Telecommunications and the Future:
An Interview with Sally M. Johnstone
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1999, 7(3), 2-3. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Sally Johnstone has been a leader in telecommunications and higher education for the past fifteen years. She heads the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications and was part of the team that planned the Western Governors University. She is on the board of the Open University of the U.S. and on the board of the American Association of Higher Education. Because Sally is an exceptionally busy person, this interview took place via phone as she drove from her office in Boulder to a reception in Denver for Mary Beth Sussman, outgoing president of the Colorado Electronic Community College, who has assumed the presidency of the Commonwealth Virtual University of Kentucky.

James Morrison (JM): The virtual university is a recent development in higher education. How would you characterize emerging virtual institutions? What is their future?

Sally M. Johnstone (SMJ): The term virtual university has many very different meanings. David Wolf (executive director of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges—Junior Division) and Steven Crow (executive director of the Higher Educational Division of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges) have been compiling a taxonomy of these different forms. For example, one type of virtual university is just a listing of the courses available from a group of related or unrelated campuses. Another type of virtual university is an actual consortium of colleges and universities that articulate credits among them. Another type is a single institution that grants degrees but does not have what we commonly think of as a campus. This list is not comprehensive but I hope it gives a sense of some of the variability in the use of the term at this point in time.

There is a need for all these types of organizations—but calling them all "virtual universities" can be misleading to students, who expect to be able to go to a Web site and actually find courses, register for them, and complete all the transactions to begin working toward a degree.

JM: What future developments in information technology tools will affect teaching and administration in educational organizations?

SMJ: Our world seems to be moving faster and faster in terms of developments in this field. In the past month I have heard or read about:

  • New developments in display technologies and organic conductors that may allow display screens and microprocessors to be very small, bendable, and cheap to produce—which means they will fit almost anywhere, from your car's dashboard to the tag on your jacket.
  • Wireless communication pricing that ignores long distance price differentials.
  • New undersea cables going in to provide more intercontinental bandwidth.
  • The development of planned low orbital satellite systems that will allow rural users access to bandwidths never before possible. Access to higher bandwidth means that people in these areas can begin to use high-speed modems that can save them money in long distance charges when they surf the Web or download complex materials.
  • A company in California giving away computers to people willing to be online at least ten hours a week, to reveal personal information about themselves, and to see lots of advertising.

How do these developments relate to education? They are evidence of the potential for relatively inexpensive telecommunications to become readily available, which will further break down the barriers to fully integrating telecommunications technologies into the teaching and learning processes. Educators need to acknowledge that the environment in which their students live is not the same environment in which they learned the lessons of their teaching craft and the knowledge of their field.

JM: What are the major issues facing educational organizations as educators begin incorporating information technology tools into their work?

SMJ: The greatest challenge is recognizing that incorporating information technology into the teaching- learning process means rethinking every aspect of how we work and do business. The implications are astounding. We now have the tools to individualize learning. There is no longer any need to put forty, eighty, or three hundred individuals in a lecture hall three times a week for an hour at a time to listen to a faculty member impart information. Students can interact actively with information in a variety of ways with the guidance of their instructors. Let me give you an example. What is now the lecture portion of a course can be translated into other media and worked through interactively by the student. The discussions among students and with faculty can take place in multiple environments that can be determined by the nature of the specific material under discussion. Some of that interaction may be electronic, some of it in small groups (with or without a faculty guide), and some may be one-to-one with a faculty member. The nature of the interaction can guide the medium.

What we don't have in place is a structure to enable us to really use information technology tools. We also do not have structures in place that will allow us to gracefully make the transition from traditional to technology-informed teaching. I think it's clear to everyone that business-as-usual with just adding on technology is too costly; consequently we need to think in terms of totally restructuring the way in which the whole educational enterprise functions in this new environment.

JM: Can you explain what you mean by "restructuring"?

SMJ: Restructuring implies rethinking all aspects of the teaching-learning enterprise from who is where when to who does what when. Let me give you just one example. The job we now call a faculty position is narrower than it was two hundred years ago, when faculty performed many of the operations to keep a campus functioning. However, I think we are likely to see the teaching aspect of faculty jobs move even further from the current mom-and-pop-store version—the idea of one person designing a course, walking into a lecture hall and delivering the content, figuring out how to assess students in that course, designing the assessment instruments, administering the assessment instruments, and analyzing the assessment is fading quickly. Textbook publishers sell some of these services and products already. As we move more toward technology-enabled teaching and learning, I think we will see different individuals serving in these various roles. Some individuals will be experts in the whole assessment end of their subject field; they will work not only with designing assessment instruments but also with specifying the knowledge that a student should possess before moving on to the next level. Other individuals will focus on developing learning materials, and still others on tutoring and mentoring students. We will no longer expect that each faculty member will be equally good in all of these roles. We may even come up with a different vocabulary to describe the people who direct the teaching-learning process and certainly different reward systems from those currently in place.

JM: Many thanks, Sally, for letting us in on your view of how telecommunications will affect our work in the future.

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