The Role of Technology in Education Today and Tomorrow:
An Interview with Kenneth Green
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1998, 6(5), 2-4. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Kenneth (Casey) Green is the founder and director of the Campus Computing Project. Begun in 1990, the Campus Computing Project is the largest continuing study of the role of information technology in American higher education. Green, a visiting scholar at Claremont Graduate University and a senior associate of the TLT Group, is a leading authority on integrating information technology tools in education.

JM: Casey, you are one of the best-informed people in the country as to where we are today on the role of technology and distance learning in education. Where are we?

CG: Jim, you offer a generous assessment of my role as someone who gets to watch the pace of IT activity in higher education.

But let’s move on. An October 1997 U.S. Department of Education report, based on a 1995 survey, suggests that the majority of U.S. colleges are engaged in distance learning programs and that distance learning students may represent from 5 percent to 7 percent of total enrollment. These now-dated numbers notwithstanding, I believe we are in the early phase of the implementation curve on technology-enabled or technology-enhanced distance learning.

Yet it is clear that colleges and universities are under increasing competitive pressure to achieve quick success in this area because of the growing demand for distance learning and the growing numbers of for-profit firms that are in or entering this market.

JM: So do you see this as a recent development, or simply an outgrowth of existing trends?

CG: It is important to remember that distance learning is not new to American higher education. Land-grant colleges first supported distance learning more than a century ago via their agricultural extension programs. However, some things have changed dramatically over the past decade.

First and foremost of course is the sheer demand for training, programs, and certification: this growing demand has been prompted in part by changing demographics and in part by the increasing need for continuing education and training in the labor market.

Second, there is the common assumption in both the campus and corporate sectors that technology will make distance learning easy and profitable. Many individuals on both the campus and the corporate side look at the University of Phoenix as the model for successful and profitable distance learning programs. Unfortunately, these folks forget (or may not know) that roughly 90 percent of the seemingly ever-expanding enrollments at Phoenix consist of part-time students sitting in classrooms staffed by part-time faculty.

JM: Does this incredible demand cause problems in and of itself?

CG: The current buzz about distance learning reminds me of the behavior of the California forty-niners some 150 years ago. Growing numbers of colleges and academic programs eager to stake their claims are rushing forward with little real planning or mapping of the terrain. Certain there is gold in distance education, many campus and public officials believe that institutions absolutely must be there ahead of (or at least shoulder-to-shoulder with) the competition: other colleges and universities, commercial ventures, and in-house corporate training centers. Having spent some time wandering the Web or captive to Mind Extension University’s (now the Jones Knowledge Network’s) cable offerings in hotel rooms while they travel, administrators and program coordinators are often surprisingly confident that instructional technologies (cable, video, and the Internet, among others) provide a low-cost, high-revenue distribution channel.

Alas, technology-laden distance education is neither simple nor inexpensive. It is best viewed as a business, one that involves real and recurring costs—money, time, personnel, and content—as well as a significant technological infrastructure. For many campuses and programs, it may well be a very risky business.

JM: How is distance education changing now?

CG: Clearly new technologies and new players are changing the nature of distance learning programs. Among nonprofits, collaborative efforts such as Western Governors University, the California Virtual University, and the initiative sponsored by the Southern Regional Education Board are very interesting; time will tell if these efforts can deliver quality programs that win student and employer acceptance. Concurrently, the corporate presence is reflected in two ways: some offer enabling technology and services (for example, the Real Education model) while others function as potential competitors to “traditional” programs and institutions (for example, University of Phoenix, Knowledge University, or even the British Open University, recently chartered in Delaware to do business in the United States). Both models contribute to changing market perspectives and institutional behaviors.

We really are in the infancy of distance learning. The history of colleges and universities has been marked by a steady expansion of boundaries, structures, and markets. Higher education’s clientele, mission, curriculum, and institutions have changed dramatically since the day those first ten students began their studies at Harvard some 350 years ago. Unfortunately, too few people in academe today are willing to recognize this history in the context of current events. Consequently, many faculty and administrators fail to recognize that the shifts under way today are part of continuing evolution and expansion. Much of the highly charged language used today to characterize the demise of instructional quality and academic integrity in on-line instruction, distance learning, or the programs of proprietary institutions such as the DeVry Institutes or the University of Phoenix parallels the same arguments offered forty and fifty years ago against the transformation of two-year teachers’ colleges into four-year comprehensive institutions, or the expansion of community colleges into “full-service” institutions that would offer a broad range of academic and occupational programs to a wide range of clientele.

JM: Is there a lesson to be learned from this parallel?

CG: The cautionary Chinese proverb can be applied accurately here: be careful what you wish for, as you may just get it. In one sense, academe’s long-held wishes are indeed coming true. Over the past decade, the often ephemeral topics of conferences and keynote addresses—lifelong learning, information technology, universal access—have quickly become part of the new landscape of postsecondary education, in the United States and across the globe. These changes reflect a growing demand from new and different learners for postsecondary education in new modes and new forms. These changes also reflect the inability of “traditional” institutions, from elite research universities and residential institutions to commuter schools and community colleges, to be all things and provide all services to all potential clients in the twenty-first century.

JM: What do you see as the major impediment to getting faculty members to use information technology tools in their instructional approach?

CG: Data from the 1997 Campus Computing Survey reveal that campus officials across all sectors of higher education identify “instructional integration” and “user support” as the most important IT issues confronting their campuses over the next two to three years. Stated simply, these are not small challenges. [A summary of the 1997 survey results appears on the Campus Computing Web site.]

I believe that infrastructure fosters innovation. My research and my campus visits over the past decade tell me that infrastructure has a number of key components: hardware and software; networks, training and user support; content, financial, and strategic planning; and recognition and reward for faculty efforts.

But in the end, the real issue is that faculty must believe that technology makes a difference—a compelling and significant difference—in what they do and how their students learn. It’s not enough for one teacher to tell a second, in the hallway or at an academic conference, that technology provides access to rich content or fosters student engagement. Faculty members need to believe that technology makes a significant difference in educational achievement and learning outcomes. The academic evangelists and early adopters among us are true believers, which explains their passion and commitment. But the larger population of faculty, Everett Roger’s “early and late majority,” still need compelling evidence before they will invest in efforts to integrate various kinds of IT resources into their instructional activities.

JM: Where do you think faculty will be with regard to using technology in their instruction by 2010? Can you describe a day in the life of Professor X?

CG: As the keynote speaker at an EDUCOM Conference in Los Angeles just over a decade ago, then-Apple President and CEO John Scully previewed a futuristic “day in the life” video of a wired professor. The video showed Professor X working from a very large, very well-appointed home office that Silicon Valley corporate executives and venture capitalists might envy. He began his day by opening his wireless notebook computer and working through a series of tasks and activities with the assistance of a smart “video agent” who “talked” with the professor each step along the way. The agent attempted to anticipate Professor X’s preferences and next steps: Should I answer the phone? Should I bring up last year’s lecture notes for this afternoon’s seminar? Would you like to see some new data or recent articles on this issue? Should I contact your friend Professor Q who is a leading authority on this topic? Please remember to call your mother.

The video both engaged and enraged the audience. Not surprisingly, many found the presentation of coming technology very engaging. Concurrently, many were enraged by the image of faculty as shown in the Apple video: wealthy, arrogant, pretentious, and not well prepared for class or even interested in teaching.

Some of the technologies presented in the Apple video are available today; more are coming very soon. For example, I have no doubt that thousands of faculty members and administrators begin their working day in front of a computer—either in their homes or in their campus offices. Faculty send e-mail and visit Web sites, check their daily schedules, update classroom materials and lecture notes, respond to student inquiries and send back papers and tests via e-mail, and confer with colleagues via chat rooms and electronic mailing lists. Many of these tasks will become even easier as high-speed Internet connections (that is, bandwidth) expand in availability to include home offices as well as campus offices in the coming years. The race is on among phone companies, cable companies, and even wireless and satellite companies to provide enhanced IT services to the millions of computer users in the United States and abroad who want inexpensive, high-speed Internet access from their homes. As bandwidth improves, video conferencing via the Internet, now in its infancy, will explode.

JM: Describe the future of information technology tools in education.

CG: What else lies ahead? At minimum, we’ll have more and better technology to assist with many traditional faculty tasks. Certainly speech recognition will be part of the generic set of software resources by 2010. Smart agents will anticipate user needs and preferences. Wireless high-speed networks will be common. Multimedia and three-dimensional modeling, now in their infancy, will show up in more parts of the curriculum.

However, the technologies ahead are not products or services developed specifically for education; rather, they are products and services that will have important consequences, and offer significant benefits, for millions of students and faculty over the next two decades.

Yet in the end, there is a plus ša change quality about this discussion—the more things change, the more they stay the same. The technologies coming to market over the next decade are more likely to enhance what faculty already do rather than fundamentally change faculty behaviors and practices. We will continue to teach in classrooms and to confer with students. We will continue to communicate with our departmental, institutional, and disciplinary colleagues. And we will continue to engage in all forms of scholarship, from pure research to simply staying current with the content of our respective disciplines. The basic responsibilities of faculty for instruction and scholarship have changed little over the past fifty years. Yes, information technology tools enable us to do many things differently, to do them better and faster, and to do some new things; nonetheless, the core professional commitments and responsibilities remain, regardless of the new, engaging, and potentially enabling technologies that come to market and find a place on campuses and in schools.

JM: Thank you, Casey, for sharing your insights into one of the most challenging issues facing educational leaders today.


Lewis, L., Alexander, D., and Farris, E. Distance Education in Higher Education Institutions. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Education, Oct. 1997; also available as an Acrobat document.

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