Electronic Networking in the Future:
An Interview with Judith V. Boettcher
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1999, 7(4), 2-4. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Judith Boettcher is executive director of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN), a nonprofit organization that supports low-cost access to global electronic networking for education. CREN sponsors online seminars, workshops, and educational materials in information technology planning and creates software tools that enable information technology professionals to understand and exploit advances in technology.

James Morrison (JM): Judith, what future developments in information technology (IT) tools will affect the way we teach and operate educational organizations?

Judith Boettcher (JB): Future developments in IT tools will center on teaching and learning online. These tools will assist faculty in the design and development of online courses and in the management and delivery of online teaching and learning. We are seeing the rapid evolution of these types of tools in the form of Web course management tools, which represent a partial solution to the troubling challenge of providing support for faculty and students using online learning. These tools will become essential for most institutions. Even those institutions with good-to-excellent IT infrastructures will find that these tools simplify the effective, widespread deployment of Web use.

The other choice we have is to outsource the work of putting courses online. This strategic choice can make a lot of sense. Consider these two scenarios: First, even if I have a great IT infrastructure, outsourcing makes sense if my institution wants to offer a new comprehensive program quickly. Putting thoughtful, redesigned, effective programs online is an eighteen- to twenty-four-month project. If the need is to offer a program quickly, and speed is the most important criterion, then outsourcing can make good sense in the short term. In a second scenario—that of a campus with little or very overworked IT infrastructure in place—then it can be logical to purchase ready-made support and online infrastructure support.

Other evolving IT tools will have different types of features to assist faculty. The tools will have (1) templates for different types of courses, (2) collaboration tools to assist faculty and students in different types of interaction online, and (3) applications for testing and tracking student performance and for reporting back to students.

It is also important to watch the development of Internet2. As most everyone knows, Internet2 is the next generation of the Internet. A common question is, "How will Internet2 be different from the current Internet?" It will be much faster, and that faster speed will make all the difference in what will be possible and commonplace in teaching and learning online. Just as the current Internet makes e-mail commonplace, predictable, and affordable in online teaching and learning, Internet2 in the future will make high-quality video collaboration commonplace. With ease and comfort, Internet2 will support audio and highly graphical media messages and resources. The technology will be here; how we use these tools effectively for teaching and learning will be a growing and critical challenge. We need resources dedicated to this question.

Doug van Houweling, who is in charge of the Internet2 project, is focusing the project to ensure that distance learning applications, such as collaboration and effective access to data resources, will be well supported. (See the TechTalk featuring Doug at

The barriers to effective—or one might say "comfortable"—virtual learning are coming down. I still do not have a camera on my computer for one-on-one videoconferencing, but I think that is soon going to be more standard.

JM: What are the major issues facing educational organizations as they attempt to incorporate information technology tools in teaching?

JB: There are many major issues. Let's talk about just three: time, resources, and knowledge. Time is a precious commodity, but we need to change, and change requires time. Change also requires the energy it takes to rethink how educators can achieve their teaching goals with the new tools. All of us are facing serious time constraints. But I think that faculty who are directed nonchalantly, with a wave of the hand, to put their courses up on the Web are facing some of the most serious constraints. Putting a course on the Web can take two hours, two days, or two years. And the results correspond to the effort and support expended. Given two hours, a course can have a "Web presence." A syllabus and a course description and a faculty picture and bio can be up on the Web.

Given two years, support, and release time, a course can be made available to anyone in the world at any time and can make use of the new Web teaching and learning paradigm. This paradigm effectively supports, for the first time ever, a balance of the three dialogues: faculty to students, student to student, and student to resources. This means that we can create environments in which students are more active in their learning. The principles of Malcolm Knowles, which recommend that adults set their own learning agendas and schedules, now can be put into practice. We can create environments in which faculty are not the hub of the teaching environment. With the Web, the Web itself can be the communications hub of the learning. The faculty member can support learning without feeling pressured to "give" or "dispense" learning through lecturing.

The second major issue is that of resources, and it is closely related to the time issue. The new tools require resources for their purchase, maintenance, and backup. Also, faculty and students need one crucial but nonfinancial resource: the time to learn how to use the tools effectively.

As new resources become available, educators must evaluate them, then find the resources to purchase them, to integrate them into the infrastructure, and to support them. Both the know-how and the financial resources to do this effectively are scarce and expensive.

Finally, we come to the third issue of knowledge. Even if all the resources needed to effectively integrate the new information technology tools into teaching and learning were available, the knowledge of how to effectively use these tools to redesign learning experiences is just now evolving. How will we develop this knowledge? I think we can and must do two things. One, we must put the tools in the hands of the faculty and let them use them. Predictably, knowledge evolves with the use of the tools. The second thing we need to do is invest more resources at the national level in basic research in learning. We know much too little about learning, and even less about effective adult learning.

JM: What does distance learning mean for faculty? For staff development?

JB: Besides trouble, anxiety, pressure, and uncertainty? It means opportunities for growth, revenue, and service!

Distance learning, or even just the move to online teaching and learning, means that faculty have a new set of tools with which they can make long-desired changes. The new distance learning environments bring new challenges, but they also provide answers to old problems. For example, more active and collaborative learning activities for students—which can be difficult to create in the traditional classroom—are easily created in distance education environments. Online courses also make it much easier to bring in remote resources such as content experts. It is much easier now to provide a new, rich set of content resources that can challenge and interest all students.

As institutions gain more experience with distance education, many are finding that the primary bottleneck for implementing DL programs is not faculty culture but faculty resources. There are simply insufficient numbers of faculty on staff to manage the current campus programs and to develop and launch new distance learning programs. Also, the skills needed to design and develop the new environment are still lacking. So many institutions are finding that it makes better business sense to hire other faculty to deliver the new distance learning programs. This usually works particularly well in professional programs—such as engineering, medicine, business, and law—where the faculty members are often working professionals.

What does distance learning mean for staff? It means reengineering all student services and activities so that they are available to students even when those students are not on campus. It means reexamining what student services are important and valuable to off-campus and to remote students and ensuring that, at minimum, it is not more difficult to contact people and access information from a location off campus than it is from on campus. Most students find that services available on the Web are very desirable. Web services should be available anytime and anywhere—just like distance learning.

We have a busy time ahead. The pace of learning and teaching—and the need to know—have never been greater.

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