The Technological Revolution:

Reflections on the Proper Role of Technology in Higher Education

Jack M. Wilson

J. Erik Jonsson ’22 Distinguished Professor

Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Troy, NY 12180


  • "The Technological Revolution: Reflections on the Proper Role of Technology in Higher Education;" a chapter in In Defense of the American University; ed.: Philip G. Altbach et al.;  Johns Hopkins University Press; Sept. 2001.


There is little doubt that technology and diversity have presented two of the largest challenges to universities and university administrators over the last decade.  While the issue of diversity is one of finally coming to grips with issues that have been with us for centuries, the issue of technology is trying to cope with issues that change faster than anyone can possibly accommodate.  There is an important message there.  Technology will undergo 100% change roughly every two years.  People, individually or collectively, change very slowly.


There is little disagreement with the need for universities to change in response to the revolution in information technology.  There is consensus agreement that the world has changed dramatically and that our students must be prepared differently to survive and thrive in the new environment.  But how?  Exactly how should universities change?  What are the immutable values of the university?  How will universities be able to afford the changes?  How will the faculty change?  How will the students change?  How will the facilities change?  How will the curriculum change?  On these questions, there is little agreement.


The lack of agreement does not preclude a plethora of opinions.  At one extreme, faculty organizations are expressing their concerns about the effects on the academy.  At the other, venture capitalists are dumping hundreds of millions of dollars, perhaps billions, into new ventures that purport to be the wave of the future.  “Bricks and mortar” are viewed as passe, while everyone embraces “virtual education”.  The lack of agreement about just what constitutes “virtual education” is no barrier to the rapid formation of “Virtual Universities” in every state and every region.


The rapid pace of change depends upon the rapid pace of development of computing, communication, and content.  Three laws underlie the changes.  Moore’s Law tells us that the power of computing doubles every 18 months.  The bandwidth law tells us that communication bandwidth (unit communication capacity) doubles in about 12 months. Metcalf’s law tells us that the value of a network increases with the square of the number connected.  These three laws combine to change the world in dramatic ways on a time scale that is so much faster than the usual university responses, that it is not surprising that the effects are disconcerting to everyone.


On a much slower time scale, we are learning much more about how human beings learn.  The cognitive sciences and other educational research are yielding results that have serious implications for how we organize our learning communities.  These principles are now being adapted into new learning environments.


There is no simple single solution for how universities will change, but there are emerging patterns and some practices that appear to be both consistent with our community’s values and with the changing world.  It may be that an effect of the overall change will be to differentiate universities further as we serve a more diverse and rapidly changing world.

Future of the University

Focus, Differentiation, Mass Customization, and Globalization

In the early part of this century there was significant differentiation of American universities by mission.   Institutions would focus on teacher education (normal schools), liberal arts, land grant universities, selective brand name universities, engineering schools, regional institutions, and so on.  During the second half of the this century there was a convergence on a mission of a comprehensive research university that was at least partially the result of Vannevar Bush’s vision for the role of research in the university.  The normal schools became universities; the liberal arts colleges began hiring and promoting faculty based upon their research; the engineering schools became technological universities.  The differences have surely not been eliminated, but he direction was convergent and not divergent.


In the 80’s and 90’s institutions began to run into some of the limits for this convergence. The cost of higher education was advancing faster than the cost of health care!  Parents began to look hard at their higher education expenditures.  Legislators turned their attention to the cost of higher education.  Perhaps the cost of having every institution be all things to all people would be just too high.  In at least a few cases, institutions began to consider how to differentiate themselves from one another.


Babson College is one outstanding example of focus and differentiation.  They decided that they would focus on entrepreneurship and drive that focus to national pre-eminence.  Today they are recognized as the world’s leader in entrepreneurship education.  The Thunderbird School of International Business is another example.  It is hard to believe that a world leader in international business education could develop at an abandoned air base in Arizona, but it did.  Focus and differentiation made the difference.  The California Institute of Technology is a prestigious example of differentiation.  Caltech decided to remain small and to remain focused upon a very small high quality undergraduate program in Science and Engineering and world class research and graduate education in a few focused science areas.  The 1999 U.S. News and World Report ranking catapulted Caltech into the number one position.  Once again this was a victory for focus and differentiation. 


At the other end of the higher education pecking order, the University of Phoenix has become the fastest growing university and one of the largest by focusing on providing convenient, commodity level education in high demand areas and making access easy and schedules flexible.  Britain’s Open University paved this way decades earlier.


It is much too early to declare the era of differentiation, but there seems to be an indication of a trend.


The trend toward differentiation appears to include a trend toward mass customization.  Until recently, mass customization was an oxymoron.  Today it is a central tenet of the information economy.  Companies like Dell Computer have grown to be the world’s largest supplier of personal computers by building every computer to order.  The young upstart has eclipsed companies that clung to the old model of mass production, channel distribution, and large specialized inventories. elbowed its way into the clubby book business with a brash business model that tied them far more directly and personally with every customer. customers often receive book recommendations based upon their past reading, buying, and browsing patterns.  The new economy industries know their customers and treat each one individually.  Each business experience is customized to the customer.  It is done on a mass production scale.


Mass customization would mean that higher education would become much more responsive to the individual students needs rather than addressing general needs and assuming that every student would fit into general programs.  It could include the development of degree programs that draw on “best of breed” programs from several institutions.  It may be that the development of the National Technological University (NTU) is a harbinger of other programs that adopt the practice of combining courses from several institutions to create new degree programs.  This has also appeared in a more restricted form as schools collaborate to meet the needs of students.  At

General Motors, engineering employees can pick from programs that combine courses from (for example) Stanford, Rensselaer, and Purdue.  In some cases the degree may come from Stanford and in others it might come from Rensselaer.


Mass customization might also mean that education is delivered in multiple formats with multiple examples that meet the needs of a diverse student population.  Mass customization is often confused with being “student centered.”  Although the student centered approach to education can indeed be a part of mass customization, it is a very different concept.  A student centered learning environment, which is part of many (if not most) undergraduate innovations, refers to transferring the focus of the activity from the instructor to the student.  Rather than having teachers working hard while students listen.  The student-centered environment expects that it will be the students working hard while the faculty member listens!  The confusion about a student centered environment and the market forces of mass customization have caused some to fear a “customer is always right” approach to higher education.  “Is a student-centered university providing a better product for its customers?” wonders Frank Furedi in the Times Education Supplement. “No it is not. The marketisation of higher education is forcing universities to be driven by concerns that have little pedagogic value,” he concludes.[1]


Globalization of education is a trend that runs counter to the trend toward differentiation.  Differentiation may no longer occur on the basis of regionalization in many higher education segments.  While students were once compelled to accept programs from one of the local institutions, today they may have a choice of programs provided by universities who are not local.  For example, the two largest providers of on-the-job Master’s level engineering education to General Motors’ engineers are Rensselaer and Purdue.  Many of General Motors’ employees are in or near Michigan, but the two state universities have a much smaller presence.  At Rensselaer’s Hartford Connecticut campus, Rensselaer departments find themselves in competition with programs from Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, MIT, and others.  Often these programs are provided by and billed through the Rensselaer Hartford campus!  In industry, this has been dubbed coopetition.


Globalization has also led to the formation of global brand names in higher education.  Recently, MIT concluded a cooperation agreement with Cambridge University that created a multinational brand in technological university education and research.  The British government agreed to provide $109 million and to raise $26 million from private sources to create the new center to be based in Britain.[2],[3]  Prior to that MIT had concluded a large agreement to provide Singapore with higher education services,[4] and received a $25 million gift from Microsoft to enable the distance-learning portion of the relationship.[5]  


The entry of the top ranked universities into the distance learning market has been astounding to some of the more traditional observers.  Distance Learning has often been viewed as the province of “correspondence schools” or “diploma mills,” and not the business of the top Carnegie Research I universities.  With MIT now entering the arena, Stanford long established as a distance-learning leader, and countless other schools vying for the market, distance learning has become mainstream.  New York University has gone so far as to spin off their distance learning program as a for profit venture called “NYU On-line.”  Their plan is to augment the $1.5 million investment from NYU with capital raised from private venture capital sources.[6]


The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania, Johns Hopkins University and Teachers College at Columbia University took a different tack. Rather than creating a new private venture, they teamed up with Caliber, a joint venture of MCI and Sylvan Learning systems, to offer their programs at a distance.  The programs involved are all top ranked programs.  Distance learning has clearly entered the top tier mainstream.


In the rush to the distance learning markets, universities have not always been careful to take into account the lessons learned from the centuries of higher education.  Many of these programs are driven by technology and not pedagogy.  Technology is a powerful driving force that must be reckoned with, but centuries of history and the recent research coming out of the cognitive sciences on how human beings learn will have much to say about where this technology will take us.


The Relentless Forces of Computing, Cognition, and Communication

The advances in computing, communication, and cognition are both driving and enabling this rapid change in higher education.  We have become the victims of our own success.  The research of our faculty and students has created a relentless flood of new possibilities and new demands.  Ever since the invention of the microprocessor, the performance of a microprocessor has been doubling every eighteen months. This is directly related to the number of components that can be fit on a chip and is thus related to the minimum size of each component. Advances in basic physics and engineering have kept this law accurate for over five decades!  The basic physics is in place to keep this going for another few doubling periods at least.  Moore’s Law [Moore's Law] is the simplified statement that computing power is doubling every 18 months. An alternate perspective states that the cost of equivalent computing power halves every 18 months.  Either way it creates a real challenge for universities to keep up. 


Communications technologies are developing even faster!  The bandwidth density in fiber is doubling every two years, but that is only half the story.  Fiber is being laid and wireless deployed so quickly that bandwidth is doubling in less than a year!  These two doubling laws tell us that we will see more change in technology in the next two years than we have seen in the last few decades.


The convergence of computing and communication has led to the development of massive networks. Metcalf’s Law tells us that the value (economic and otherwise) of a network scales as n2 where n is the number of persons connected.  This helps to explain the enormous values that Wall Street assigns those companies that appear to have locked the most customers into their networks.  Companies like America On-line (AOL),, and eBay have established networks of users that are so much larger than their competitors that the value comparison is overwhelming.  The recent merger of AOL and Time Warner demonstrates graphically the value assigned by Metcalf’s law.  In the resulting company AOL will have 55% of the merged company to Time Warner’s 45%.  This is in spite of the fact that Time Warner has four times the revenues of AOL and has its roots in one of our oldest and largest publishing empires.  The market assigns greater values to AOL’s network than it does to Time Warner’s revenues!


These three laws tell us that what is hard today is easy tomorrow.  They also contribute to the relentless nature of these technologies.  They are relentless, because they will indeed change everything whether we want them to or not, whether we engage or not, and whether we like the result or not.  We have no choice in this matter.  We will change.  The issue is: how will we change? 


In the early part of this century, the automobile was the relentless technology.  It changed the way we live our lives irreversibly.  It changed the way we work, changed the way we live, and changed the way we court.  It led to the rise of the suburbs, the creation of malls, the decline of the suburbs, the collapse of mass transit, the spread of smog, and built the greatest industry of the middle part of this century.  We did not make those as choices.  For the most part, it just happened.  One would like to think that if the world had been more proactive about it, we would be in a better place today!


Today the convergence of computing and communication is the relentless technology.  It is changing the workplace, our mode of living, and our approach to business.  It has built the greatest industries of this century.  Our three favorite laws tell us that it has only just begun.  Universities are only just beginning to adapt to these changes.  Will we engage and lead?  Or, will we let the changes take their course?


Trends in higher education

Suddenly even Wall Street thinks that education is an opportunity.  Some have suggested that over $1.7 billion has been invested in new ventures in an effort to tap an education market estimated at over $600 billion annually.[7]


There are those who think that higher education will indeed be displaced by other alternatives.  Stephen Talbott argues that this will indeed happen and that it is the universities own fault.[8]  While Talbott seems disturbed (even angry!) about these prospects, Lewis Perelman is positively welcoming.[9]  He remarks that “I've analyzed and forecasted trends that, I am increasingly confident, will lead eventually to the collapse of the academic system in a way and for reasons that are basically the same as those that led to the collapse of the Soviet system.”  Perelman does not think that there is any hope at all for reform in higher education and he thinks that reform is a complete waste of time.  In his words: “I have no interest in reform; and, when asked, I discourage others from wasting time and money on it. Education reform over a period of decades has proven to be either unnecessary, futile, irrelevant, or even downright harmful. [10]


Some take a “matter of fact” approach to the changes that may neglect some of the subtleties of the changes while recognizing the inevitability.  Dewayne Matthews, from his post as director of student exchange and state relations at the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE), assumes that “programs can be structured around asynchronous learning.[11]  As we will see, this certainly requires a much more calibrated approach.  One needs to ask: Which programs? For what audience? Under what circumstances?  An asynchronous program for a motivated adult learner in a discretionary program may be the ideal solution.  An asynchronous program to teach calculus to young adults with the expectation that over 90% of them will be able to use calculus in the next course is a much more difficult proposition.  WICHE was a prime mover in the Western Governor’s University (WGU) and the WGU programs reflect that “matter of fact” approach.  It may be that some issues accepted at face value require a deeper analysis.


Others in higher education are in denial.  They hide behind platitudes of “immutable values” and “centuries of stability.”  One university administrator once responded to one of my talks by asserting that the current structure of higher education was the “stable product of long evolution.”  I pointed out that the dinosaur was one of the most stable products of long evolution, but that evolution does not create “stable products!”  It will be important to understand the core values and practices and to see how they play out in this changed environment.


Responses of the University

Some faculty members view change with quite a bit of trepidation.  I have been asked more than once “if you can put my course on a web site, then you would not need me any more?”  I always answer, “If you can be replaced by a web site, then you should be replaced by a web site.”  The question reveals both a lack of self-confidence and a severe misconception about the nature of the educational interaction. 


If professors are viewed as purveyors of information, then they surely can be replaced by high quality web sites and CD-ROMs.  A writer in Prism Magazine asked "If a student can zoom the best professors into his or her living room, then what is to happen to the rest of the countries professors?"  I’ve heard this misconception in many forms.  It again assumes that the role of the professor is only one of presentation of information.  That is much too narrow a view of what a professor does.  If the first worry were true, then professors would have been replaced long ago, first by books, then by audiotapes, and then by videotapes.  If the second were true, then we would surely have been replaced by live televised courses. 


Technology for the Learners’ Sake

Each of these technologies has had a time of hype followed by disillusionment (at least on the part of the proponents!).  They all have their place, but they all failed to replace the professor.  They all failed to do that because they cannot do what a good professor does.  A good professor interacts with the students, stimulates them to think, prods them into new insights, motivates through personal interaction, and provides a role model for intellectual inquiry.


Visiting an outstanding web site can be an illuminating and exciting experience.  One can even learn from that experience.  Watching a superstar give a lecture can lead to the same results.  Neither of these can replace the experience of two or more minds making their way through a complex concept together.  It might be students interacting with students or students interacting with professors, but working on a problem or concept collaboratively is a special learning experience.  The best professors have always generated these kinds of interactions in their classes.  This is not a new issue, but it is often ignored when technology enhanced learning or distance learning is discussed.


This does not mean that technology cannot be used to allow and even enhance these kinds of interactions.  It means instead that using technology to automate lecturing does not a professor make.  Technology can be used to allow more meaningful kinds of interactions at a distance.  Technology can allow simulations and group activities that stimulate these kinds of interactions.  Unfortunately technology can also have the effect of damping these kinds of interactions.  It all comes down to the design of the learning experience.  Technology by itself neither guarantees nor inhibits quality.  The design and the delivery of the educational experience is the critical factor.


Well-designed technology enhanced classrooms incorporate communication (written, electronic, peer discussion, face to face, electronic face to face.) as part of the educational experience.  Well-designed courses focus on the quality of the educational experience.  Focusing on the total educational experience means that one looks at more than what happens in the classroom.  It includes everything from the residence, admissions process, student support, classroom experience, testing, career counseling, and other areas.


Technology for Technology’s Sake

The focus on the learner that is discussed above can lead to a misconception at the other end of the spectrum.  The mantra is often phrased as “no technology for technology’s sake.”  That is an appealing but misleading piece of advice.  Because technology has become part and parcel of every profession, it is important for the students to focus on the technology!  Ability to use technology in creative, even astounding, ways depends upon a deep knowledge of both the potential and limitations of technology.  It presupposes a deep understanding of the technologies themselves.


Technology needs to be included both for its own sake and to enhance the learning experience.  Both are valid goals and both should be assessed in any innovation.


Residential Education

The effect on residential education is of serious concern to many.[12]  Will the University of Phoenix (or one of its many competitors) put the local colleges and universities out of business?  There is no easy answer to this question.  The differentiation of mission that is likely to occur implies that there will be many different kinds of institutions vying for student’s attention. 


If we once again return to our understanding of education and values, we would expect that the residential university would continue to have a place in the spectrum of higher education.  When it comes to the education of young adults prior to their entry into the workforce, residential higher education has much to recommend it.  Technology will improve both the quality of residential undergraduate education and the chance for survival. 


Technology can break down the barriers of distance and allow cross-cultural collaboration in spite of geographic isolation.  Many of the traditional liberal arts colleges are found in rural or small town settings.  In an earlier era, the cloistered environments were thought to be conducive to focussing on learning and allowing opportunity for reflection.  The other side of that coin is the risk of provincialism, lack of diversity, and inaccessibility of urban and global experiences.  These smaller undergraduate colleges also find it difficult to offer the student the broad range of courses and experiences that are available at the large research universities.  Technology can help demolish those obstacles.


Technology is allowing institutions to share courses, research experiences, and cross cultural experiences without regard to geography.  One such example at Rensselaer had students at Hong Kong’s City University and Rensselaer sharing a weekly graduate class in “Survival Skill for Astrophysicists.”  A large portion of the class was devoted to student presentations.  Using Video-Conferencing and Live Internet based data collaboration; these students saw each other present and could view the materials in real time at high resolution.  The professor could poll the class periodically for feedback with an Internet question and answer tool that immediately displayed student responses.  The hardest part of class organization was picking a time suitable for both groups.  We finally settled on breakfast for the Rensselaer students and dinner for the Hong Kong students.


Even the smallest liberal arts college in the central United States can now link itself with nearly any major institution in the world.  The dramatic advances described earlier in the bandwidth law, means that this kind of collaboration will get better, cheaper, and more ubiquitous.  It works now, and it will only get better. 


Can Technology Enhance Learning

Technology has also made possible pedagogical innovations that were not driven by technology but that are indeed enabled by technology.  Research in the cognitive sciences has reinforced and extended what has long been known.  Students learn more from doing than from watching.  Students learn better when engaged in group activities instead of solo activities.  Students learn as much from one another as from the professor.  Students learn more when more is expected of them.  Students have a diversity of learning styles, interests and experiences.  None of these insights has anything to do with technology.  Most have been known in one form or another for decades.


Steve Ehrmann of AAHE looked at the application of Arthur Chickering’s “Seven Principles for Good Practice” to technology-enhanced learning.[13]  These principles come from an understanding of human beings learn and not from any technological imperative, yet Ehrmann shows how these principles guide good practice in technology enhanced learning.  The seven principles are:

1. Good Practice Encourages Contacts Between Students and Faculty

2. Good Practice Develops Reciprocity and Cooperation Among Students

3. Good Practice Uses Active Learning Techniques

4. Good Practice Gives Prompt Feedback

5. Good Practice Emphasizes Time on Task

6. Good Practice Communicates High Expectations

7. Good Practice Respects Diverse Talents and Ways of Learning


Peter Denning expands upon the themes of interactivity and the faculty member as part of a social process in “Teaching as a Social Process.”[14]  He concludes, “In spite of the stress, the good news for students and teachers is that learning is more than information transfer, that automation can affect at most the information-transfer part of learning, and that the teacher is indispensable.” I would disagree with his conclusion that technology can only affect information transfer, but I support fully his conclusion that the teacher is indispensable.


The best curricular innovations use technology to facilitate the kinds of interactions described in the seven principles.  There are many "bright spots" — current teaching methods and curricula that others can use as inspiration and encouragement.  Creative faculty members have invented so many ways to apply technology to the creation of outstanding learning environments that satisfy different local conditions and target various goals.  Most draw upon a common research base in learning and the generally accepted principle outlined above. 


A working group at the National Research Council identified a number of promising innovations in Science and Mathematics at the Colleges and Universities.  A partial list illustrates the diversity in approach and the common bonds of interaction, engagement, collaboration and peer teaching:

  • Lecture-based models: Active learning systems (Ohio State, Oregon State);
  • Mathematics Emporium, (Virginia Tech)
  • Peer Instruction/ConcepTests (Harvard);
  • Interactive Demonstrations (Oregon)
  • Workshop Physics, Math, and other courses (Dickinson);
  • Studio Courses at Rensselaer
  • Physics by Inquiry (Washington)
  • Lab models: Tools for Scientific Thinking (Tufts-Dickinson);
  • RealTime Physics (Dickinson-Oregon)
  • Recitation models: Cooperative Problem Solving (Minnesota);
  • Tutorials in Introductory Physics (Washington);
  • Mathematical Tutorials (Maryland)
  • Distributed Education models: Sloan Asynchronous Learning Network;
  • Live On-line Learning such as LearnLinc and other Web-based approaches
  • Increased involvement in undergraduate research.


It may be constructive to compare a few of these to highlight how the innovators viewed the process of reform.  Some of these models decided not to challenge the primacy of the lecture or the lecturer.  Those examples focused on reforming the lecture, engaging the student, and incorporating collaborative learning.  The interactive lecture demonstrations at Oregon and Ohio State do that through a protocol that has students make predictions and discuss lecture demonstrations before and then after performing the demonstration.  The demonstrations are often selected because they stimulate known misconceptions, force the student to take a stand, define that stand, and then confront the student with the actual result, which is often at variance with their prediction.  The creation of this cognitive conflict and the animated discussions that are generated lead to enhanced student learning. 


At Harvard, Eric Mazur has invented a system of peer learning in lectures that asks questions about concepts, lets the students make predictions, asks the students to discuss those predictions with peers, and then resolves the concept through discussion, demonstration, or derivation.


Other projects, such as Tools for Scientific Thinking, decided that the best way to reform a science course was through the laboratory.   The Physics programs of the University of Minnesota, Washington, and Maryland targeted the recitation.


For some the separation of lecture, recitation, and laboratory found in many science and mathematics courses was an unnecessary and unhelpful concept.  They envisioned a course in which students would work in groups at tables where they could set up experiments, discuss, collaborate, or listen as appropriate.  There would be mini-lectures but no long monologues.  Students would move back and forth between listening, discussion and hand-on activities according to educational need and not according to an inflexible schedule.  Rensselaer applied these concepts in the context of a large research university creating the Studio Courses[15],[16] while Dickinson College did a similar thing in the small liberal arts college with the creation of the Workshop Course series.[17]  Each of these models has garnered its share of national attention and each has been replicated many times around the world.


There were those who felt that they needed to break the bonds of both space and time.  These were the anytime/anyplace advocates who developed web based asynchronous courses that would allow the students to work on their own schedule and in their own location.  These courses were easy to build and held out the prospect of an inexpensive way to deliver higher education to the masses.  They also could address the problem of education for the older learner whose work and/or family obligations made site based education inaccessible. 


In California, where higher education is going to have to educate 30 percent more students in the next 10 years, anytime/anyplace web based education is seen as the way to avoid the substantial investments in bricks and mortar that would be required (and are probably impossible to obtain) to educate the additional students in site based programs.  This growth has been dubbed Tidal Wave II.  The California State university system expects to grow by 42% and to have an additional 12,000 to 15,000 new students each year.  This is the equivalent of an entire new campus!  In Maine, asynchronous education was viewed as a way to bring unavailable programs to learners.  The Western Governor’s University was formed amidst high hopes to address the needs of the rapidly growing western states, although California’s decision to go it alone inhibited the reach of the program.  California planned to go its own way with the formation of the California Virtual University.


The Sloan Foundation’s Asynchronous Learning program supported the creation of prototypes and provided a forum for the large number of institutions that were racing to embrace asynchronous web based learning.  In short, anytime/anyplace asynchronous education is seen as the prescription for a variety of problems facing higher education.  Although, it will undoubtedly play a role in addressing these problems, the solutions are not nearly as easy as many first thought.


Despite the obvious advantages of increased access and reduced cost, the asynchronous learning programs have to surmount a number of obstacles that could be foreseen based upon earlier research in asynchronous environments using other media.  While technology changes rapidly, relentlessly, and dramatically, people change infinitesimally slowly.  Asynchronous courses have always been most effective for the highly motivated learner or for non-mission critical educational experiences.  It has been much more difficult to use asynchronous courses to address the less motivated learner and to ensure high success rates.  For example, asynchronous learning has been successful in providing the education needed to prepare engineers for certification in Microsoft, Cisco, Novell, Java, and other technologies.  It is also terrific for leisure time education in things like photography or home medicine.  Usually no one knows how many persons start but do not successfully finish these programs, because they are rarely tracked and it does not matter.  The only thing that is important is that enough individuals come out the other end of the pipeline to meet market needs.


There are many courses that are mission critical and do not have the benefit of highly motivated students.  The introductory calculus course is a good example from higher education.  At selective institutions, we expect retention/success rates that approach 90%.  Complete reliance on asynchronous education has not yet proved practical for this level of retention.  An example of a mission critical course in industry might be the maintenance courses for airline mechanics.  This is not at all discretionary and one needs to approach 100% success.


In those many cases where anytime/anyplace courses have not proven themselves, there are many alternatives that modify the proposition to be either anytime or anyplace or even a combination of anytime/anyplace with anyplace. 


Distance learning courses that use satellite or videoconferencing technologies are excellent examples of anyplace education.  Most of the early work in technology based distance learning focused on these kinds of anyplace education.  Students could be gathered together at downlink sites or video conferencing rooms to participate in learning that broke the bounds of space, but required that students participate at the same time.  Educators quickly recognized that this kind of distance education built upon the lecture method in its least interactive forms.  In a desire to add interactivity, educators added the ability to call in or fax in to the professor.  Later some students were given keypads to participate by answering multiple-choice questions from time to time.  Videoconferencing allowed the instructor to see the students and introduced an element of personal interaction as long as the number of interacting students was kept small enough.  The level of interactivity in these kinds of courses depended critically upon the skill of the instructor in using the technology in an interactive manner.  In the worst case, the instructor would resort to uninterrupted lectures with very little interactivity.  In many ways these kinds of courses just pushed the back wall of the lecture hall out a few thousand miles!


The Virginia Tech Mathematics Emporium is a clever instance of anytime education.  The Mathematics Emporium was set up in a vacant shopping center near the Virginia Tech campus.  In that sense, it is place bound but not time bound.  Students can walk in at a time convenient to them rather than at a set time.  The Emporium uses quite a bit of information technology and is staffed by faculty, staff, and teaching assistants on a rotating basis.  If the student really wants a lecture, they are available on videotape.  Not surprisingly, that is not a popular option.  Rutgers University has used a similar approach to teaching physics with remarkably similar experiences.  They set up the walk-in physics facility in an old World War II era Quonset hut on campus.


A number of organizations have deployed hybrid systems that have a portion of the course delivered asynchronously and a portion synchronously.  The particular proportions can be adjusted to be appropriate for the content, the audience, and the instructor’s preferences.  We often refer to this as the 80-20 model, because 80% asynchronous and 20% synchronous is often a good starting point.  The 20% synchronous can be done by web based audio, video, and collaborative data sharing using live on-line tools like the LearnLinc system used at Rensselaer and Lucent.  The actual percentage can be selected to be small enough to be efficient and flexible and provide for student access, but large enough to increase the success rate for students enrolled.  The number 20% is not a magic number, but is adjusted based upon the audience and material.  These hybrid approaches that use both synchronous and asynchronous learning techniques are often referred to as Interactive Distributed Learning (IDL) systems[18]


A Web-based IDL approach to teaching need not involve only a single distinguished professor. Rather, the Web can be a networking tool, representing a collaborative approach. Teleconferences using video, audio, and the World Wide Web offer great potential for conducting courses simultaneously at multiple sites.  These models do not mean that one expert broadcasts to many students.  Instead the network connects faculty and students in peer interactions.  Division of participants into experts (faculty) and novices (students) is much too coarse a sieve.  IDL courses may involve individuals of varying expertise and diverse backgrounds. 


In a traditional course for example, there may be senior faculty who are “world class” experts in the subject, other faculty whose expertise is outside of the subject area, graduate students who bright but inexperienced, undergraduate student assistants who have only rudimentary knowledge of the subject but lots of enthusiasm, and the actual students who are enrolled in the course.  Each of these participants has a significant role in the interactions in the course.  It is particularly important to consider the level of student-to-student interaction.  In a graduate course offered simultaneously to residential students and to students in the workplace, there is an entire range of expertise.  On any specific topic, the most knowledgeable person may be a student in the workplace!


Guides for the Whitewater

Decades of experience working with universities that are applying technology has led me to a set of rules of thumb, which I irreverently dubbed the “Ten Commandments for technology in higher education”[19] in a presentation to the National Science Foundation.  These are (slightly adapted):


1.      Restructure around the learner. Neither over-emphasize nor under-emphasize technology.

2.      Build upon research results, which inform design; don’t try to reinvent the wheel.

3.      Remember that technology has an intrinsic educational value beyond helping students learn better.

4.      Do systematic redesign and not incremental add-ons. There is always a tendency to just add on a few computer experiences to everything else.  By definition this costs more, is more work for faculty, and adds to the students’ burden.  An innovative approach changes rather than adding poorly integrated exercises.

5.      Benchmark your plans and build upon examples of systematic redesign.  Do not automate the lecture.  Find the best examples and build upon them.

6.      Count on Moore’s law ("What is hard today is easy tomorrow"). For example, computer processing power and bandwidth have consistently improved.

7.      Cost is an important aspect of quality. There is no lasting quality if there has been no attention to cost.  There are more than enough examples of expensive high quality solutions.  We need more examples of inexpensive high quality solutions!

8.      Avoid pilots that linger. Design for a large scale and pilot projects only as a prelude to scaling up.  It is easy to design innovative educational experiences that work for small groups.  It is harder to address the needs of the 1000 students taking calculus I at the large research university.

9.      Develop a balance between synchronous and asynchronous distributed learning.

10.  There is no longer any way to do good scholarship without technology, and there is no longer any way to teach good scholarship without technology.


Libraries and Other Resources

As more and more universities move toward any of the models that bend the rules of space and time, it will be a challenge to provide the resources and support that have been expected in residential higher education.  The library has always assumed a central role in higher education.  Accrediting teams and evaluation teams are fond of counting volumes and measuring “holdings” as some kind of metric for quality.  Technology changes that equation rather significantly.  It provides both opportunities for access and challenges.  The World Wide Web has made many resources available as easily as sitting at your terminal, pointing and clicking. 


The rise of distributed learning has raised the issue of how universities can provide library access to students who may be thousands of miles from campus.[20] Brian Hawkins puts the library into the larger context when he considers how universities should respond to the challenges of distributed learning in an article in EDUCOM Review.[21]  The Digital Library promises to provide access to almost everything more easily than a Washington DC resident can visit the Library of Congress.  In spite of major efforts in this direction the promise remains largely unfulfilled.


Changing what we teach as well as how we teach.

As universities deploy new learning environments to meet students’ and society’s needs, it will not be a “one size fits all” approach.  Universities will analyze their historic role, their current mission, the prospective audience and a plethora of other variables and choose the approach that most closely meets these needs.


For example, in 1997 Rensselaer formed the new Faculty of Information Technology with 125 faculty members drawn from almost every discipline.  From the beginning the intent was to offer a BSIT, and MSIT, and a PhD in IT.  Research of the new faculty would focus on the cross disciplinary applications of IT.   After examining the educational issues that we have been discussing, the Faculty of IT concluded that the BSIT should focus on a residential program that would be built around IT intensive interactive studio courses.  The PhD was seen to be smaller, much more theoretically focused, but a residential program. 


The MSIT was seen as much different.  Five factors seemed to be of key importance:

  1. There is a severe shortage of IT professionals.
  2. The shortage leads to very high salaries for new BS grads.
  3. The shortage makes it difficult for anyone to leave employment to return to school.
  4. The shortage leads to massive cross training of others in related fields into IT
  5. The rapid change of technology mandates a continuous updating even for those with excellent credentials in IT.


For these reasons, we felt that the MSIT program should be designed around the paradigm of Interactive Distributed Learning.  We expect to deliver the education to the workplace and the homes of employed persons.  This will allow the further education of IT professionals in the workplace.  It will enable the cross training of related fields into IT.  It will help IT professionals to update their skills as the technology advances.  It would not require that an individual leave employment to undertake graduate work.  This need for continuous education[22] is a characteristic of many of today’s professions and professionals.


As universities respond to these relentless technologies, they will do this according to their own values, their own history, their own audience, and their own mission.  The example above is only one specific example of how a university responds to these circumstances.


Support for the Changes

Universities coping with the relentless nature of change have had a variety of support sources.  Nearly every disciplinary organization maintains standing committees that address these issues. The National Research Council has considered the issues of digital libraries and their Committee on Information Technology has prepared a report on the effects on higher education in science, mathematics, engineering, and technology education.


Several National Organizations are organized to help with the diffusion and dissemination of the innovations in higher education.  Among these are:

  • The EduCause National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII)[23],[24]
    The NLII has initiated a number of partnerships between institutions that band together around specific approaches to innovation.
  • Pew Center for Academic Transformation[25],[26]
    The Center for Academic Transformation is funded at over $8 million to help institutions reform their undergraduate programs to enhance quality, increase access, and constrain cost.  The first two are non-controversial goals, but the last has raised eyebrows!
  • AAHE Teaching Learning Technology Roundtables (TLTR)[27],[28]
    The TLTR group has taken a very traditional approach to a very non-traditional issue.  The TLTR programs stimulate the formation of stakeholder groups at institutions undergoing change.  These roundtables give voice to both the aspirations and the fears of the faculty, staff, and students.  The TLTR list-serve is one of the most active sources of information about innovations at universities.
  • The Instructional Management System group.[29]
    With hundreds of universities and commercial vendors preparing materials for uses in newly designed courses, the need for standards became clear.  Groups meeting under the auspices of the NLII began meeting to discuss both the standards and the process for developing those standards that could simplify interoperability and ease the adoption of new materials.  Eventually, a decision was made to spin off the group as a new organization.




There is no doubt that higher education faces challenges that are unprecedented in this or the previous century.  The rapid and relentless advances in computing and communication technologies have stimulated and enabled creative new ways for institutions to address the educational needs of the learners.  The disparity between the rapid dramatic technological changes and the consistency of human interactions has made this a slower and more difficult transition than many expected. 


There are now many examples of educational innovations that both accommodate the rapid change of technology and are based upon an understanding of how human beings interact and learn.  These new environments are changing and will continue to change higher education in many ways.  While the second half of the 2oth century was marked by the convergence of university characteristic, the first half of the 21st century may see increased emphasis on differentiation, globalization, mass customization, and focus.


Traditional universities will find it difficult to respond to these changing circumstances.  There will be increased pressure from non-traditional higher education providers. Proprietary universities, virtual universities, and corporate universities will continue to grow.


Nevertheless, higher education enters the next millennium as strong as it has ever been.  The relentless pressure of communication, computing, and cognition is driving change.  Some changes are completely foreseeable; others are not.  Universities can chose to lead the changes or follow the changes.  By rapidly adapting the technological advances of computing and communication and applying our research in learning in a context where our core values remain unchanged, universities will survive the “Internet Tsunami” and even thrive through the next century.  There has never been a more exciting time to work in a university.


Jack M. Wilson

Jack M. Wilson is the J. Erik Jonsson Distinguished Professor of Physics, Engineering Science, Information Technology, and Management at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.  He is also Co-Director of the Severino Center for Technological Entrepreneurship at Rensselaer.  He previously served as Dean of Undergraduate Education, acting Provost, and in several other positions since he came to Rensselaer in 1990.  Before that time, he was Executive Officer of the American Association of Physics Teachers and a Physics professor at the University of Maryland.  He is also an entrepreneur who founded the LearnLinc Corporation and continues to serve as Chairman of the Board.

[1]  Furedi, F. (October 22, 1999). The Times Higher Education Supplement.

[2]  Chronicle of Higher Education (November 19, 1999 ). MIT and U. of Cambridge Announce $135-Million Joint Venture.

[3]  CNET (Nov. 5, 1999) MIT, Cambridge Team Up,

[4]  The Chronicle of Higher Education. (May 23, 1997). Singapore Hires MIT to Audit Its Engineering Schools.

[5]  The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Oct. 15, 1999). Microsoft Will Give MIT $25-Million for Educational-Technology Research.

[6]   The Chronicle of Higher Education. (Oct. 16, 1998). NYU Starts For-Profit Unit to Sell On-Line Classes. 

[7]   Marchese, T. (May 1998). Not-So-Distant Competitors: How New Providers Are Remaking the Postsecondary Marketplace.  AAHE Bulletin. (

[8]   Talbott, S.  (March/April 1999). Who’s Killing Higher Education? Corporations and students: the unusual suspects. EDUCOM Review (

[9]   Perelman, L. (1993). School's Out: Hyperlearning, the New Technology, and the End of Education. Avon Books.

[10]  Perelman, L. (Fall, 1997). Technos Quarterly. vol. 6, no. 3.

[11]  Matthews, D. (Sept./October 1998). Transforming Higher Education: Implications for State Higher Education Finance Policy. EDUCOM Review, (

[12]  Farrington, G. C. (July/Aug. 1999). The New Technologies and the Future of Residential Undergraduate Education.  EDUCOM Review. (

[13]  Chickering, A. W. and Ehrmann, S. C. (1999). Implementing the Seven Principles: Technology as Lever. AAHE Bulletin. (

[14]   Denning, P. J. (May/June 1999).Teaching as a Social Process.  EDUCOM Review. (

[15]   Wilson, J. M. (1997). Re-engineering Undergraduate Education in The Learning Revolution. Bolton, MA : Anker Publishing Co.

[16]  Wilson, J. M. (Dec. 1994). The CUPLE Physics Studio, The Physics Teacher. Vol. 32, p. 518.

[17]  Laws, P. (December, 1991). Calculus-based physics without lectures. Phys. Today 44:12 p 24-31.

[18]  Wilson, J. M. (June 1996). The Virtual University in the Proceedings of the International Conference of the American Society for Engineering Education. Washington DC.

[19]  Wilson, J. M. (July 20-22, 1999). Creating New Learning Environments for Higher Education in Workshop on Improving Undergraduate Education in the Mathematical and Physical Sciences through the Use of Technology: Preliminary Report. National Science Foundation. (

[20]  Luther, J. (July/Aug. 1998). Distance Learning and the Digital Library. EDUCOM Review. (

[21]  Hawkins, B. L. (July/Aug. 1999). Distributed Learning and Institutional Restructuring EDUCOM Review. (

[22]   Wilson, J. M. (March/April 1997). Distance Learning for Continuous Education, EDUCOM Review, Vol. 32, No. 2, pp. 12-16. ( ).

[23]   Twigg, C. A. (1994). The Need For A National Learning Infrastructure. Educom Review 29, p 4,5,6

[24]   The National Learning Infrastructure Initiative:

[25]   The Chronicle of Higher Education. (July 2, 1999). Pew Grants to Focus on Classroom Technology.

[26]   Pew Program at the Center for Academic Transformation: .

[27]   Gilbert, S. W. (March/April 1996). Making the Most of A Slow Revolution. Change

[28]   Teaching Learning Technology Roundtables:

[29]   The Instructional Management System: .