understanding of our culture. Third, it develops new knowledge. Digital communication ought ultimately to be judged by how well it serves these three activities, teaching, service, and research. Consider each in turn.
Access to networked, digital information is already enhancing education. More students at more institutions have access to more information because of the World Wide Web. About 60% of high school graduates now pursue some college, and President Clinton has called for universal access to two years of college. The importance of the educational mission is growing. Of course, today networked information is sporadic and poorly organized relative to what it might someday become. Still, the available search services, rapid access, and the wide availability of the network are sufficient to demonstrate the power of the tool. Contrast the service with a conventional two-year college library whose size depends on the budget of the institution, when access often depends on personal interaction with a librarian, and where a student must plan a visit and sometimes even queue for service. Access to well-designed and supported Web-based information gives promise of promoting a more active style of education. Students may have greater
success with more open-ended assignments, may participate in on-line discussion with others pursuing similar topics, and may get faster feedback from more colorful, more interactive materials. Integrating academic information into the wider universe of Web information seems likely to have important benefits for students when it is done well.
Similarly, many audiences for academic information outside the walls of the academy already use the World Wide Web. Engineering Information, Inc. (EI), for example, maintains a subscription Web site for both academic and nonacademic engineers. A core feature of the service is access to the premier index to the academic engineering literature with a fulfillment service. But EI's Village offers on line access to professional advisers, conversations with authors, and services for practicing engineers. Higher quality, more immediate access to academic information seems likely to play an increasing role in the information sectors of our society, including nearly every career in which some college is a common prerequisite. Higher education seems likely to find wider audiences by moving its best materials to the networked, digital arena.
In the business of generating new knowledge, the use of networked information is already accelerating the pace. Working papers in physics, for example, are more rapidly and widely accessible from the automated posting service at Los Alamos than could possibly be achieved by print. In text-oriented fields, scholars are able to build concordances and find patterns in ways impossible with print. Duke University's digital papyrus, for example, offers images of papyri with rich, searchable descriptive information in text. In economics, the Web gives the possibility of mounting data sets and algorithmic information and so allows scholars to interact with the work of others at a deeper level than is possible in print. For example, Ray Fair maintains his 130-equation model of the U.S. economy on the Web with data sets and a solution method. Any scholar who wants to experiment with alternative estimations and forecasting assumptions in a fully developed simulation model may do so with modest effort. In biology, the Human Genome Project is only feasible because of the ease of electronic communication, the sharing of databases, and the availability of other on-line tools. In visually oriented fields, digital communication offers substantial benefits, as video and sound may be embedded in digital documents. Animated graphics with sound may have significant value in simulation models in science. In art and drama, digital files may allow comparative studies previously unimaginable. Digital communication, then, may have its most significant consequence in accelerating the development of new knowledge.
The pace of investment in digital communication within academia may well be led by its value in education, service broadly defined, and research. In each case, institutional revenues and success may depend on effective deployment of appropriate digital communication. Of course, individual scholars face a significant challenge in mastering the new tools and employing them in appropriate ways. It
is also worth emphasizing that not all things digital are valuable. However, when digital tools are well used, they are often significantly more valuable than print.