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, andlest we forgetthat most common of all
artifacts, the textbook. Technology, it would seem, confronts us, seduces us, and then
Prior to exploring this concept, however, it is
important to review the most basic processes involved in higher education: teaching and
Teaching and learning can both be defined as processesthat 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.
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
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 learnedand taughtinside 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.
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 isor can be made to beeconomically attractive to producers and
who are comfortable and accomplished at independent study will learn on their own and
those who arent, wont.
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 stoolfinancial
feasibilityis 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
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, howeverand 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
1. Intelligence and talent are evenly distributed among the general
2. A college degree is a contributing factor to future financial
3. Obtaining a degree is related to one's ability to pay for it.
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 ableor do not wantto 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).
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 institutionswhere students
make contacts that play a key role in later lifewill 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 universitya fate that, as an educator, he sorely
lamentedLondon 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.
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-twoor even advanced degrees obtained in their early or middle
twentiesthroughout 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 changeand
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 saveand save very nearly intact, indeed to entrench and
stabilizesocial 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 obviousbut 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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Bibliographic citation for the
paper copy of this article:
Nickols, F. "Technology
and the Future of Education." On the Horizon, 1999, 7(6),