Higher Education in 2010: An Interview with Rodney L. Everhart

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Rodney L. Everhart has served as President of SCT Education Solutions, a provider of software and services to higher education worldwide, since January 1, 1998. Everhart previously was CEO and President of LEXIS-NEXIS Information Services as well as Senior Vice President of Bellcore, the world's largest telecommunication software and services company.

James Morrison (JM): Rod, paint us a picture of higher education in the year 2010. What will be the mix of virtual and residential institutions, and how will schools use information technology tools in teaching and administration? Where will we be with distance education?

Rod Everhart (RE): In the relatively near future, there will be a greater mix of virtual and residential learning. Many courses will be offered both in the traditional classroom and in a virtual environment. Students will choose which of these two environments they want to learn in and which learning style is better for them for each particular course. Students living on campus (in residence halls) will attend some classes in person, but they also will be able to take some courses via the PCs in their rooms. For a particular course, one student might think, "I have a good foundation and background in this subject. I understand what this is, and I can breeze through this in three weeks on my own time." For the same subject, other students might say, "I need personal reinforcement and day-to-day interaction with the professor and other students around me. I want to be in the classroom because I can absorb more in that environment."  Furthermore, almost every classroom will have multimedia delivery access available, so that students and professors will tap into the Internet for information. Remote access in the classroom will support contact with and learning from various lecturers and experts.

Distance education is a misnomer; "connected learning"  is a better term. [could you define "connected learning" either explicitly or in context? Is connected learning virtual learning as stated below?] Considerable evidence indicates that the growing number of adult learners would double the many learning hours needed by the total student population. Delivering instruction in a traditional sense to that entire population would require doubling the number of campuses, classrooms, and professors. That is impossible: no economic plan could fund it, and there are not enough available professors or educational support staff for that kind of a solution. Therefore, if it is true (and I believe that it is) that ours is becoming a knowledge-worker economy—and that there are 141 million knowledge workers who must refresh their skills with formal education on a continual basis—then approximately half of all instruction just has to be delivered as virtual, or "connected," learning. I do not foresee universities doubling the number of campuses and professors. Instruction has to be leveraged, and virtual delivery is a great way to achieve that leverage.

JM: Certainly more people want to be able to access instruction for lifelong learning. But one thing that all education organizations face is the fact that technology costs money. Wiring costs money; equipment costs money; software costs money.

RE: But that investment is being made. More and more universities are putting in fiber-optic backbones throughout their campuses, and they're doing that for a couple of reasons. They want to support their employees and staff better. PCs are on every worker's desk now, and these computers have graphical user interfaces that require higher bandwidth and decent server support. Although not all universities currently have the infrastructure in place to support staff PCs, most at least plan to upgrade their technological capabilities. So the infrastructure is being planned, and in many cases, put in and paid for. The concern then becomes delivery to individuals. Not every home has the capabilities that I am talking about; therefore, in many cases, universities must provide computer labs and computer access. It is getting to the point that most people who want access to the Internet can find a way to get it. Once they have access to the Internet, then advances like connected learning are possible.

JM: What new technologies do you see on the horizon that colleges and universities can use to increase their effectiveness and efficiency?

RE: I am excited about the capabilities of Campus Pipeline, a company located in Salt Lake City. It has a partnership with SCT and connection to the SCT databases. The company’s product, also called Campus Pipeline, is an enterprise information portal (EIP) that effectively creates a homebase, or a home communication center, for each student or alumnus. It has access to a host of information that fits each constituent's preferences. Say, for example, that a student wants various news, sports, or weather items. Campus Pipeline can deliver those items from the Internet to that student, to his/her specification. It also can provide the student with access to the Internet for searching and researching all kinds of information. Through Campus Pipeline, students can access course catalogs, their grades, their transcripts, and any information in the school database that relates to them personally. Moreover, the company can feed information that schools would like their students to know—for example, the schedule for registering for classes—to individual constituents.

An EIP like Campus Pipeline is one level up from a portal such as Excite or Yahoo or America Online because it seamlessly integrates the power and access of the Internet with the security and personalization of campus information systems. This combination provides 24-hour access to campus and Internet resources and goes beyond the traditional Internet portal with role-based personalization, security and ease of use. For example, it can provide a course catalog to students based on what they need. If a college senior, for example, goes online to register for classes, the university's registration system can know what the student's degree program is, what courses he/she has taken and needs to take in order to graduate, and what courses he/she would likely choose from. Therefore, the course catalog that students can get on a preferential basis is very specific to them. Can students go off and look at the rest of the course catalog and ask for Basket Weaving 101? Yes, they can. But the catalog is tailored to them individually. These kinds of capabilities greatly strengthen the relationship the institution has with students. Campus Pipeline also strengthens the relationship that institutions have with alumni. EIP services are available to alumni for the rest of their lives, so an alumnus can access Campus Pipeline to take a virtual course that updates his/her skills. Because of this link, when a university sponsors fundraising campaigns, the ties fostered through such a communication and service tool increase the likelihood that alumni will donate funds to the school.

JM: A decade ago, the U.S. Army Research Institute considered instituting a system in which an officer assigned to a new duty could, completely via satellite, communicate with his/her branch school, get an assessment test for any knowledge gaps related to the new duty, access material that he/she needed to learn, and get competency tested on that material. Do you know of anything in higher education that is providing continuing professional development like this?
RE: Yes, it's happening with the lifelong learning capabilities that can be delivered via the Internet. There is a big difference between course materials that are tailored for electronic delivery and materials that are made for classroom delivery. When a course is delivered in electronic form, there are a variety of assessment formulas that can be applied as a student responds to questions or takes quizzes that are embedded in the data. If a program has the electronic capability to let you pick and choose answers to questions, and to give you responses that drive you down alternative decision trees, then that program can start to distinguish what it is you know and don't know. For example, let's suppose that there is a reasonably high-level question. If the student answers it correctly, the machine can presume that the student knows a whole series of other things because he/she is able to answer this top-level question correctly. And if the student answers it incorrectly, then the machine knows that it needs to backtrack in order to determine the student’s knowledge level.

With these types of programs, learning becomes very personalized, and students can be taken through a course expeditiously. In other words, students can spend time on what they don’t know and what they need to know, rather than on what they already know. Many students who have a fundamental knowledge of the basics can skip the basics, and the course content will provide only the instruction needed. Yet behind the scenes, all of the course content is there for any direction in which anybody needs to go.

Let me tell you a personal story. I painfully sat through a semester course called Money and Banking that I probably could have gone through in two weeks on my own. I had to go to class for attendance reasons even though it was not a good learning experience for me. What I did learn, I learned on my own. If I could have taken this course on the Internet, it would have saved me a lot of time that I could have used more productively.

JM: Rod, let’s return to developments in technology to conclude this interview. Internet 2 is becoming more widely available, and, with its greater bandwidth, will facilitate video conferencing and enhance the ability of educators to transport a classroom from one site to another far more effectively and less expensively than in the past. How do you regard the potential of this technology for enhancing learning?
RE: The problem with using videoconferencing in a "live classroom" environment is that students and teachers must appear in a room at a certain time for information delivery. This lack of flexibility is unattractive. Videoconferencing doesn’t take advantage of the capabilities of new information technologies to provide unlimited access to information available when and how students want it. Asynchronous technologies may well be more effective in a learning environment than synchronous technologies.

JM: Asynchronous learners become independent learners. Independent learning—having people think for themselves and figure things out for themselves—certainly is an educational objective.
RE: I love that thought. Historically, educators have realized the importance of perpetual learning, but the mass population hasn’t. In this new environment, everyone has to be a perpetual (or lifelong) learner, and everyone has to want to learn rather than be forced to learn. Nobody can force education.

JM: Thank you, Rod, for sharing your vision of higher education in 2010.

Critical Reviews

Critic AA

At a time when many others vendors of courseware solutions are adding and developing synchronous delivery mechanisms, I find it interesting that SCT is downplaying their significance. That might be an interesting question to pose to Rod Everhart. The description of Campus Pipeline has some very intriguing elements, but I suspect that many readers will be troubled by the picture of the "solitary learner" being directed through a course based on pre-programmed response patterns. The picture that is painted seems to remove the elements of serendipity and accidental discovery that have long been prized in academia.

Recommended for publication as it stands.

Critic KK

For review by Critic KK, click here.

Critic A

This is a well thought out interview and can be published "as is." If at all possible, it would be nice to have Ros expand on how he defines connected learning, residential, and virtual institutions. It was not 100% clear how much "traditional residential instruction" will change over time. I expect it to change quite a bit personally.

I was not troubled by the solitary learner. I thought it was honest and a very practical view. If anything, it would be nice to hear Rod's ideas on how much education is likely to change with the tremendous increase in lifelong learners drawing on traditional and new learning institutions.