Looking Back from 2005
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1997, 5(3), 2-3. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Last February the board of trustees of a prominent U.S. university invited me to their campus to address two questions: Looking back from 2005, what were the least well anticipated changes in higher education? What are the fresh new goals a university should have in order to prepare for 2005?

To respond to these questions, I reviewed past issues of On the Horizon and my scanning files, and I talked with several well-informed colleagues like Bill Graves (the interim chief information officer at UNC) and Marvin Peterson (professor, University of Michigan).

My presentation to the board of trustees focused on three signals of change that are present today and that may serve to guide us in the future, particularly when placed in the context of strategic planning. The three signals are the potential breakup of the certification monopoly, the competency guarantee, and the technology revolution.

The certification monopoly currently enjoyed by accredited educational organizations is at risk because (1) employers in an increasingly competitive global marketplace are concerned about the competency of high school and college graduates applying for employment; (2) employers are publicly expressing doubts about the validity of transcripts in making hiring decisions; and (3) employers are relying more on past employment experience, portfolios, and other means of competency certification and less on diplomas in deciding who to hire.

A second, and related, signal of change concerns competency. Commercial businesses are beginning to produce educational courses and programs and certifying the competency of graduates of those programs. In some cases, such as the International Community College, these courses and programs of study are produced and distributed in partnership with for-profit businesses and educational organizations.

In response to the concern about graduates’ competency, public schools in Milwaukee and New York have introduced competency-based testing for high school graduation. Several community colleges have offered employers and graduates no-cost retraining if the graduates do not exhibit the competencies implied by the degree. The Western Governors University assists students to develop programs of study using a variety of educational courses and programs (on-line and traditional), but will not grant a degree until applicants pass a competency-based examination. The newest campus in the California State University system, CSU–Monterey Bay, is developing a competency-based degree. These avant-garde institutions have decoupled courses of study from competency-based assessment and thereby will offer a degree that may well be more attractive to prospective employers.

The technology revolution, which has sparked a communications explosion manifested by the worldwide exponential growth of the Internet, is enabling higher education to move from an infrastructure that is inwardly focused on the institution and the faculty to an "infostructure" where technology is used to extend campus boundaries by increasing the public’s access to instructional and library resources.

The technology revolution is fueled by many developments: The cost of computing power drops roughly 30 percent every year, and microchips are doubling in performance power every eighteen months. A third of Americans already have a computer at home; 40 percent of these have modems, and by the end of the century, it is estimated that most homes in the developed world will be connected to the Internet. A recent survey by IDC(LINK) shows that 92 percent of all college students have access to PCs, and that two-thirds of them use e-mail regularly (Marklein, 1997). Financial transactions via the Internet can now be conducted in a secure fashion. And an increasing number of students, many of whom have experienced downsizing, rightsizing, and reengineering, want and need flexible schedules that can be provided by asynchronous communication.

The technology revolution is enabling a transition from distance education to distributed education. Older forms of distance education such as correspondence courses and television are being replaced by programs that use the Internet to take advantage of resources worldwide. For example, in a recent article (Morrison, 1996) I described how Professor Lev Gonick sent out a message to several listservs to solicit professors and students focusing on global political and economic issues. Some seventy-five professors and several hundred students around the world responded. After spending the initial part of the semester identifying issues, students were required to team with other students (who had to be in another country) to write papers that were posted to a Web site for critique and discussion by all. Another example: The newly formed IBM global campus includes some 100 universities that have agreed to share catalogs of on-line courses. The intent is to enable students to enroll on one campus, but take courses on others (virtually).

Having "looked back from 2005" and identified three forces for long-term change that exist(ed) in 1997, I returned to real-time 1997 and challenged them to seize the opportunities posed by these forces:

  • To seek out and adopt proven best practice in assessing and certifying professional and occupational competencies of graduates, especially in those areas in which the institution has gained recognition
  • To establish a global on-site cyber-campus in conjunction with like institutions around the world
  • To become a leader in designing self-instructional multimedia packages in those areas in which the institution is strong
  • To become a leader in designing virtual, perpetual learning environments in collaboration with public and private sector partners

Consider the implications of this argument for your organization. Can you meet the challenge imposed by these signals of change? What are the risks you take if you don’t heed and act on these signals?


Marklein, M. B. "At Colleges, E-mail Is as Easy as ABC." USA Today, March 5, 1997, p. 6D.

Morrison, J.L. "Teaching in the Twenty-First Century." On the Horizon, 1996, 4(5), 2-3.

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