Experiencing the Online Revolution
By James Morrison

[This article is a re-formatted manuscript that should be cited as Morrison, J. L. (2005). Experiencing the online revolution. In G. Kearsley (Ed.), Online learning: Personal reflections on the transformation of education (pp. 248-261). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications. Note: This book presents a comprehensive history of the field of online education as told by twenty-four of the pioneers who created it. A complete description of the book is provided here.]

James L. Morrison, professor of educational leadership emeritus at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has founded and served as editor of three periodicals, On the Horizon, a futures journal for higher education, The Technology Source, an e-journal designed to assist educators as they face the challenge of integrating information technology tools into teaching and into managing educational organizations and Innovate, an e-journal that focuses on the creative use of information technology to enhance active learning methods irrespective of sector (K-12,colleges and universities, corporate universities). He has published over 230 articles, book chapters, books, and monographs on environmental scanning and forecasting, planning, management, and using technology in educational organizations. In 1999 he received the Distinguished Scholar Award from the American Educational Research Association's Special Interest Group on Strategic Change.


In a comprehensive book entitled The Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers (1995) characterizes people who adopt innovations as being in one of five categories: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards. I am an early adopter. In this chapter, I describe how I became an early user of information technology (IT) tools in my work as a professor and the lessons that I have learned over the years. I conclude with brief comments on the major forces impacting education and the changes that will mark colleges and universities in the future.

Early Efforts: My First Use of Technology in the Classroom

I began my professorial career in 1969, but it was an Army Reserve assignment that first introduced me to personal computers in the mid-1980s. I was tasked to prepare a preliminary report for a general officer steering committee at the Pentagon, and I was told to use a Compaq "luggable" so that my unit would have an electronic copy of the document. I quickly saw the advantages of using a computer to write and modify manuscripts. When my duty ended, I purchased a personal computer, which I used mostly for clerical tasks. I enjoyed the fact that I was no longer dependent upon a secretary who worked for six other professors to type and retype manuscripts and letters.

It was several years before I began to integrate technology in my courses, and I was one of the first in my school to do so—albeit in an elementary manner. I used Microsoft PowerPoint to present introductory lessons and Word to conduct interactive group process sessions. For example, in an educational management course that I team-taught in 1989, I used the Nominal Group Technique (Morrison, 1998) to focus discussion on the topics for which I was responsible. I first asked a topic question (e.g., What potential developments on the horizon could affect the future of education?) and then requested that students compose responses on paper. After 5 to 10 minutes, I began a round robin, where each student in turn suggested one answer to the question. I typed these comments on my laptop and displayed them on a large screen via a projector. I asked students to think about each nominated response from their colleagues: Did it bring to mind a point that they had not previously considered?

When responses to the question were exhausted, we began our discussion of each response. Did everyone understand what was meant by the comment? Did everyone agree that it was an appropriate response to the question? This discussion resulted in a collaborative effort to refine and edit student answers. By using Word and a projector, we found such editing relatively easy, particularly when contrasted with the use of flip charts and magic markers. I printed the results of the discussion after each class and distributed them at the beginning of the next class meeting. Employing PowerPoint and Word jazzed up my classes, and I viewed the use of these tools as state-of-the-art instructional technique. I received outstanding student evaluations for the course.

The very questions that I asked my students were the crux of my own research. I was a futurist who focused on identifying signals of change in the macroenvironment and deriving their implications for education. In 1992, I founded a professional publication titled On the Horizon to explore important trends (e.g., the globalization of the economy, the impact of telecommunications on this economy, the growth of the Internet and the development of new pedagogical technologies) and their implications for educational leaders who were guiding their schools into the future. It became clear to me that to be successful in the Information Age, college graduates needed to do more than master the content in their chosen fields; they also needed to be technologically literate. The growing use of technology tools to enhance productivity in professional workplaces, the boom in online education initiatives, and an expanded emphasis on evolving competencies (rather than static knowledge) demanded that students—particularly those preparing to become educational leaders—develop and continually update a new set of computer skills.

One day it struck me that although my classroom use of PowerPoint and Word was a good example, my efforts were only minimally enhancing the ability of my students to use technology themselves. These people were preparing for careers as educational leaders, primarily in public schools. It was vital that they have not only a conceptual understanding of technology use in education, but also the practical ability to demonstrate its advantages and facilitate the integration of technology in the curriculums of their organizations.

The Transition: Redesigning One Course to Enhance Technology Competencies

I slowly began the transition from my exclusive use of technology in the classroom to my students' use of technology when I began to team teach the course with David Thomas. In the fall 1991 offering, we included this objective: "Use technology as an aid to your work as a manager." Professor Thomas agreed to handle the majority of topics in the course (e.g., site-based management, staffing, budgeting, special populations) and to teach students how to write decision memos and book reviews. My responsibility was to teach the strategic management portion of the course, which included the major project; I also assumed responsibility for technology integration. Professor Thomas and I both reviewed students' work and mutually determined grades.

For my portion of the course, I had students read a strategic management text (that I was writing with two colleagues) as a guide for their course projects. The assignment was either to work with practicing school administrators to develop a strategic plan for the school, or to simulate being on a team charged with planning a new school in the local county. I set up a class listserv to facilitate communication and required that the projects be turned in on disk and presented in class using PowerPoint at the conclusion of the semester. (The written project and presentation constituted 35% of the semester grade, decision memos constituted 40%, and class participation constituted 25%.)

I specified that PowerPoint be used in the project presentations for three reasons. First, the university had a site license for Microsoft Office, thereby making the software a relatively inexpensive purchase. Second, Microsoft's productivity tools were supported by the university's Office of Instructional Technology, which periodically scheduled training programs; this meant that students could get help if they needed it. Third, our lab had only Macs at the time, but many students had PCs at home; Office allowed students to transfer data files from Macs to PCs and vice-versa with ease.

I also required that students join three mailing lists where the main topic of discussion was the future of education. We started the semester with an environmental scanning assignment in which students sought articles or listserv postings that described signals of change in the external environment. Students were required to abstract two such articles or postings, add a section titled "implications for public education," and post their drafts to the class listserv. In class, I showed students how to download postings from email, take out the paragraph markings at the end of each line, format their manuscripts, and place the files in a folder on their hard drives (or, if they were in the computer lab, on a floppy disk). These manuscripts were to be used as part of the external analysis portion of their projects.

Because written communication skills are important tools for educational leaders, I projected one draft abstract from each student on screen and focused class discussion on how it could be better written. I assigned the second draft abstract from each student to a classmate, who had to write a critique of it. In order to reduce anxiety, I did not grade either the draft abstracts or the critiques.

At the beginning of the semester, no student had an email address or had ever subscribed to a listserv, and only one student had ever used a presentation software program; by the end of the course, students were competent in the use of these technologies. Although their course projects were good in many respects, Professor Thomas and I felt that the quality of their writing could be improved. We offered students the option to revise their written projects and decision memos, with the possibility of receiving a higher grade. The university's graduate school handbook specified that a grade of P (pass) be given to work normally expected of graduate students, an L (low pass) to substandard work, and an H (high pass) to exemplary work. Professor Thomas and I awarded Ps to all but a few of the papers initially submitted. Every student who received a P completed at least one revision of his or her work, a process that greatly improved the written documents, the student's knowledge, and, in some but not all cases, the student's final grade.

Student Complaints and a Second Attempt

Professor Thomas and I thought that the course was highly successful. Unfortunately, the students' perspective was quite different, and they gave the course a mean rating below the school of education average. Chief among their complaints was that the emphasis on technology and on learning to use technology took away time that should have been devoted to lessons on school management.

I was dumbfounded, but after some thought, I came to two conclusions: (1) I had not sufficiently "sold" my rationale—that written and oral communication skills and the use of technological productivity tools were so important that they would be factored into student grades; and (2) I had not compensated for the fact that these added requirements increased the class workload substantially. Students had not expected the class to consume so much of their time and energy; they found learning to use email, listservs, Internet search engines, and presentation software a burden.

I relied on this analysis when charged with taking sole responsibility for another class entitled "The Social Context of Educational Leadership." This course was originally designed with specific content and taught via lectures and discussion. I made sure that my version was congruent with the objectives expressed in the university bulletin, but I redesigned the course to focus on career challenges the students were likely to face in the Information Age and the competencies they would need to navigate these challenges successfully. In a world where the professional knowledge base was changing rapidly, it was clear that these prospective administrators needed to be able to access, analyze, and communicate information with both traditional methods and information technology tools. The question then became: What kind of learning experience do the students need to develop these skills?

I used an active-learning simulation approach, whereby students were to act as a task force that informed the U.S. Department of Education of the major issues challenging public education. The task force consisted of several teams assigned to prepare and present issue-analysis papers. To complete this assignment, the students—all of whom were experienced public school teachers—first had to identify the issues through an environmental scanning exercise and then develop issue-analysis papers. To access and communicate this information, they had to learn to use such tools as Internet search engines, a Web page editor, file transfer protocol (FTP), and presentation software.

I made a detailed syllabus (available only through the Web) to structure this enterprise, and I helped students learn how to use information technology tools and improve their papers and presentations. In essence, scanning and issue analysis—plus the resulting papers and presentations—constituted the content of the course. I acted as a mentor, facilitator, and guide. The only content I provided was several papers on anticipatory management that I made available on the Web, via the syllabus.

In terms of outcomes, the course was successful. Students developed their own Web pages, each of which included a resume, an environmental scanning abstract, an issue-analysis paper, and PowerPoint presentation slides. These products reflected competencies that few of the students had prior to the course. Moreover, their abstracts and papers were quite good, especially after several revisions. These materials were published online and became useful to the broader educational community (I have received notes from many authors who have cited material from student papers).

But this does not mean that the students were happy campers. In fact, they were dissatisfied with their experience. When I asked students on their comprehensive examination to explain the anomaly of successful learning outcomes and relatively low course ratings, I received a number of explanations. I was told that:

  • I provided little content in the course.
  • My critiques of their writing and presentations were too severe, and their extra revision efforts did not necessarily lead to higher grades; indeed, my critical attention was perceived to be a threat to their grade point averages.
  • My emphasis on communication skills was out of balance with the title of the course. (A sample comment: "This course should be retitled 'Technology and Journalism.'")
  • Learning to use technology tools was not worth the time and effort expended, especially given their heavy schedules (16 semester hours) and the different skills they perceived as important to their future roles as assistant principals.

In addition, several students pointed out that the course required skills and behaviors quite different from those encouraged in other classes: Students typically worked alone, but in my course they were required to work as part of a team; students were accustomed to learning and recalling concepts presented by their professors, but in my course almost all of their time was spent applying knowledge and skills; students usually turned in their work for evaluation at the end of the semester, but in my course they received steady feedback on their work throughout the semester, which required continuous revision; students were comfortable completing their assignments using the library and basic word processing, but in my course they had to work with multimedia materials, the Internet, email, and the Web, as well as the library. In other words, this course demanded a shift in their approach to learning and performing—a shift that made them uncomfortable.

Some students were so uncomfortable that they complained to an incoming dean that the course had no content (I gave only one lecture, and that at the beginning of the semester). The dean's response was to order my program chair to remove me from teaching the course and assign me other duties. When I asked her about this decision, she told me that "students expect faculty members to provide knowledge—to lecture. If you won't lecture, you cannot teach required courses, only seminars." My resolution was to buy out my teaching time; in my last 2.5 years on the active faculty, I taught only one full course, which was, ironically, the social context class because no other professor was available to teach it that particular semester. I also was assigned to teach a half-course once a year on using technology in education—a class in which I was not expected to lecture—and to assume other additional duties and committee assignments.

Underlying Issues and Professional Costs

I have related these experiences to illustrate the disjuncture involved when a social institution is undergoing a paradigm shift (Mack, 2003). I changed my role as teacher from actor to director and demanded a corresponding transition in student behavior that countered prevailing norms. Several of my colleagues were upset because I had deviated from a paradigm that regarded educational administration/leadership as a field of defined knowledge that is taught to students, usually sequentially. My constructivist approach focused on process, not defined knowledge. In essence, the course consisted of students' writing scanning abstracts, collaboratively writing issue-analysis papers, and presenting those papers. Students chose their own topics; my role was to help them learn how to use listservs and search engines, to explore the issues they identified as most critical to the future of education, and to provide a professional critique of how they argued these issues to the world at large. Therefore, student papers—not my lectures—constituted the "content" of the course.

Ironically, the way in which I taught was consistent with the Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) report (1992) for classroom reforms, a report that was required reading in other educational leadership courses. In essence, the report advocated moving from a passive to a participative classroom environment as described in Table 1.

Table 1: The Conventional Classroom Compared with the SCANS Classroom

From the conventional classroom

To the SCANs classroom

Teacher knows answer More than one solution may be viable and teacher may not have it in advance
Students routinely work alone Students routinely work with teachers, peers, and community members
Teacher plans all activities Students and teachers plan and negotiate activities
Teacher makes all assessments Students routinely assess themselves
Information is organized, evaluated, interpreted and communicated to students by teacher Information is acquired, evaluated, organized, interpreted, and communicated by students to appropriate audiences
Organizing system of the classroom is simple; one teacher teaches 30 students Organizing systems are complex: teacher and students both reach out beyond school for additional information
Reading, writing, and math are treated as separate disciplines; listening and speaking often are missing from curriculum Disciplines needed for problem solving are integrated; listening and speaking are fundamental parts of learning
Thinking is usually theoretical and "academic" Thinking involves problem solving, reasoning, and decision making
Students are expected to conform to teacher's behavioral expectations; integrity and honesty and monitored by teacher; student self-esteem is often poor Students are expected to be responsible sociable, self-managing, and resourceful; integrity and honesty and monitored within the social context of the classroom; students' self-esteem is high because they are in charge of their own learning

Source: The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (1992, April), Exhibit 4, pp 10-11.

Joel Barker (1993) argues that our paradigms powerfully distort and even blind us to self-evident truths until we experience the moment of insight which enables us to "see the world anew."  Immersing people who have not had that insight in paradigmatic change produces cognitive dissonance. Although my students experienced the SCANS reading regimen, they had a difficult time when placed outside of their conventional classroom comfort zone.

From my perspective, requiring that students learn to apply information technology tools to complete course requirements was an opportunity to prepare them for the future world of work. No doubt it would have been easier for them to adjust to these requirements had they been adept at using the basic tools before they enrolled in the course. The students' unfamiliarity with these tools, the fact that in the early to mid-nineties email programs and HTML translation programs were not intuitive, and the fact that anti-virus programs did not handle computer viruses easily or effectively served to increase student frustration. All in all, the combination of my conducting the course in a different way and the students' discomfort with the technology available in those days entailed significant changes for all of us.

Moreover, these students were adult learners—practicing teachers who already had experience in the field and who had opinions about what skills they needed to be successful administrators. Technological proficiency rated low on their lists. Ed Neal, the director of faculty development at my university's center for teaching and learning, put the problem this way: "Learning to use electronic technology might . . . seem pointless, since [the students] have typically worked in public school environments that have little technology available. The promise that these tools will eventually be as common as the telephone is insufficient to convince them that they should spend time learning them now." The gap between my definition of a successful course and that of my students arose, Neal surmised, from a mismatch between my goals and expectations for students and their own goals and expectations (personal communication, May 22, 1998).

While the technology component obviously unsettled the students, their complaints also pointed to two separate, underlying issues: grade inflation and the concept of writing as a process. In the school of education at my university,  H became the common grade—in part, I suspect, because of the importance of student evaluations in tenure and merit decisions. Indeed, some of my colleagues routinely gave all students a "high pass" (H) and announced that they would do so near the beginning of the semester; their rationale was that this approach removed the tension of grades and allowed them to focus on learning. I did not adopt this view, but followed the grading standard specified in the graduate school bulletin. In a course that already asked students to think, work, and participate differently, my adherence to strict grade standards violated the student norm that if you worked hard, you deserved an H.

The same might be said of my emphasis on writing as a process. Many students were accustomed to spending all semester gearing up for a single paper or project that would be handed in on the last day of class and comprised a substantial portion of  their final grade. Some professors might provide a few written comments or suggestions for revision, but by that time the course was over and the assignment was completed. I stressed the value of multiple drafts, peer and instructor feedback, and improved writing skills as a worthwhile goal in and of itself (rather than as a guarantee of a better grade). All of the technological tools that I employed and that I asked students to master facilitated this approach, but students generally overlooked the underlying pedagogical rationale. Students were also slow to link constructive criticism with their attractiveness as job candidates. I pushed them to write better papers and publish their final projects on the Web not to increase their stress levels, but to give students an opportunity to contribute to the broader scope of knowledge. Ideally these students would market themselves by applying their coursework to their careers rather than just to their degrees.

The technological components that I mention above (computer projection equipment, presentation and Web page software, listservs, and so on) are basic ones—very useful but also somewhat rudimentary in terms of the more recent advances in educational technology. At that point, I had not stepped very far out on the technology/constructivist learning limb, but my "unorthodox" teaching methods nonetheless had professional costs: After a 30-year career as a professor, I essentially was relieved of my teaching duties and assigned to various committees and projects in which I had little interest.

I made the best of the situation, however, by pouring my energy into On the Horizon and into the development of a new peer-reviewed electronic journal focused on the potential of technology to enhance and improve education. With a former student (James Ptazynski), I founded The Technology Source in 1997, and today it remains a valuable and trusted resource for educators worldwide. As editor, I enjoy publicizing the newest and most exciting trends in the field: the proliferation of academic e-journals that use information technology tools to enhance professional communication; the movement for open, electronic archives of scholarly research; the impact of blogs on social and political policy; advances in publishing made possible by rich site summary . . . the list of innovations (in terms of both new technologies and new applications of older ones) is too great to exhaust.

Course Adjustments and Positive Feedback (At Last) 

Rogers (1995) describes early adopters as opinion leaders. This was not true in my case. In my enthusiasm to apply a constructivist perspective to teaching, incorporate requirements to use IT tools, focus on writing and presentation skills, and maintain the university grading standard, I violated faculty and student norms. Rather than "showing the way," I suffered criticism from both faculty members and students. My colleagues felt that I was not providing content, and although they did not seem to mind my emphasis on writing and presentation, they themselves did not incorporate their evaluation of these skills when assigning grades. Students felt that I overemphasized the need to learn IT tools and to increase writing and speaking competency to the exclusion of content. My behavior did little to affect these norms.

I took all criticism seriously, however, and modified my approach over time in an attempt to make it more acceptable to everyone involved. Initially, for example, I critiqued student papers using the "track changes" feature of Microsoft Word and then returned the annotated papers to students via email. Later I modified this procedure to require a face-to-face session in which I reviewed my critique with each student. I also changed the course schedule to allot much more time to student presentations and related discussion and to require one less rewrite of the major paper. In the last class I taught, I provided only formative evaluations as we proceeded through the semester; students did not know their course grades until they received them from the registrar. In that class, my student evaluations were above the school mean.

Some one to three years after my students had completed the social context course, they took comprehensive exams and had the option of responding to the following prompts: (1) "Comment on the anomaly of the course producing successful outcomes but generally receiving low ratings"; (2) "What are the implications of the social context course (content as well as instructional process) for you in your role as an educational leader?" Notably, many students gave positive responses, among them the following:

  • "I acquired greater detail and synthesis of information because I was responsible for myself and to my team members as we worked together to construct the issue analysis paper. This was an important experience because in most positions of leadership, the leader will be required to work in an effective, collegial manner with faculty and staff colleagues."
  • "Although the class was a painful experience for many, it was a fruitful one with boundless new opportunities within our grasp after the completion of the expectations and course requirements. . . .We as educators are human and react just as the students we taught. We want to be spoon fed. We want to be lectured to. We want bold print and make sure that important things are repeated three times. Why do we desire this format? It is what we know. It is what we are used to. Those are the very reasons you should not change a thing! It was a painful GOOD learning experience for us."
  • "This course changed my paradigm of learning. I now realize the power of knowing how to learn. I was always good at memorizing facts, but now I understand the importance of doing research to find facts, thinking critically about them, and then integrating them into concepts. The course also taught me how to use technology to do better research, write, and then present information."
  • "As a course designed more for skills development than transference of information, it has provided me with the primary and most essential tools for dealing with change: The capability to recognize it, make sense of it, and communicate what I see on the horizon of the educational landscape." 

Finally, at a program lunch to which I was invited after my retirement, I sat next to a newly appointed professor. Responding to my comment that I had experienced criticism during my final years at the university, she said that the word on me was that I was "ahead of my time."

Final Thoughts: The Future of Education

I believe that we are in a period of transition in higher education, one driven by the combined forces of demographics, globalization, economic restructuring, and information technology; I am confident that these forces will lead us to adopt new concepts of educational markets, organizational structures, how we teach, and what we teach (Morrison, 2003). Globalization requires that employees become adept at working with people from diverse cultures, and that they become proficient in the effective use of IT tools. Globalization also spurs economic restructuring, which increases the need for workers to be productive and to the demand for retraining by workers who are "downsized."  Consequently, we are experiencing a large growth in the number of people who need higher education, and, since we do not have sufficient space on existing campuses to accommodate the demand, we are seeing an exponential increase in online courses and programs that do not require classrooms.

In the not too distant future, colleges and universities will expand their markets to include all people who have Internet access. We will see an increase in virtual universities. Residential campuses will offer predominantly hybrid courses. Substantial online instructional capability will be a standard feature of practically all institutions. Moreover, institutions will predominately use competency-based exams (rather than credit-hour accomplishment) to award degrees and will guarantee that individuals who receive those degrees are indeed qualified to perform at the implied level.

As changing demographics and technology alter the context of higher education, the mindset of faculty members will need to change as well. Specifically, instead of viewing themselves primarily as content providers in their teaching role, professors will see themselves as designers of learning experiences for an increasingly diverse student population. Students, viewed today as sponges whose task is to soak up knowledge from their professors (Spector, 2002), will become junior colleagues who acquire knowledge while working through project-based courses. Faculty members will no longer work in isolation, but will serve on teams of instructional designers, media support staff, and assessment specialists. These teams will prepare courses that can be taught online or as hybrid courses in campus classrooms. Classes will be conducted largely by junior professors, instructors, or (in universities) by graduate assistants who will mentor students as they progress through virtual courses.

At the same time that information technology is revolutionizing the world of teachers and students, it is also changing the context of scholarship. Specifically, the movement spearheaded by MIT to put faculty scholar­ship online, in conjunction with the efforts of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPAR) and the free online scholarship movement, will establish the acceptability of peer-reviewed online scholarship in terms of merit, tenure, and promotion activities. 

The higher education landscape will look quite different in 2020 than it does today. There will still be many "bricks-and-mortar" residential campuses, particularly for the young, but their classes will be hybridized (i.e., a combination of online and in-class instruction). Lectures will no longer be the predominant mode of instruction; rather, group and individual project-based learning will be the norm. The focus of education will be to produce graduates who can use a variety of information technology tools and techniques to access, evaluate, analyze, and communicate information and who can work effectively in teams with people from different ethnic groups to address a wide range of real-world issues and choices, too complex to be solved by tidy textbook answers.

The world is evolving, and our teaching and learning paradigms must evolve with it. The goal is not to replace the instructor with a computer, but to use technology in appropriate ways to support and enhance learning, to prepare students for a workplace that increasingly values technical skills, and to create new ways of discovering and applying knowledge. The road to that end may be bumpy, but I see the sun rising ahead on a promising educational future. This is a journey worth taking.


Barker, J. A. (1993).  Paradigms: The business of discovering the future. London: Harper Business Books.

Mack, T. (2003, Spring). An interview with a futurist. Futures Research Quarterly, 19(1), pp. 61-69. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Morrison, J. L. (2003). US higher education in transition. On the Horizon, 11(1), pp. 6-10. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from 

Morrison, J. L. (1998, June). The nominal group process as an instructional tool. The Technology Source. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from

Rogers, E. (1995). The diffusion of innovations. (4th ed.) New York: The Free Press.

Spector, M. (2002, September 27), "Look at me!": A teaching primer. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved January 8, 2004, from [Access restricted to subscribers.]

The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills. (1992, April). Learning a living: A blueprint for high performance. Washington, U.S. Department of Labor.


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