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Previously in Digital Culture:

"The World According to David Gelernter," by Harvey Blume (January 1998)
An interview with a computer scientist who argues that beautiful technology -- and a return to traditional values -- must show us the way forward. Plus, a series of excerpts from David Gelernter's Machine Beauty: Elegance and the Heart of Technology.

"Caught in the Flash," by Harvey Blume (December 1997)
Computer memory, once thought to be finite, now looks like an open frontier. The author peers into the future of memory and sees a paradox rooted deep in our past.

"Dispelled," by Ralph Lombreglia (November 1997)
Why Riven -- the most anxiously awaited multimedia product ever -- is missing the magic of Myst.

For more, see the complete Digital Culture Index.

Discuss this topic in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.
Where the Rubber Meets the Road
A brand-new graduate program at a tiny Vermont college is founded on a simple yet far-sighted idea: the next phase of the digital revolution depends as much on education as on technology

by Ralph Lombreglia

March 25, 1998

In virtual reality you don't have to be big. In fact, being small might be better. A mouse can roar on the World Wide Web -- assuming, of course, that it has a good reason to be online in the first place, and knows what it's getting into.

Marlboro College, a tiny progressive school in southern Vermont, is a mouse now roaring quite convincingly through the great amplifier of the Internet. The roaring is about the Net itself and about Marlboro's brand-new graduate programs -- the first of their kind -- for training people to integrate Internet technologies into business and education.

That such graduate programs could first surface at a rural college with a resident enrollment of only 220 students tells you how far the Internet has already gone toward delivering on the promise of "virtuality." Then again, small has often been beautiful in education, and Marlboro College, founded in 1949 on a former Vermont farm, has always been a decidedly alternative kind of place. Recently, Marlboro's unusual student-directed curriculum caught the attention of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which included the school among only six institutions in the nation to be awarded grants for showing "a certain genius in how they educate students."

I happen to be married to a former Marlboro student, and we have friends who were also students there. From what I can gather, Marlboro College was one great place to be a hippie in the sixties and seventies. But I'm not putting it down. To me, the most interesting thing about the nineties is not the "digital revolution" per se, but how closely this decade resembles the sixties -- except that this time the technology exists to make some of those old world-wide dreams come true. I can easily see why people who took seriously the sixties dreams of liberation and global collaboration -- people now in their forties and fifties -- might look at the Internet and feel they were born twenty-five years too soon.

The good news is that they can now go back to Marlboro College -- not to be hippies, but to attend the Marlboro College Graduate Center. Just launched in January by Marlboro's new president, Paul LeBlanc, the Center offers two Master's degrees: an M.S. in Internet Strategy Management for business, and an M.A.T. for K-12 educators who want to develop an "Internet strategy" for their schools. The first groups of students have been enrolled for three months now, studying with a faculty made up of professionals from the disciplines of technology, business, law, education, design, marketing, and others.

gradcen picture The two degree programs share The Graduate Center's fundamental assumptions: that complete digital connectedness is the key feature of the schools and workplaces of the future, and that Internet-strategy training must be thoroughly cross-disciplinary. The Graduate Center aims to turn out digital generalists who get the big picture, see the thing whole -- graduates who can bridge the "two cultures" chasm that so often divides "technical people" from "content people." You cannot enroll in either of these programs with an interest in geeky technical matters and expect to get your degree without also studying legal issues, graphical design, the storyboarding of interactive experiences, and more. Similarly, a "content"-oriented person won't graduate without knowing how Web servers work, how to assemble and manage a production team, what Java is, and so on. Without interdisciplinary training, LeBlanc says, Internet strategists in business and education will simply re-implement old concepts with comparatively trivial applications of technology, and will fail to grasp new possibilities.

"We can teach ways to think about innovation, new technologies, and virtual spaces. It is an understanding of history and context that allows us to better understand, critique, and use that which is just peeking over the horizon line."
--Paul LeBlanc. See the rest of his e-mail exchange with Ralph Lombreglia.
Paul LeBlanc seems the ideal person to found and run Marlboro's new programs. His own career reflects the professional challenges addressed by The Graduate Center's curriculum, not to mention the interdisciplinary nature of that curriculum. LeBlanc, now only forty, was the chair of a college humanities department who also happened to have a strong interest in computers and software. In 1993 he took a leave from his academic position to head up a research effort for the book publisher Houghton Mifflin, who wanted to figure out what they should be doing with digital media. This was back in the old days when most publishers had worked themselves into a froth over the new thing called the CD-ROM. Like its industry counterparts, Houghton Mifflin was eager to "leverage its content" and turn its books into electronic merchandise. After a nine-month investigation LeBlanc came back and told Houghton Mifflin not to do that. Instead, he said, the publisher should create tools -- especially network-deployable tools -- so that its customers could collaborate and share their work electronically. He had scarcely made his report when the World Wide Web arrived, validating his findings and stealing the CD-ROM's thunder. LeBlanc then stayed on to oversee Houghton Mifflin's first forays into the tool-development he'd recommended -- including an inexpensive collaboration-oriented word processor called CommonSpace -- before accepting the presidency of Marlboro College.

When LeBlanc subsequently decided to create a new institution at Marlboro inspired by his research for Houghton Mifflin, he did the same thing that Steve Jobs did at Apple when setting out to create a new computer called the Macintosh: he left the campus. Marlboro's new Graduate Center is not on the bucolic grounds of the college in Marlboro, Vermont, but twelve miles away in Brattleboro. Marlboro has always valued innovative curricula, but LeBlanc foresaw that the college's contrarian spirit would create more resistance than was good for his fledgling venture in "connectedness." Physical separation from the small school was essential for a radical break with the past -- even if "the past" in this case was radical in its own right. Indeed, there are disgruntled members of the Marlboro community who feel that the Graduate Center's uncritical embrace of digital technology is out of keeping with the true spirit of the college. Marlboro itself is housed in white clapboard farm-like buildings in a country setting; The Graduate Center is located in modern leased space downtown. High-capacity T1 lines connect the Center's many computers to the world; at the College proper there is (they say) only one television set.

The Graduate Center's compatibility with its plucky host college is only one of several large concerns one might raise. Creating graduate business and education programs side by side suggests that the profit-seeking agenda and hothouse intensity of tech-driven capitalism may have too much influence on the people across the hall entrusted with shaping the consciousness of children. The very notion of taking degrees and becoming "credentialed," too, seems antithetical to the nature of the Internet. And there's a certain hubris about claiming to teach Internet-strategy management when a coherent Internet strategy has eluded even the top high-tech companies.

Related article:

"The Computer Delusion" by Todd Oppenheimer (The Atlantic, July, 1997)
"There is no good evidence that most uses of computers significantly improve teaching and learning, yet school districts are cutting programs -- music, art, physical education -- that enrich children's lives to make room for this dubious nostrum, and the Clinton Administration has embraced the goal of 'computers in every classroom' with credulous and costly enthusiasm."

Thus it seems fair to entertain some healthy skepticism about Marlboro's Internet initiative. But I must say I like the nineties-cum-sixties feel of it, the idealism combined with entrepreneurial moxie, the mouse daring to roar, the willy-nilly plunge into the unknown while clutching a hopeful plan. As Paul LeBlanc and his colleagues said themselves in one of their education white papers, "This M.A.T. program begins with the assumption that education will experience its most thrilling and frightening changes when classrooms are connected to the Net." I like the honesty of that remark. It comforts me to think that the creators of the first graduate programs in Internet strategy are people who possess not only the predictable gushing enthusiasm but some trepidation too.

Computers make us big and powerful in real and beneficial ways. They also dwarf us. In a world transformed by these fast, vast, and increasingly autonomous creations of ours, we humans are smaller and less capable than we were before they existed. As a species, we are yoking our future to this technology in unprecedented ways, yet we have no idea where the technology is really going. We're no longer in control of it -- not in the old-fashioned sense. We're the sorcerer's apprentice; digital technology is the broom. There's no stopping it now. So as we admire that gigantic shadow we cast in the bright digital light, we'd do well to maintain at least some measure of respectful awe, if not good old-fashioned fear.

"Thrilled and frightened" is the double feeling you get on a clear night with no ambient light -- the kind of night they must have all the time in Marlboro, Vermont -- when you look up and see the billions of stars and it hits you that outer space is where you live.

Go to How the Web Works:
An e-mail exchange with Paul LeBlanc.

Join the discussion in the Digital Culture forum of Post & Riposte.

More on Digital Culture in Atlantic Unbound

Ralph Lombreglia is the author of two short-story collections, Men Under Water (1991) and Make Me Work (1995), and is a regular contributor of short stories and reviews to The Atlantic Monthly and other publications. He was a 1996 recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and is at work on a novel and a new collection of short stories.

Copyright © 1998 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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