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Technology and the Future of Education

  Fred Nickols 2012


Technology, in various forms, has always held forth the promise of improving education. This is true whether one speaks of scholastic education or its cousins, corporate and commercial training programs.
       Computer-assisted instruction (CAI), instructional television (ITV), and programmed instruction (PI) can be counted as early examples wherein technology has been applied to education. The most recent and perhaps most visible cases in point are Web-based training programs and degree-granting programs from fully accredited institutions offered via what is known as "distance learning." Unlike its predecessor, the correspondence course, distance learning offers far more than a text and a workbook.
       When technology succeeds, it becomes commonplace. This is amply illustrated by such mundane and ubiquitous artifacts as chalkboards, training films and videos, overhead projectors and transparencies, software such as Microsoft's PowerPoint, and—lest we forget—that most common of all artifacts, the textbook. Technology, it would seem, confronts us, seduces us, and then surrounds us.
       Prior to exploring this concept, however, it is important to review the most basic processes involved in higher education: teaching and learning.

Teaching and Learning
Teaching and learning can both be defined as processes—that is, as bounded portions of larger streams of activity. The teacher does one and the learner does the other. Teaching might or might not lead to learning; the relationship between the two processes is neither fixed nor guaranteed. As Wenger (1998) observes, teaching and learning are not inherently linked. More important, teaching and instructional materials are resources for learning in ways that often differ from those embedded in pedagogical intentions. For example, reading assignments in a course on literature can result in learning on the part of students that has nothing whatsoever to do with the teacher's instructional objectives. In other words, what is taught and what is learned may differ.
       Learning can also be defined in systems terms as a state change in the learner (for example, an acquired ability to solve problems in long division). When learning is defined this way, it is easy to see how teaching can produce, lead to, or facilitate learning.

We all learn many things independently of any formal classroom teaching.

       Although I will gladly admit to having learned some things as a result of someone else's teaching, I also assert that we all learn many things independently of any formal classroom teaching. This is as true of children as it is of adults, and it is especially true with regard to what is known as "tacit knowledge" as defined by chemist-turned-philosopher Michael Polanyi (1997).
       As noted, not all learning occurs independently of teaching, especially those things we learn in our early years. That aside, the older we get, the more likely it is that, whatever we learn, we learn it more or less on our own, even when we learn it in what are known as "communities of practice" (Brown and Duguid, 1991; Lave and Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1998). Indeed, reliance on the ability of the learner to learn on an independent basis seems to lie at the very heart of distance learning; it most assuredly lies at the heart of an individual's ability to function in a wide variety of environments.
       Today's technologies, particularly the Internet, make independent learning possible on a scale never before imaginable, easily supported by a rich array of resources previously unavailable at low cost. These include virtual classrooms, digital libraries, and computer simulations that substitute for laboratories (Tsichritzis, 1999). Also at work here is access to other learners and knowledge resources on an almost unlimited basis at times that are convenient for the learners. This access takes the form of asynchronous learning networks (ALNs).

Sorting Things Out
Clearly, then, one issue related to technology and the future of education is how to identify those things that can and should be learned independently. A related issue involves identifying those things that are more easily or more appropriately learned with the aid of a facilitator, teacher, coach, or mentor. A similar distinction can be made between things better learned—and taught—inside and outside formal institutions (for example, schools, colleges, and universities). Without getting into the details of how such distinctions might be made, it seems reasonable to speculate that a great deal of what is currently taught inside institutions of higher learning could be learned just as effectively outside those institutions. This is true whether the learner uses high-tech distance learning or its still-living, low-tech ancestor, the correspondence course. Clearly, instructional design and instructional designers have roles to play here. However, these decisions might depend as much on the abilities and inclinations of individual learners as they do on subject matter content or instructional design. In short, those who are comfortable and accomplished at independent study will learn on their own and those who aren't, won't.

A second issue relates to feasibility. As in the business world, we in education must be concerned with three forms of feasibility: technical, operational, and financial. Tech
Those who are comfortable and accomplished at independent study will learn on their own and those who aren’t, won’t.
nical feasibility pertains to the extent to which necessary methods, techniques, and tools are known or can be designed and engineered. Operational feasibility refers to the extent to which work procedures and processes can be set up to satisfy constraints and restraints related to various aspects of performance (for example, productivity, quality, and speed or cycle times). Financial feasibility means simply the extent to which the venture is—or can be made to be—economically attractive to producers and consumers.
       There are hundreds (if not thousands) of accredited distance learning programs. See, for example, the many publications dealing with distance learning courses offered by fully accredited graduate and undergraduate institutions (Bear and Bear, 1999; Miller and Schlosberg, 1997; Peterson's Guide ..., 1998; Philips and Yager, 1998). The very existence of these programs is prima facie evidence that the support and facilitation of learning outside higher education institutions presents no major technical or operational issues. It should be noted, however, that overconfidence and failure to think matters through can bring even a pedestrian undertaking to its knees. The third leg of the feasibility stool—financial feasibility—is an altogether different matter, for reasons that have mainly to do with relative economic value.

Relative Economic Value
To begin with, off-campus or distance learning has the potential to be considerably less expensive than an on-campus education (tuition plus room and board). Yet, in many cases, distance learning is not much less expensive than a tuition-only college education for students living at home; nor is it likely to become less expensive in the near future. One notable exception is the MBA offered via distance learning by Herriot-Watt University, a venerable institution that is home to the Edinburgh School of Business. Over a period as long as seven years, students who take a total of seven required courses and two electives, complete the course work satisfactorily, and pass the end-of-course examination can obtain a fully accredited MBA for the modest cost of just under $8,500 (the courses are priced at $935 each). Moreover, the program requires neither a thesis nor an undergraduate degree.
       Cost, however, is only one part of the equation. The value of the degree is the other. It is not clear that a degree obtained via distance learning has equal stature or standing with a degree obtained by attending classes on the physical premises of an accredited higher education institution. (There is some irony associated with this with respect to the workplace. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the father of scientific management, obtained his mechanical engineering degree in the late 1800s from Stevens Institute of Technology via correspondence.)
       Accreditation is not the issue because fully accredited institutions are currently offering degrees via distance learning. However, the value attached to distance learning degrees does not seem to be as great as the value attached to a degree obtained via the on-campus route. (This possibly relates to the contacts and connections made in an on-campus setting as much as it does to any significant difference in the quality of learning. No small amount of research is called for here.) In the case of Herriot-Watt's program, the value proposition is all the more intriguing because the courses offered via distance learning are the same courses that are offered on campus.

Change in the Offing
The relative economic value of on-campus and distance learning degrees obtained might yet change, however—and suddenly. If large numbers of people who obtain their degrees from off-campus sources perform in ways that are comparable to or perhaps better than people who obtain on-campus degrees, their employment and promotional prospects will be greatly improved, and the perceived value of a distance learning degree may increase. It is worth noting that, although the issue remains disputed, there is considerable evidence that no significant differences in performance or achievement exist between those who obtain their degree via conventional means and those who do so via distance education (Russell, 1999). For the other side of the "no significant difference" phenomenon, see the report titled What's the Difference? (Phipps and Merisotis, 1999) from the Institute for Higher Education Policy. Phipps and Merisotis argue that "the overall quality of the original research on the effectiveness of distance learning is questionable and thereby renders many of the findings inconclusive" (p. 3). It is not clear from their report if the criticisms they level against the quality of the research on the effectiveness of distance learning apply equally to research on the effectiveness of classroom instruction. So, without trying to resolve that dispute here, let us assume the following:

    1. Intelligence and talent are evenly distributed among the general population.
    2. A college degree is a contributing factor to future financial success.
    3. Obtaining a degree is related to one's ability to pay for it.

Will higher education as we know it disappear? Undoubtedly.

Given these assumptions, it seems likely that distance learning degrees will appeal initially to those who cannot afford an on-campus degree. These degrees also will appeal to those who for one reason or another are not able—or do not want—to attend on-campus classes at preappointed times and dates. The number of people who cannot afford an on-campus degree is much larger than the number of those who can. The number of people seeking higher education throughout their entire working careers is increasing. This means that there is a large and growing market for inexpensive, high-quality higher education offered via distance learning. Existing institutions of higher education can ignore this market, but profit-oriented corporations are almost certain to respond to it, and they will see to it that the successes of their graduates become their successes. There is a virtuous cycle waiting to be exploited and a host of currently dominant institutions waiting to be dislodged.

A Word About Competition
What will the competition for delivering content and certification look like? In a word, it will be fierce. To those running for-profit entrants in this market, it seems as though large sums of money could be spent hiring the very best teaching talent and then leveraging it over a much larger audience than any brick-and-mortar institution could reach. The presence of an unforgiving bottom line alters the ground rules considerably. At the extremes there is the possibility raised by Tsichritzis (1999), namely, "If universities cannot respond, there is a chance that education will be taken over by the private sector as a business" (p. 100).

Some Conjecture
What will be the fate of physical campuses? There will be far fewer of them overall and still fewer in the hands of the states. Some institutions, public and private, will simply be bought up (some already have been). Highly selective institutions—where students make contacts that play a key role in later life—will continue to prosper, and may do even better than at present. (After all, those who can afford it will pay whatever is necessary to obtain any perceived advantage.)
       What's behind this conjecture? The "educational services industry" is roughly an $800 billion, fragmented industry (Morris, 1999). A conservative extrapolation of the 1996 figures contained in the Digest of Education Statistics suggests that approximately $250 billion of this outlay is spent on postsecondary education (Snyder, 1998). Big dollars and fragmentation spell consolidation. There is a lot of money to be made. Where there is money to be made, we inevitably find people busy making it.
       Are elementary schools in danger? I doubt it; their custodial function will protect them for quite some time to come and that, in turn, is protected by an economy that requires both fathers and mothers to work. Are middle schools in jeopardy? Perhaps, but to a lesser extent, although dropouts might tune in to alternative sources of education and learning instead of simply hitting the streets. Are high schools in jeopardy? I think so, although they are perhaps not in as much jeopardy as what we normally think of as "higher ed." Is higher education in danger? I would classify its danger as "clear and present."
       In 1987, Herbert London, then dean of the Gallatin Division of New York University and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, was writing about the "death of the university" on the pages of the Futurist. In predicting the demise of the university—a fate that, as an educator, he sorely lamented—London cited factors such as the rapidly escalating costs of education, the end of the baby boom, the alternatives to a college education (particularly corporate universities), and public disenchantment with education. Ten years later, Peter Drucker also remarked that higher education as we know it has a limited life span: "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive" (Lenzner and Johnson, 1997). Let us suppose that he is wrong by a factor of two. Sixty years is not much longer in the scheme of things.

The real issue is whether those
who lead our institutions of higher education will recognize and respond to the challenges and opportunities they face. If not, others surely will.

Is higher education threatened by technology? I prefer to think that higher education is not "threatened" but is confronted by challenges and offered opportunities rooted in technology. The real issue is whether those who lead our institutions of higher education will recognize and respond to the challenges and opportunities they face. If not, others surely will.
       Will higher education as we know it disappear? Undoubtedly. Drucker and London are correct on this score. Why? Because the shelf life of many areas of knowledge is already extremely short and growing ever shorter. Unless institutions of higher education can figure out how to update their curricula at a much faster pace than seems to be the case today, they will be displaced by new ones that can. Time-based competition is not peculiar to the private sector. Gone are the days when individuals could rely on undergraduate degrees obtained at age twenty-one or twenty-two—or even advanced degrees obtained in their early or middle twenties—throughout their entire working careers. Moreover, the shift from learning through education that is "bunched" early in life to a process of lifelong learning through continuous education redefines the market for education and its distribution channels. Too many factors are in flux for higher education to remain unchanged and have any hope of surviving without undergoing radical change—and quickly. As Drucker observed in a 1992 Harvard Business Review article, "[It] is a safe prediction that in the next 50 years, schools and universities will change more and more drastically than they have since they assumed their present form more than 300 years ago when they reorganized themselves around the printed book. What will force these changes is, in part, new technology, such as computers, videos, and telecasts via satellite; in part the demands of a knowledge-based society in which organized learning must become a lifelong process for knowledge workers; and in part new theory about how human beings learn" (p. 97).
       Sadly, attempts to change higher education for the better might fall prey to moves that, in effect, will employ technology to cement existing paradigms instead of creating new ones that will generate true educational reform (Privateer, 1999). There is some evidence to support this concern. A recently released global study of virtual education contains an analysis indicating that most distance learning programs in the United States are technology-driven but still based on traditional academic paradigms (Dirr, 1999). This is reminiscent of a glum comment about the advent of the modern computer made by Joseph Weizenbaum, a professor of computer science at MIT: "Yes, the computer did arrive 'just in time.' But in time for what? In time to save—and save very nearly intact, indeed to entrench and stabilize—social and political structures that otherwise might have been either radically renovated or allowed to totter under the demands that were sure to be made on them. The computer, then, was used to conserve America's social and political institutions. It buttressed them and immunized them, at least temporarily, against enormous pressures for change" (1976, p. 31).
       Is there hope? Of course. But only if those leading our educational institutions do what is known in the business world as "answering the mail." As James J. Duderstadt (1999), president emeritus of the University of Michigan, observes: "Those institutions that can step up to this process of change will thrive. Those that bury their heads in the sand, that rigidly defend the status quo or, even worse, some idyllic vision of a past that never existed, are at very great risk" (p. 1). In his institution's 1998 annual report, Arthur Levine, president of Teachers College at Columbia University, uses stronger words. He follows his acknowledgment of great opportunity with, "This is also a time of danger. It is not clear that higher education as it has evolved to the present day can survive unchanged into the future." He adds: "Before higher education are the choices of reform or revolution. Reform means that higher education must rethink how it carries out its historic purposes in light of a very different environment. Revolution, a shift in the power of who controls higher education, is likely to occur if higher education does not act" (quoted in Caperton, 1999, p. 4).
       Gaston Caperton, the new president of the College Board, uses Levine's words to impress upon his own organization the "challenge of change." Caperton summarizes that challenge in stark terms: "If we don't change our organization ourselves, outside interests will change it for us without our consultation or consent" (1999, p. 4).
       At its simplest, the challenge facing education is to adapt to changed conditions. The high-risk alternative to adaptation is increasing irrelevance, continued encroachment by more responsive organizations, and eventually (to borrow another phrase from the business world), a trip to the boneyard. The choice might be obvious—but it is far from easy. At stake are egos, careers, professions, institutions, lives, and to some extent the future of society. Let us hope the call is made with care and conviction.


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  2. Brown, J. S., and Duguid, P., "Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Toward a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation." Organization Science, 1991, 2, 40–57.
  3. Caperton, G., "The Challenge of Change." Bulletin Board, 1999, 4(37), 1–4.
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  5. Drucker, P., "The New Society of Organizations." Harvard Business Review, Sept.–Oct. 1992, pp. 95–104.
  6. Duderstadt, J., "Can Colleges and Universities Survive in the Information Age?" In R. Katz (ed.), Dancing with the Devil: Information Technology and the New Competition in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.
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  8. Lenzner, R., and Johnson, S. S., "Seeing Things as They Really Are." Forbes, Mar. 10, 1997.
  9. London, H., "Death of the University." Futurist, May-June 1987, pp. 17–22.
  10. Miller, I., and Schlosberg, J., Guide to Distance Learning. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
  11. Morris, K., "The Reincarnation of Mike Milken." Business Week, May 10, 1999, pp. 92–104.
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  13. Philips, V., and Yager, C., The Best Distance Learning Graduate Schools. New York: Random House, 1998.
  14. Phipps, R., and Merisotis, J., What's the Difference? A Review of Contemporary Research on the Effectiveness of Distance Learning in Higher Education. Washington, D.C.: Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1999.
  15. Polanyi, M., "The Tacit Dimension." In L. Prusak (ed.), Knowledge in Organizations. New York: Butterworth-Heinemann, 1997.
  16. Privateer, P., "Academic Technology and the Future of Higher Education." Journal of Higher Education, Jan.–Feb. 1999, pp. 60–79.
  17. Russell, T., The No Significant Difference Phenomenon. Chapel Hill: Office of Instructional Telecommunications, North Carolina State University, 1999.
  18. Snyder, T. D., Digest of Education Statistics. NCES Publication No. 1999036. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1998.
  19. Tsichritzis, D., "Reengineering the University." Communications of the ACM, 1999, 42(6), 93–99.
  20. Weizenbaum, J., Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgment to Calculation. San Francisco: Freeman, 1976.
  21. Wenger, E., Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Bibliographic citation for the paper copy of this article:

Nickols, F. "Technology and the Future of Education." On the Horizon, 1999, 7(6), 1,x-x.


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