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The Learning MarketSpace, February 1, 2003

Written monthly by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg, The Learning MarketSpace provides leading-edge assessment of and future-oriented thinking about issues and developments concerning the nexus of higher education and information technology.


This is the last issue of The Learning MarketSpace in its current format. Beginning with the March 2003 issue, this newsletter will be merged with the Pew Learning and Technology Program Newsletter (a quarterly electronic newsletter produced by our Center). We will retain the name, The Learning MarketSpace, for the new newsletter, and it will be published on a quarterly basis. The lead article in each issue will feature our ongoing assessment of developments in the world of higher education and information technology.

For this issue, we thought it would be fitting to look back at what we were thinking in July 1999 when we began this publication and take stock of the issues we then believed were important. In the first issue of The Learning MarketSpace, we talked about the origin of the name we chose for our monthly newsletter. We noted that today every business and organization operates in two worlds: a physical world of resources that we can see and touch and a virtual world of information. Jeffrey Rayport and John Sviokla from the Harvard Business School coined the term "marketspace" to distinguish this new information world from the physical world of the "marketplace."

A few examples illustrate the distinction. When students arrive on campus as freshmen and move into residence halls, they enter the physical world of higher education. When they access the Web to write a research paper and communicate with their professors via email, they move into the learning marketspace. Universities provide educational services to students in classrooms and they offer online courses via the Internet. Bookstores sell learning materials in both the "place" and the "space."

We said that The Learning MarketSpace would focus on the "space" of higher education, taking account of the interplay between the space and the physical world of the campus. Our conviction was that the space would increasingly dominate the world of higher education. Our goal at the time was to help institutions and companies navigate the transition from one world to the next, and that will continue to be our goal in our new quarterly format. We planned to organize our commentary and analyses in each issue around six themes. Here's what we said about each of these in mid-1999 (in italics) and what we think about them today.

We planned to organize our commentary and analyses in each issue around six themes. Here's what we said about each of these in mid-1999 (in italics) and what we think about them today.


What do we know about the learning marketspace? Well, for one thing, it's going to get crowded. In addition to most of the 3600 institutions of higher education seeking to be players in this space, corporate entities--both new and existing--are rapidly entering the fray.

While some companies intend to compete head-to-head with existing institutions, most of the current players seek collaboration with colleges and universities. Thus, the space offers unprecedented opportunities for our institutions to re-think the ways in which they do business.

Our institutions have stopped re-inventing the wheel when it comes to administrative applications and automated library services, and we believe the same thing is beginning to happen in the instructional arena. Future issues will track these developments and analyze the risks and rewards of corporate/higher education collaboration.

In the years since we wrote those words, we have watched with some bemusement higher education's response to the so-called phenomenon, particularly the rise and fall of for-profit subsidiaries. In our April 2000 issue, we observed the following. "Several well-known universities have recently announced that they are forming for-profit subsidiaries to deliver distance education. Our reaction is somewhat the same as that attributed to Mark Twain upon first hearing Wagner--it's better than it sounds. A successful subsidiary delivering distance education will require a level of research and development uncharacteristic of institutions of higher education. There is nothing to suggest that institutions of higher learning possess the skill set, management flexibility, or entrepreneurial reward structure to be successful in the creation and maintenance of customer-attractive, asynchronous learning products. Absent major R&D investments, forgoing the master teacher paradigm in favor of design teams with broad skill sets, and new compensation strategies, it is highly unlikely that our current institutions will be the developers of compelling, micro-immersion learning environments for remote learners--even in a for-profit subsidiary."

We continue to see collaboration rather than competition with the private sector as the most promising strategy for our institutions. The reason is simple. Collaboration enables institutions to strengthen themselves by focusing on their core competencies and outsourcing their non-competitive areas. We think it not coincidental that the business models of three of the higher education companies still standing after the dot-com debacle-- Blackboard, Collegis/Eduprise and WebCT--depend on collaboration rather than competition. Through collaborative relationships with these companies, organizations like the University of Baltimore and the Tennessee Board of Regents have been able to develop highly successful online degree programs without creating an elaborate IT support structure--and to do so in less time than it took the failed university dot.coms to create their Web sites.

We note with some dismay a new institutional interest in developing homegrown learning management systems. The question isn't whether institutions can write and maintain such systems but rather whether or not it is cost effective to do so. Outsourcing allows the costs of developing and maintaining such systems to be defrayed over a large number of institutions. We are confident that in the teaching and learning arena, as in the case of library and administrative systems, cost considerations will win out over local idiosyncrasies. But what a lot of time and effort that could be put to more productive use will be wasted in the meantime.


New developments in information technology, whether in the form of a specific technology or as a major modification in the shape of the industry, will sometimes have a startling impact on academic practice.

Continuing competitive price reductions leading to the under $500 personal computer and industry mergers of telephony and cable accelerating the availability of broadband access will renew discussions of university- sponsored PC labs vs. student ownership. New standards for courseware presentation such as the IMS may lead to both new courseware suppliers and modified thinking about outsourcing.

We will look at these and other issues surrounding new products and services in future issues of The Learning MarketSpace. Our goal will be to spot the significant trends and developments that change the dynamic of the use of technology in teaching and learning and force a re-thinking of our assumptions about academic practices.

The diffusion of the Internet throughout American society continues to increase. According to the February 2003 UCLA report "Surveying the Digital Future," in 2002 more than 70 percent of Americans used the Internet, The number of hours online continued to increase rising to an average of 11.1 hours per week in 2002 (up from 9.4 hours in 2000.) Almost 60 percent of users have Internet access at home, a substantial increase in only two years from the 46.9 percent of users who reported home Internet access in 2000. Of non-users, 47 percent said they are somewhat likely or very likely to go online in the next year. While broadband access is increasing, however, only 17 percent of households have it (up from 8 percent in 2000.) Most households still connect to online service with a telephone modem (75 percent). As student PC ownership also continues to increase, our institutions are facing new pressures to provide online learning options and services.

We have not yet seen significant developments that change the dynamics of teaching and learning. The bulk of activity on our campuses consists of putting courses online, and for most, the existing capabilities of the predominant learning management systems are more than adequate. (Compare, for example, the impact of mp3 files, burnable CDs and file- swapping technologies on the music industry. In a recent issue of Wired, the editor of Billboard was quoted as saying, "How much you want to bet that the entire music industry collapses? And I mean soon--like five, ten years. Kaboom!") We are still a long way from academic technological applications that have that kind of impact.

Nevertheless, we are seeing glimpses of what is possible. In past issues of this publication, we have pointed to examples of applications emerging from our Center's Program in Course Redesign that are affecting both the quality and cost of teaching and learning. Virginia Tech, the University of Alabama and the University of Idaho-Moscow, for example, have quite literally revolutionized the way math is taught. Even using a simple technique like automated (computer-based) grading of homework exercises, low-stakes quizzes, and tests not only increases the level of student feedback (improving learning) but also offloads these rote activities from faculty and other instructional personnel (reducing costs.) Look for the widespread adoption of these and other techniques to increase over the coming decade.


The worldwide higher education landscape is experiencing an explosion of interest and activity in creating virtual universities. In most cases, traditional institutions are extending their campuses into the space by replicating the processes of the place, seeking to compete primarily on brand recognition. These efforts, we believe, will have limited success for they fail to take full advantage of the space.

In future issues, we'll be tracking virtual university developments, but we won't be reporting the news that can be found elsewhere. We will assess potential winners and losers and give you the reasons behind our thinking. Even if you don't agree with our conclusions, perhaps we may cause you to think about things a little differently.

In our May 2001 issue, we noted that while almost every state in the U.S. is engaged in some kind of virtual university consortial effort, it is questionable how far these efforts as currently constructed can go toward meeting their goals of expanding educational access and contributing to economic development. In most cases these consortia operate primarily as a referral service; none are degree-granting and none offer their own courses but rather list those of the participating campuses. As a consequence (with the notable exceptions of the Tennessee Board of Regents Online Degree Programs and UMass Online), the majority of students taking courses in these virtual university endeavors are simply on-campus students studying online at their home campuses.

A more promising approach, we believe, is to create an entrepreneurial entity whose purpose is to identify unmet need for higher education in the state and incent the development of online programmatic responses from existing institutions. This idea is currently under consideration in Virginia. Rather than aggregating the state's existing online offerings, the entity would first conduct a demand study to identify what kinds of programs (credit or non-credit programs; associate, baccalaureate or graduate degrees; in what academic and professional areas) would respond to the unmet needs of the state's citizens. This study would enable the entity to prioritize educational need and subsequent programmatic development, beginning with those areas of greatest demand and moving on seriatim to address each area that has sufficient critical mass to make program development economically feasible.

Following the completion of the study, the entity would issue one or more RFPs over time to the state's institutions of higher education to develop a programmatic response, either singly or consortially. The state's institutions (public and private) would have a right of first refusal, that is, an exclusive opportunity to respond to each RFP. If no institution responds or if the responses received are judged to be inadequate, the entity would then issue the RFP to out-of-state public and private providers. The entity would also provide seed money, or venture capital, to each contracting state institution to assist in program development, market research and business planning for ongoing self-sufficiency. Finally, the entity would retain responsibility for assessing the effectiveness of each program for which they awarded a contract. A full report describing this idea is available at (You might recognize the authors.)


There are two principal interests in information technology as it applies to academic practice--quality improvement and cost containment. The former tends to be of interest to just about everyone. The latter sometimes has difficulty in discovering a champion.

Institutional administrations are frequently too focused on revenue enhancement and insufficiently attuned to the possibilities of cost containment. Most institutions carry their public "spin" on costs into their private strategizing failing to face up to the high cost of postsecondary education--even in public institutions. Simultaneously reducing costs while improving quality is generally not discussed. Our institutional structures leave faculty with a major stake in instructional quality and no investment in cost containment. Entrepreneurial strategies to unleash the intellectual capital of the faculty are hard to find.

We will be taking a look at topics ranging from the staggering debt burdens of graduates to the accelerated use of adjuncts and contract faculty to examples of successful cost containment efforts through the use of technology.

In our May 2002 issue, we noted that American higher education is facing an ongoing fiscal crisis that appears to be evident to just about anyone who is not in higher education. Parents, students, journalists, legislators and other public policy makers decry the constant rise in college costs. But how many within higher education concede that it's a problem, much less propose ideas about how to deal with it? To be sure, many recognize budget shortfalls and the pain that results when old methods of freezes, cuts and tuition raises are once again trotted out to deal with them. But we can't name more than a handful who understand that higher education faces an ongoing productivity problem that will not be resolved absent innovative approaches to restructuring and that it's a problem that will continue to get worse. Most of higher education's executives are conducting a holding action, furiously managing the status quo.

We find it both astonishing and depressing that higher education-- especially in its association--sis doing absolutely nothing to address the issue of rising costs, other than offering apologies for the phenomenon (and we don't mean that they're saying they're sorry.) The only efforts trying to deal with the cost issue are foundation-funded. (For example Mellon and FIPSE have sponsored a number of small projects that focus on cost effectiveness. The Pierson-Lovelace Foundation and the California Community Foundation are supporting a Project on the Future of Higher Education, which is trying to envision new models that will enhance undergraduate learning and increase the quality of faculty work life in a climate of reduced resources.) The voices of higher education's leadership are remarkably silent.

The most promising solutions to the problem of rising costs, we believe, are emerging from our Center's Program on Course Redesign, originally supported by the Pew Charitable Trusts, but now moving into a new phase. All 30 institutions involved have reduced their costs by 40% on average (from 20% to 86%.) Collectively the 30 courses project an annual savings of $3.6 million. In addition, each of the 30 institutions has conducted a rigorous evaluation focused on learning outcomes as measured by student performance and achievement. Results to date show improved student learning in 19 of the 30 projects, with the remaining 11 showing no significant difference. Other outcomes achieved by the redesigns include increased course completion rates, improved retention, better student attitudes toward the subject matter, and increased student satisfaction with the mode of instruction compared to traditional formats. We believe that redesign is the watchword of technology's promise for higher education.


As the full impact of information technology on academic practice begins to be appreciated, we can expect that inertia, in the form of cultural resistance, will begin to rear its head. This is most often thought of in the form of faculty backlash but in truth, it is engaged in by the entire institutional structure.

To be sure, some faculty--but by our observation not as many as might be expected--appear to be resistant to the changes made possible through the use of information technology. Characterizations of distance learning as the "5-minute university" are symptomatic of this trend. It is our view that much of this perceived resistance can be traced to the misalignment of institutional intentions and the set of faculty rewards currently in effect.

We will, in future issues, be looking at a plethora of topics that impinge on the issue of cultural resistance--accreditation, for-profit educational models, surveys ranging from Yahoo to US News and World Report, assessment, copyright and the like.

In our February 2000 issue we discussed how Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' well-known characterization of the five-stage process of grief can be applied to how many in higher education have reacted to the move from face-to-face teaching to distance learning. At that time, we said that our community has moved beyond denial (the thousands of students successfully involved in online learning have pretty much convinced us that it's here to stay) and anger (most academics are willing to discuss the issues surrounding distance learning calmly and objectively.) We believed that higher education was then in the bargaining stage (distance learning is suitable for adult students but not for young students; distance learning is okay for training but not for education). The bargain: we will co-exist with distance learning as long as it is confined to other institutions (it's okay for Jones but not for State U)--or to the continuing education branch of our own institution--or to other courses (not ours).

Happily, a significant number of our community, especially those in leadership positions, has moved beyond the bargaining stage. Most seem to have skipped depression (or perhaps those who did not have retired) and are well into the fifth and final stage--acceptance. To be sure, there are many on campus still stuck in the earlier stages, but it seems to us that the tide has turned. Campus discussions now focus more appropriately on how best to conduct online learning rather than whether to do it at all. Increasingly, quality assurance and regulatory organizations, from the regional accrediting associations to the federal government, are beginning to view distance and online learning as merely--in UIUC's Leigh Estabrook's famous phrase--a scheduling option.


One thing is clear: public policy designed to regulate the place becomes meaningless in the space. The explosion in online offerings has forced policy makers to play catch-up in this rapidly changing environment.

Today, the public policy debate surrounding distance and distributed learning is clustered around two primary questions: how do we assure quality and is competition a good or a bad thing for higher education. In both cases, how the question gets answered depends on whether you are standing in the place or the space. As an example, traditional quality assurance measures like regional accreditation or the amount of student- faculty interaction become less relevant in the disaggregated, disintermediated world of the space. More refined approaches and new techniques for assessing learning effectiveness are required.

In future issues, we will focus on those public policy issues with implications for the learning marketspace. In each case, our goal will be to help you think about these issues from a new perspective.

Existing quality assurance agencies have begun to grapple with the world of the space by using the same methods they apply to the place. In essence, their position is one of vouching for the provider: if the offering institution meets traditional quality assurance standards, then its online courses and programs must be okay. That's not a bad start. It moves away from establishing a double standard for online education and, it recognizes the simple point we made in our September 1999 issue. Every student who receives college credit for a course--whether taken online or on campus does so because the faculty member teaching the course (who has been appointed and reviewed by his or her colleagues and institution) evaluates what and how well the student has learned.

Relying on faculty judgment may be necessary, but is it sufficient? We think not. Any discussion about quality in a distributed learning environment must first ask "quality from whose perspective?" If we are looking at quality from the viewpoint of most traditional higher education institutions, we are likely to get a very different answer than one offered by students studying via technology, especially distant learners. Online learning poses a set of issues about what information consumers need to make intelligent choices among a bewildering array of new and unfamiliar options, simply because there are more options. Our March and April 2001 issues discussed ways that student interests might be better represented in the world of the space, and we continue to believe the next step in quality assurance is to concentrate of students' need for comparative information.

Quality-assurance approaches that rely solely on faculty judgment are cropping up in other online arenas as well. Both the MIT OpenCourseWare Project and Merlot (the latest incarnations of "build it and they will come") seek to create repositories of technology-based learning materials whose contents are vouched for by institutional reputation (MIT) or by individual faculty contributors (Merlot). While Merlot hopes to use a peer- review system to evaluate the thousands of materials in its database, the reality is that only a tiny subset has been evaluated, and most of the reviews are favorable (few get less than four stars.) What's missing, in our view, is evidence showing that using particular materials improves student learning. Just as national and regional quality assurances processes are moving inexorably toward assessing student-learning outcomes, so too do we need smaller repositories of electronic learning materials whose primary criterion for inclusion is a positive impact on student learning.


Of the many articles that we've collaborated on during the past ten years, perhaps our favorite is one we wrote in 1997 for the Educom Review called Interpolating the Future. In it we said, "In times of major upheaval, we must learn to interpolate rather than extrapolate. Extrapolation looks at the past and assumes, in the words of the systems theorist Jerry Weinberg, that the future will be like the past, because in the past, the future was like the past. In most situations confronted by our organizations, this is a reasonable approach. However, when a revolution is brewing, such a focus on the past can be very misleading. A better approach is to create a scenario of what you believe the operating climate for your organization is likely to be in the future and attempt to set a course based upon interpolating between where you are now and that future scenario. Such an interpolation will suggest courses of action that look very different than those derived from extrapolation."

Arthur C. Clarke's observation that "when it comes to technology, most people overestimate it in the short term and underestimate it in the long term" has become a modern-day maxim. This accounts for the predictions of the 1930s that looked forward a few decades and saw things like personal helicopters, robot servants, and commercial flights to the moon. Conversely, it also explains why Thomas Jefferson thought his Louisiana Purchase would give Americans a frontier to explore for at least 500 years or that Bill Gates thought that "640K ought to be enough for anybody."

As we look back on what we said almost four years ago when we began The Learning MarketSpace, one conclusion might be that we overestimated the amount of change we saw on the horizon or the speed at which it would happen. On the other hand, as we said in that 1997 article, "While interpolation runs some risk of overestimating the rate at which the future will arrive, it is a strategy that will bridge the chasm. Extrapolation will be a failed strategy because, in the words of an old Chinese proverb, it is impossible to cross a chasm with a thousand small steps. Tinkering at the margins is a strategy focusing on the past that is guaranteed to miss the sea change that is about to wash over higher education."

We hope you've enjoyed our efforts to interpolate the future. We look forward to doing more of the same in our new format.

--CAT and RCH


February 24, 2003, Dallas, Texas

Co-sponsored by the Executive Forum in Information Technology at Virginia Tech

This seminar will present results from the third of three rounds of the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign. Learn from faculty project leaders how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology. Faculty from four institutions will talk about their models of course redesign, including their decisions regarding student learning objectives, course content, learning resources, course staffing and task analysis, and student and project evaluation. These models provide varied approaches that demonstrate multiple routes to success, tailored to the needs and context of each institution.

These seminars provide a unique opportunity for you to:

  • Learn firsthand how to increase quality and reduce costs using information technology from successful faculty project leaders.
  • Find out how to design learning environments for the future by tapping the expertise of those who have done it.
  • Talk with experienced faculty from multiple institutions about how and why they made their redesign decisions.
  • Move beyond "today" and learn where on-line learning is going . . . find a model that will work for your institution.


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Archives of The Learning MarketSpace, written by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg and published from July 1999 – February 2003, are available here.

You are welcome to re-post The Learning MarketSpace without charge. Material contained in The Learning MarketSpace may be reprinted with attribution for non-commercial purposes.

Copyright 2003 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.