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

[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 Publishers.]

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 change—in 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 objects—core 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, for example.

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 learning?

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 sites—as they grow—will 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 students—a 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 alarming—the 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 here?

JB: Technology—and particularly learning via the Web—is 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 appliances—from 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 vary significantly.

The other component of access—access to appropriate and timely education—is 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 center—in 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 movement—combined with our new high-tech learning—is 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 the future.


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), 2–3.

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