Technology and Change: An Interview with Diana Oblinger
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1998, 6(3), 2-5. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Diana Oblinger, Manager of Academic Programs and Strategy for IBM’s Global Education Industry, is known for her leadership in advancing the concepts of mobile computing and distributed instruction throughout the world. She has served as a consultant for numerous colleges and universities on delivering high-quality distributed learning and reengineering higher education.

James Morrison: Historically, Americans have always placed great value on education. How do you see the future of higher education?

Diana Oblinger: Employers realize that a skilled workforce is essential to their competitive edge. Civic leaders realize that an educated population is the key to future economic growth. Individuals associate education with a higher-quality life. But getting educated once will never again be enough. Because education is the key to current and future prosperity, higher education promises to become the most important institution of the twenty-first century.

This is good news for higher education. But that is just the demand side of the equation. The delivery side will look different than it has in the past. Higher education cannot achieve its full potential through traditional delivery models alone. Lecture is great for some things and the residential environment is wonderful. But they are not for everyone. Over 40 percent of today’s students do not fit the traditional student profile. These students may have careers and families. They are older and far more constrained by the demands of the working world. This doesn’t even begin to count the huge numbers of potential students for whom traditional higher education programs have been put beyond reach by the demands of time, distance, and already busy schedules.

Distributed learning is founded on the belief that high-quality education should be available to everyone, at any place and at any time. In the last few years, IBM has been working with a core group of colleges and universities to address that need. The vision we have defined is called IBM Global Campus—it is a blueprint for a set of tools and services that will enable colleges and universities to reach new and existing groups of learners who would like to communicate in a more time- and location-independent fashion.

This vision sees education as continuous—we are never too old or too young to learn. We should be able to engage in educational activities at our convenience—that means education may occur at work, at home, on an airplane, or while waiting for soccer practice to be over. Schedules should also be flexible, so that whether we have fifteen minutes or two hours, we can engage in learning, and can disengage for family or work responsibilities as needed.

Let me be sure to clarify one point, however, since it is often misunderstood. This is not an all-or-none proposition. Computer-assisted, self-directed learning will work for some students in some fields, but not for all students in all fields. It will work for some institutions but not for others. There will always be a place for the great lecturers—they can be immensely effective. There will always be a place for the strong mentors. These are the people we all remember from our college days. We wouldn’t want them to go away—and they will not. But we need something to help us when we cannot get to campus or when class is not in session.

JM: So what would this distributed learning environment—this global campus—be like?

DO: It would be synchronous and asynchronous—both “same time, same place” and “different time, different place.” Inherent in the notion of distributed learning is this ability to access learning any time from any place. Asynchronous learning modes (for example, e-mail, chat rooms, databases) allow students to access course materials, instructors, peers, and experts at times that meet their needs. However, synchronous learning environments will still be necessary for many. No one expects the lecture or the face-to-face contact between faculty and student to disappear. This environment will be interactive. We already know interaction is essential to the learning process—student-to-student, student-to-teacher, student-to-information. There are many goals behind these interactions. Sometimes the goal is to better understand course material; other times, to complete an assigned team project. These collaborative interchanges are essential to providing a rich educational experience.

It will be scalable. Most institutions will start out with a pilot project to find their way in this environment. Initially, a pilot might involve a handful of learners. Over time, some institutions will decide to serve fifty thousand to a hundred thousand learners. Imagine how many people you would reach if you were serving your current students as well as the alumni who were coming to you to update their degrees.

These environments will have to be secure. This means the system will protect the privacy and integrity of both student and institutional information. It must also support secure transactions across the network, whether that means enrolling for a course, ordering your books from the bookstore, or submitting grades.

JM: Is the IBM global campus developing courseware via a CD or Web page?

DO: IBM is not in the content business. That is the job of publishers and faculty. In the IBM global campus context, content will come from partners, or from institutions that develop their own content. We all have different strengths. Ours is infrastructure rather than content. It is more efficient if IBM provides the structure for content modules. If we all adhere to the emerging standard Educom is working on—the Integrated Management System (we call it IMS)—we will be able to exchange, integrate, and reuse each other’s material.

JM: What is the IMS project?

DO: Educom was concerned that there were a lot of people developing courseware, content, and tests in specific technical languages that were not compatible with each other. The purpose of the IMS project is to develop a set of standards and metadata that describe instructional material (examples of metadata for learning materials are the title, author, targeted learning level, and educational objectives of the material). These would provide a common vocabulary we can all use when searching for and using various materials, whether individual lessons or courses of study. The intent is that publishers, course developers in higher education or K–12, corporations, and government, or anyone else putting educational material on the Web will be able to get information like the author’s name, the learning objective, the subject area, and any licensing restrictions. Standards will allow many different developers to design courseware and components of courseware so that the various pieces will be interoperable—you can snap them together. If we all agree to adhere to standards, then we can share information.

JM: How is the project coming along?

DO: It’s doing well. A year and a half ago there were just a few partners (for example, the University of North Carolina, the University of Michigan, and the California State University system, along with IBM and International Thompson Publishing); now there are almost forty. Just recently Apple, KPMG Peat Marwick, the U.S. Department of Defense, and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) joined. We are starting to see the formation of a technical standard that will allow us to improve education through sharing content via the Internet.

JM: Certainly having interoperable content and courses is important to the success of distributed learning. What else is important?

DO: We have worked with a number of institutions on distributed learning initiatives, and there are several components that are associated with successful and sustainable initiatives. As most of us are learning, the technology side of the equation is easier than the people side.

Probably the most critical issue is faculty adoption of technology. No matter what the technology—computers, VCRs, or cellular phones—there is an early-adopter group in society, about 5 percent to 10 percent of the population, that picks up on the technology. These people jump in early either because of their vision for its use or simply because it is new. They need relatively little support and are not bothered by risk. Most of us—the next 80 percent of the population—are in the mainstream. We are more conservative and averse to risk. We prefer more gradual, incremental change; in higher education, we want to be sure we do not disrupt what is already working in the classroom. Until we can get this mainstream group of faculty to adopt technology for teaching and learning, we will not really have a successful initiative.

One thing we too often overlook is the importance of teams. Distributed learning programs involve many different components—people, processes, technologies. No one person has all the skills to put the pieces together; only teams do. However, teams are very different from committees. Teams have a mutually understood goal and hold themselves accountable for accomplishing it. Teams are also important in keeping everyone moving ahead. When one member of the team is discouraged or cannot find the answer, another member can balance the situation with either encouragement or an alternative solution.

Training and education are extremely important. Not very many of us were trained in information technology (IT) or pedagogy. Obviously, using IT, working in teams, or communicating asynchronously may be an uncomfortable way to teach if you’ve never done it before. The aim is not to teach faculty to be computer programmers or Webmasters. Rather, it is to take advantage of this new milieu so that faculty members can benefit by learning from those who have already gained experience, rather than requiring everyone to learn from scratch.

Support, both for faculty and students, is important. Technical support is one aspect, but there is also a need for help in finding out where the good on-line resources are, evaluating how legitimate they are, and so on. There is a tremendous role for our library personnel in this arena.

We need to set clear expectations, as well. When expectations are not clear, we tend to fill in the blanks with personal expectations. That means that on a given campus we could have literally thousands of different expectations. To be successful, all participants need to understand what the initiative is, why it is being undertaken, and what it means to them.

JM: What advice do you have for college and university leaders as they prepare to meet the challenges posed by the future?

DO: Colleges and universities must work hard at developing a culture where change is welcomed. The pace of change is never going to be any slower than it is today. Most of our institutions do not change easily; we have built them to be stable rather than flexible. Although we are good at talking about change, we are not so good at doing something about it. We can learn a lot from our own scholars on how to prepare our institutions to welcome and embark on change.

JM: Can you elaborate?

DO: John Kotter (1996) says that there are several components that are essential if transformation efforts are to succeed—having a sense of urgency, having a compelling vision, maintaining adequate communication, and removing obstacles. New behaviors have to be rooted in social norms and shared values. If our institutions really believe that teaching and learning should be different, we should train our Ph.D. candidates differently; our position descriptions need to be different today than they were ten or twenty years ago.

Another area we need to attend to is globalization. It is more comfortable for us to look at the world from a parochial point of view than a global one. We live in a global, highly competitive world. We see more aggressive investment in K–12 education in the Asia-Pacific region than we do in North America. Do we not value education quite as much as they do? Are we complacent?

We must do a better job of integrating globalization into higher education. The world has changed, but does the curriculum mirror that change? We are exchanging blueprints, designs, and patents worldwide all the time. Consider how software is developed: in some cases it now moves through three different day shifts in a twenty-four-hour period. At one point, a team in India may be working on the project, which then moves to the U.K. and finally to the United States, all within twenty-four hours.

Globalization is a tough concept to reckon with. Richard Reich (1991) points out that when many people advocate “buy American,” they are assuming that an American label means the dollars will go to American workers—which is not necessarily so. He uses the example of a Pontiac LeMans, and shows how buying that car leaves fewer dollars in the United States than buying what appears to be a foreign car such as a Toyota or Mazda.

Globalization is a specific example of the notion that we have to keep our eyes open. We have to know what is going on around us. This is just as true in education as it is in other segments of society.

A third area to concentrate on is university-corporate partnerships. Partnership is not the same thing as philanthropy. A partnership says that we work together, have common goals, understand each other’s ways of operating, hold each other mutually accountable, and constantly measure the effectiveness of the relationship. One problem is that we do not usually work hand in hand; we have meetings once in a while, but our organizations are not glued tightly together. There is no real, long-term give-and-take. We have to learn how to work better as partners. Education is just one example. It is no longer good enough (if it ever was), for the university to educate a student and then turn that “finished product” over to an employer. From a variety of perspectives, industry is an underutilized partner in the education process. Wouldn’t we all be better off if we had more faculty-industry exchanges? Industry would understand universities better, and faculty would have the opportunity to better understand our practices and issues.

JM: Partnering between colleges and corporations is becoming more essential because many specific technology and infrastructure skills are not generally found throughout universities. Do you regard the partnering of content providers with technological deliverers as crucial, as we move to a future providing more access to education and continuous lifelong learning?

DO: Yes, I do, and the IBM global campus is a good example. IBM is good at some things; universities will always be better at others. We can do more together than we can do separately. But working together is an artful procedure. One of my colleagues likens it to dating and getting married. Designing and maintaining a successful marriage takes a lot of work. And it takes a lot of work to have a successful partnership.

JM: Let’s go back to the notion of culture change. Integrating technology into educational organizations is a major challenge to educational leaders in K–12 and higher education. Readying people for change is important. What is your perception of how educational leaders can prepare their organizations for transformation and change to a new way of doing business?

DO: One way to prepare people for change is to have them look around and realize that technology is already everywhere. We are accustomed to ATM machines. We buy airline tickets on the Web and use ticketless travel. We use technology in manufacturing, health care, and entertainment. Even governments are using technology to reduce time and trouble.

We should ask ourselves if colleges and universities have kept pace. Can we improve registration with technology? Can we keep the course catalog on the Web and ensure that it is up to date? Can we provide online access to the financial information students want most often? We need to think about things differently. Instead of thinking about tasks to teach, we must think about tasks that enable learning. Instead of institutional budget or reputation being the competitive indicator, how about student achievement? Should we be focusing on performance instead of seniority, on being goal-driven instead of budget-driven, and on collective responsibility rather than autonomy?

Jennifer James (1996) says the world is moving so rapidly that being prepared for today simply isn’t good enough. She talks about thinking in the future tense. The skills we will need are things like perspective, cultural knowledge, flexibility, vision, energy, intelligence, and global values. We need to ask ourselves if we possess these qualities. Do our undergraduates possess these skills? Do our Ph.D. candidates? If not, what should we be doing about it?

JM: Any final observations?

DO: A sense of immediacy or urgency is important. We need to step up the pace of change. But urgency is not the same thing as being in a state of panic. We do not need to be in a crisis to change. We need to acknowledge that we’ve got a lot to do. I’d like to see us more eager to step up to those changes today and not put them off until tomorrow.

Executive leadership is important. Whether in business or the academy, we need leaders who can see ahead and build coalitions. No longer can we build up walls to keep others out, separating ourselves into insiders and outsiders. We must find ways to bring groups together—to create a fully functional community. The leaders we need now are those who have the vision and skills to form networks that bring benefits to their group by partnering with others.


James, J. Thinking in the Future Tense. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996.

Kotter, J. P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Reich, R. The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st-Century Capitalism. New York: Knopf, 1991.

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