|by James L.
[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
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 CollegesJunior 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
organizationsbut 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 producewhich
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
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
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 versionthe 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.