|by James L.
[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in
On the Horizon, 1999, 7(5), 2-4. It is posted here with permission
from Jossey Bass
Judith Boettcher is executive director of the Corporation for Research and Educational
Networking (CREN), a nonprofit organization that provides knowledge services and Internet tools
that support research and educational networking. Member services include seminars, webcasts in
strategic technology areas, and software tools that enable information technology
professionals to understand and exploit advances in technology. CREN's services are
supported by institutional member fees, member services, and vendor support. This
interview is a continuation of the one published in the preceding issue (Morrison, 1999).
James Morrison (JM): Judith, in one of the lead articles Phil Agre is concerned
that information technology (IT) and the ease of being able to complete courses from many
different institutions and the concomitant pressure to standardize courses will serve to
reduce the flexibility that professors currently have. Do you agree that the articulation
problem forecast by Phil will occur? What will be the consequences?
Judith Boettcher (JB): I think that Phil sets forth a persuasive
argument for the danger that may lie ahead in terms of the pressures for standardization
because of the ability of students to "collage" a college degree together. On
the other hand, virtually all our experiences with technology point to the likelihood of
faculty, students, programs, and institutions having more choices, and more options,
rather than fewer. In other words, IT generally brings less standardization rather than
more. The ability to customize and thereby optimize at the individual unit is a large part
of what makes technology so powerful.
Most of us are familiar with the term mass
customization. Mass customization is essentially an IT approach to designing products and
services. The number of products now available is virtually unlimited. Young children and
parents can go to the Lands End catalog online and create their own combination of color,
style, and fabric shirts. People remodeling their kitchens go and design their virtual
kitchen before ordering the custom cabinets. Is this customization or standardization? I
would argue that it is "customization within boundaries."
Daryl Conner, a leading change consultant, has
a new book out, Leading at the Edge of Chaos, in which he promotes the concept of
"structured flexibility" for organizations. This is probably a healthy way to
go, and it is not unlike what we have always done in higher education. I am not
suggesting, however, that we do not have to change. Rather, it is possible that all must
changein the direction of the learner's structured flexibility.
Let's go back to Phil's term, "ontological
standardization." The term (as he notes) comes from the need to define the sorts of
data objects in programming that will be created and stored. This term comes from a need
to define the "sorts of things that the world is made of." Some of the things
that higher education is made up of are courses, grades, and coursework. I think that we
may find going down this path of "course articulation" difficult, frustrating,
and ultimately unworkable. And thus it probably won't happen.
This level of specification of higher education
is simply too artificial and superficial. If we go this route, I fear that we will replace
one level of bureaucracy with another, more formidable one. This bureaucracy would argue
against customization, and thus would probably be a real hindrance to effective teaching
and learning. The real "objects" in higher education are knowledge
objectscore concepts that enable a student to know a whole flowering of related
knowledge objects and content.
Unfortunately, measuring and defining these
concepts is difficult because they are embedded within larger courses that have hard
shells around them. But we have already in place signs of what might work in the future
when we have students taking courses from multiple universities. This is the direction of
testing and awarding credit at a level higher than the course. For example, the GED tests
high school equivalency, advanced placement tests award varying degrees of credit based on
achievement testing, and other programs test for knowledge at other levels, such as the
professional boards. What is missing is testing for a degree in history or communications,
So, while course articulation is an interesting
concept, we may want to think more seriously about the distinctions between "what is
to be learned" and "how the learning is to be done," and then test and
evaluate at the "what I know" level. One more thought. If core concepts are
learned, that is the "what" that makes the rest possible. So only one-third of
the course needs to be structured and predictable at the core. The rest can be flexible
and customized. In this approach, there is lots of room for customization and meeting
faculty and student needs and preferences.
JM: Judith, you are a leading expert in electronic networking in educational
organizations. How can information technology tools be used to stimulate and enhance
JB: Good question; too few are considering how, when, where, and for
what technology tools should be used. Though change is taking place, many educators are
still using Information Age technology with Industrial Age learning experiences. For
example, we are all comfortable and adept at the classroom and course model of learning.
It is natural for us to want to preserve that model as we move to the Web. We ask, But how
can we do our lectures on the Web? And, How can we know who our students are on the Web?
How can we really interact with our students? The last question is the best one, I think,
and one that will lead us to developing a new Web model of instruction.
Moreover, many educators are blindly
adopting information technology tools without truly rethinking their usefulness in the
learning process. Much of this is a natural phase of adopting technology, but we need to
be aware that it is best if we move on. The practice of putting narrated PowerPoint slides
on a Web site is an excellent example of how we have not analyzed media possibilities in
terms of the knowledge to be learned. If the content of the slides is really important, is
clicking through a Web-based PowerPoint presentation the best way for students to learn
that content? Do the students actually learn through listening and following a PowerPoint
presentation on the Web? How is this different from a similar presentation in a classroom?
It is hard to say, but should be examined.
Maybe the best thing about putting
presentations on the Web is that they form an information archive, a set of class notes.
We should examine how the Web enhances learning the content that is on the slides. One
strategy that we might incorporate is building question, response, prediction slides into
an online presentation. We know that learning occurs when students need to make decisions.
And the computer makes it easy to do this. Also, I suspect much shorter segments will
become the norm.
JM: The world of textbooks is changing rapidly. I was recently in a focus group
sponsored by a major publisher that was developing a platform that allowed teachers to
combine textbooks, other readings, and multimedia learning tools. For example, a teacher
could insert verbal comments on a section of text that could be accessed by students via a
simple mouse click, just like a hyperlink. Where do you see textbooks going?
JB: Print publishers are starting to develop a vision of their role in
the new digital age. I used to think that paper and printed books would disappear. I have
changed my mind about that; paper, and particularly paper books, will be around for a long
time because they are a good technology. I think that paper will become, however, much
more of a medium for temporary use. I commonly print out something to read, review, and
reflect on, and then I throw it away and store the information digitally.
Content publishers now offer literally
hundreds of "book sites" that are starting to evolve into databases of content
including a rich set of URLs. These book sitesas they growwill be able to
serve as resources for more than one course. What will these resources be called: content
sites, discipline sites, or course sites? I am not sure, but the boundaries surrounding
course content will blur quickly. Courses now are all designed to fit a three-credit,
fifteen-week-semester model. Faculty work in the future may be to tap into these content
databases and design programs that will be interdisciplinary and of varying lengths and
sophistication to fit their studentsa much easier process than in the past. Students
will also benefit because they will be able to tap into the same database and fit the
content to their particular customized interests and needs. The Web does not have the
natural bounds that a book has, so the size of the course database will fit students who
only want to learn the basics and also students who are impassioned by knowledge. All of
this is possible today, but it will be much easier in the future. Convenience is a great
determiner of what we do.
JM: There are a number of demographic pressures affecting access to higher
education that educational leaders find alarmingthe increasing numbers of students
graduating from secondary schools, the increasing proportion of graduating classes who
want to go on to postsecondary education, and the increasing need of employed (and
"downsized") adults for professional continuing education. The concern is that
we will not have enough space for these students. What role do you see for technology
JB: Technologyand particularly learning via the Webis a
major new tool that has brought hope to those working on the problem of access to higher
education. But, of course, the problem is about more than access. The question is, Access
to what? One part of the access question is access to the tools that enable us to learn
via the Web. The other question of access is access to the education that is right for the
individual and for the society.
The problem of access to information technology
tools is diminishing; but then access is also more needed than ever. Over the last
thirty-five years, technology power has increased at the rate of one generation of
technology every eighteen months. (Gordon Moore of Intel first stated this principle in
the mid-1960s, and it has proven to be a reliable predictor of the rate of technology
change.) If that trend continues, and it promises to continue for at least another ten to
twelve years, then technology access will probably not be a problem. It will be as
ubiquitous and affordable as the telephone or television or car. However, I think it is
important to think of the definition of access as a moving target, just like the
definition of literacy. When we define access today, we often refer to the availability of
basic productivity tools: word processing, spreadsheets, and the Internet. These
productivity and communication tools are now available in a variety of computer
appliancesfrom the desktop to the laptop to the pocket computer. (Pockets might have
to be a little oversized, that is true.) Web access and e-mail are also coming to personal
digital assistants (PDAs), and Web access is coming to the home via new telephone devices!
In the next five to ten years, the definition
of access needs to include an evaluation of how convenient and easy to use technology
tools are, as well as how much they cost. We already know that some households do not have
Internet because of the complexity of access, which means that no family member has
sufficient knowledge to introduce or support technology use in the home. In addition to
that problem, the cost of access will be a growing, formidable challenge.
Just as we have seen a shift from hardware to
software costs, so, too, will we see a shift from the cost of simple, free Web access to a
variety of costs for access to well-structured, credible, and easily researched content.
So access will be ubiquitous, I believe, but the amount and sophistication of access will
The other component of accessaccess to
appropriate and timely educationis much more complex. It is a good topic for another
time, and maybe someone else!
JM: Where is distance learning headed?
JB: Distance learning is moving to the home, to the office, to the
car, and to the conference centerin short, to wherever people are. In some respects,
this is not much of a change; students have always done much of their learning outside the
classroom, and they have always learned while studying and conversing with other students
and while completing projects. But with distance learning, the classroom is wherever they
are, whether that is the library or the kitchen table or the neighborhood streets where
they walk while listening to audiotapes.
The distance learning movementcombined
with our new high-tech learningis behind the launching of a whole new set of
institutions that will design programs for specific target populations. Microprogramming
means designing programs for a group of students with their specific identities, needs,
and schedules in mind. This is a huge growth area, I believe.
JM: Many thanks, Judith, for sharing your thoughts on electronic networking in
Conner, D. R. Leading at the Edge of Chaos: How to Create the Nimble Organization. New York: Wiley, 1998.
Morrison, J. L. "Electronic Networking in the Future: An Interview with Judith V. Boettcher." On the Horizon, 1999, 7 (4), 23.