Using Information Technology Tools in Education:
An Interview with Rodney L. Everhart
by James L. Morrison

[Note: This is a re-formatted manuscript that was originally published in On the Horizon, 1999, 7(6), 2-x. It is posted here with permission from Jossey Bass Publishers.]

Rodney L. Everhart has served as president of SCT Education Solutions, a provider of software and services to higher education worldwide, since January 1, 1998. From 1985 to 1989 he served as CFO. Everhart previously was CEO and president of LEXIS-NEXIS as well as senior vice president of Bellcore, the world's largest telecommunication software and services company.

James Morrison (JM): Rod, can you explain the forces driving the use of information technology tools in education today?

Rodney Everhart (RE): There has never before been a period during which more forces have had an impact on higher education at one time. The biggest forces driving educational change today are changing demographics, the demand for unlimited access, spiraling costs, the issue of competencies versus degrees, the knowledge explosion, and the increasing need for lifelong learning. I would like to comment on each one of these if I may.

Changing demographics. The typical student of the past (a full-time student between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two who lived in a campus dorm) accounts for about 25 percent of the student population today; adult and nontraditional learners make up the rest. In fact, the adult learning segment is approaching 50 percent of the student population. That is a significant change from the past.

Unlimited access. Today's student population expects access to information twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In the past, we used batch processing: computers were grinding away during the night, and users had access to them only during the normal workday. That is not acceptable now; data must be available whenever the users want it, and that demand is driving the use of IT tools.

Spiraling costs. Spiraling costs are driven by a couple of factors, one of which is cost inflation, which has been greater in higher education than in other parts of the economy. This increase is due to fixed facilities and decreases in state and other funding sources. From a cost standpoint, this puts significant pressure on college and university leaders, who have tried to pass along cost increases in the form of higher tuition and fees. The present dilemma is that many constituents—students, parents, even the government—are concerned that there is an imbalance between the cost of education and the value of what is delivered. Universities must equalize the value of the education delivered and the fees charged in such a way that the education consumer feels good about that balance.

Competencies versus degrees. Traditionally, academic programs have focused on a broad-based, degree-oriented education. Today, employers are looking for skill sets and competency, not just a degree. There is a conflict between educational programs and the needs of employers, and that conflict is opening the door for different kinds of education, such as programs that are willing to guarantee students' competencies rather than simply their seat time.

Knowledge explosion. We are inundated with information. The typical student today faces more new information in a year than our grandparents faced in a lifetime. Instructors must assist students in translating information into something they can use.

Lifelong learning. In the past, people could graduate and expect to have a career based on that initial foundation of learning plus on-the-job training, but that simply isn't the case anymore. The current rate of change and the speed at which things move from state-of-the-art to state-of-the-practice are so great that people need to relearn continually. Basic education must focus more on how to learn, how to keep pace, and how to establish a program of continuous learning on which to build. People who know how to do those things will succeed. Schools will also need to provide more lifelong learning opportunities so that people can keep up with this new challenge. Just two years ago, a computer science graduate proficient in C++ was at the top of the game. Today, if you aren't knowledgeable in Java, Enterprise Java Beans, and object-oriented capabilities, you are behind the times.

JM: What are the implications of these forces for educational organizations?

RE: Because of some of these changing dynamics, institutions must become more competitive than they have been in the past. For example, there are schools whose main competitive advantage used to be their location; they served students in a certain territory. Now, however, physical boundaries are coming down. Students can attend a university by taking the virtual courses it offers, getting degrees from the institution of their choice instead of from the university physically closest to them. Schools are going to have to think about and capitalize on their unique differences more than they have done in the past. To this end, they will need to do more one-to-one marketing and become more focused upon their constituents.

Sometimes it seems that university representatives forget their mission and whom they are trying to serve. They should always remain focused upon their constituents, which means, of course, primarily their students; but the constituent family also includes employees, faculty, alumni, and prospective students, both within and outside local geographic boundaries. To serve all these people, university administrative systems should be able to do more than just manage the enterprise from a back office. They have to help the university accomplish its real mission, which is to provide outreach and service to constituents and to strengthen the relationship that the university has with those constituents. This means that the information in a university's database has to be given, on a preferential basis, to the constituents that are affected. This need is driving a whole series of changes, and universities have to adopt and adapt to new technologies to remain competitive.

Another force I mentioned earlier is the demand for unlimited access, driven by a desire for self-service. In general, students, faculty, and employees are happier accessing and influencing data themselves than having to go through other parties to achieve the same results. At many universities, students still have to go from building to building and person to person to accomplish a given task when they would much prefer to handle tasks themselves via the PC by interacting with the university database—by going online to register for classes, for example, or to get their grades, resolve a payment problem, have a transcript sent to a graduate school, or change their mailing address. To respond to this preference, universities will need to offer more self-service capabilities so that their constituents can perform such tasks themselves. This is also good for the university, because if administrative tasks can be handled through self-service, then the university is free to focus on its primary educational mission.

JM: In an earlier issue of On the Horizon, Art Padilla described an institution with a specific educational focus: the University of Phoenix (Padilla, 1999). What role do you see for the increasing number of corporate and for-profit institutions of higher education?

RE: Private enterprise is seeing an opportunity to provide a service and get paid for it. Corporations are motivated by business opportunities, and they're finding that there is a market for higher education services.

The higher education market is viable for two reasons. First, we have moved from an industrial economy—where the competitive advantage was having the capital needed for plant equipment and raw labor—to an information era, or knowledge era, in which knowledge workers are starting to make up the bulk of the population, and the "capital" is knowledge itself. Knowledge workers, almost by definition, have to continue to increase their skill sets and to absorb and digest more information. The competitive advantage in this world is innovation and creativity. That is one thing contributing to the growth of the education market: we have become a service economy served by knowledge workers.

Second, the technologies have finally come together to provide something that wasn't possible before: the delivery of course and learning materials via the telephone wire. Many technology developments (for example, telecommunications bandwidth capabilities, the power of PCs, state-of-the-art software development and delivery) have combined to make this possible. So there is now a way to access education easily. If you said to me, "Rod, you need to keep up your skills. You need to go to class every Thursday night," I would have to reply, "With my schedule, there is no way I can do that every Thursday." And I wouldn't go to class. But if you tell me that I have unlimited access to this material and can take a course on Saturday afternoon or Sunday morning or Tuesday at 2 a.m., then I can say, "Now you're talking. I can do that." When you give me the flexibility of an asynchronously delivered course, available through the Internet, that I can take at my own pace and at my own location, then I'm interested in learning. This is the case with tens of thousands of people who suddenly have access to something they never had access to before and are aware of it. That is why there is a big growth market for higher education and that is why we are seeing entrepreneurial, technology-enabled for-profit institutions entering this market.

JM: Many thanks, Rod. We appreciate the opportunity to obtain the perspective of an information technology business executive on the future of higher education.


Padilla, A. "The University of Phoenix, Inc." On the Horizon, 1999, 7(4), 1, 4–7. Available online:

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