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The Learning MarketSpace, January 1, 2000

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.


Most situations in life are tradeoffs. You can run long or you can run fast, but you can't run both long and fast. The marathoner's pace wouldn't qualify for, much less win the 100 yard dash. The sprinter's energy consumption wouldn't permit completing more than a small fraction of a marathon.

Learning, in the context of the modern college and university, is a tradeoff among three parameters—time, content and mastery. A typical two-semester math sequence could be offered in one semester. The change in the time parameter would be accompanied by a change in the mastery parameter: more students would fail to achieve the desired average level of subject mastery. The syllabus of the first semester could be stretched over two semesters and the mastery parameter would change again. The desired average level of subject mastery would rise and fewer students would fail to achieve the minimum acceptable level of subject mastery.

The twentieth century university model developed into one in which the time parameter was defined (two semesters of 15 weeks typically) and the content adjusted so that some acceptable number of students achieved the desired average level of subject mastery. Either explicitly or implicitly, the critical resource was deemed to be time with content and mastery adjusted accordingly. The latter two parameters were not adjusted the same in all content areas. Hence, a math course might have a much higher student failure rate than, say, a history course but still maintain the desired level of student mastery.

It is interesting to reflect on why we made this particular choice. Certainly our agrarian roots had much to do with the choice of 30 rather than 40 or 50 weeks as the academic calendar. The average life span of people at the turn of the century likely had much to do with setting the baccalaureate span at four years rather than five or six or some other number. We could probably add a number of other temporal and geopolitical factors to complete the reasons for eight 15-week semesters comprising the academic span of a typical baccalaureate education.

Given a reigning industrial age model of education about the turn of the century, faculty were deemed the scarce resource and an academic calendar was molded that placed time and faculty at the center and left content and mastery as variables. As any faculty member can tell you, the content base of many courses has increased dramatically during the twentieth century (particularly in the sciences.) Establishing time as fixed has required constant juggling of just how much content can and should be squeezed into the 15- week constant. As more and more is attempted to be shoehorned in, more and more is dropped out. About every 20 years we witness a new outbreak of suggestions that the baccalaureate span should be increased to five years so as to reincorporate some of the content that has been dropped or otherwise left out as syllabi are reconstructed to account for new knowledge in the content area. Ignoring perturbations caused by war or the shape of the economy, we have seen a commensurate increase in the number of advanced degrees being awarded in lieu of lengthening the baccalaureate span.

It is all too typical to approach this compromise about time, content and mastery as fixed and decided—all too easy to forget that some set of temporal conditions influenced the tradeoff that might not exist a century later. Certainly time off for summer work on the farm is a situation that effects a minuscule minority of our students as we enter the 21st century. The average life span of an individual has increased by nearly 50 percent over that same century, calling into question again the correctness of the choice of four years as the baccalaureate span. The nature of modern work and the physical and mental health of current "senior citizens" suggests that the effective and desired work life of individuals may be lengthening as well.

It is time to rethink the tradeoff.

Modern technology, in the form of inexpensive, pervasive access to high bandwidth communications and high performance computing, changes dramatically many of the temporal conditions attendant to post-secondary learning experiences. It seems likely that mastery (for a learner in particular and all learners in general) is, or soon will be, a more important parameter than time. It is now possible in most instances for the teacher to take the content to the learner rather than for the learner to come to the teacher for the content. In fact, in many learning situations the economics are beginning to strongly favor the former over the latter.

What if, for example, we set some minimum level of mastery as the constant and let the time for learners to achieve it vary? Some innovative and experimental colleges (particularly in studio settings and typically without the assistance of modern technology) have been experimenting with this for some time. Rather than have 40 percent of our students fail the first calculus course, we let the time to achieve minimally acceptable mastery of first calculus vary by 40 percent (or 100 percent or some other rationally determined number). The problem becomes not to weed out the low achievers over a fixed time frame but rather to help accelerate the slower learner to the fixed minimally acceptable level of mastery.

This would, of course, play havoc with the neat industrial age rhythms we have established in our institutions of higher learning. It would make lecture and recitation an ancillary rather than primary tool of the learner. It would move the learner to the center and the teacher to the periphery (not necessarily a less important but certainly a different vantage point for the teacher.) It would suggest that we "grade" learners on the amount of content they have mastered to some acceptable level rather than on their level of mastery of some fixed content.

It would, in effect, establish a finish line. Some learners would cross it sooner than others—but nearly all would cross it. Some might choose to run only to the finish line, others to run a little or a lot past it. Our current model has a whistle blow after some period of time, leaving runners all over the track— some past the finish line and others still well short of it. Unlike track and field games, in our current situation the losers are the ones who have to repeat in the next heat. The question we ought to ask ourselves is, "Why is it necessary for anyone to repeat?"



Everyone seems to be talking about transformation these days. But is anyone really doing it?

I recently attended a very interesting gathering of prominent higher education leaders in Washington DC whose purpose was to discuss the emerging context for quality assurance and, in particular, the role of accreditation within that context. A central premise framing the discussion was that the "new providers" of higher education are likely to produce changes in our enterprise comparable to the establishment of land-grant institutions and community colleges.

While most participants at the meeting—like most folks in higher education who pay attention to these matters—generally concurred with the premise, one seasoned professional had the temerity to question this assumption. Can anyone actually name six "new providers" which are up and running or will be so in the foreseeable future?" he asked. Like the small boy who questioned the state of the emperor's attire, he pointed out that while many proposals for new efforts are being floated, mostly it's just talk. The changes that many of us are taking for granted are hardly moving at Internet speed, if at all.

At first glance, this argument seems quite persuasive. After all, the University of Phoenix—the leading exemplar of the new providers—is really quite traditional in its operation, emulating both the form and content of many of our institutions. Its primary distinguishing characteristic—its for-profit status— makes a lot of folks in higher education uncomfortable to be sure, especially when coupled with its rapid growth rate. But after you go past Phoenix, it's hard to name any significant players who can be called "new providers," particularly at the baccalaureate level. Despite an abundance of press releases and highly touted "alliances," the other for-profit initiatives one hears about lack one important ingredient: students. The WGU's total student body, for example, is the size of one not-so-large class at a traditional university.

Indeed the vast majority of for-credit online and distance learning going on today is being conducted by highly traditional colleges and universities, building on well-established academic structures and conditions for successful learning. These initiatives create greater opportunities for students as well as greater competitive pressures among established institutions, but it's a stretch to call the universities of Maryland, Indiana and Wisconsin, for example, "new providers."

So perhaps our colleague is right when he says the transformation we're supposed to be undergoing is just noise.

Then again, there may be another explanation. I'm reminded of a line from a song, "Lookin' for love in all the wrong places . . .." Those who look for examples of transformation in higher education by extrapolating from our current institutional forms may be missing the point. Extrapolation would suggest that transformation means moving the entire apparatus of degree- granting institutions, more or less intact, on to the Net. To be sure, there are not many examples of this today, and there may well not be many in the future.

An alternate view suggests that the transformation of higher education that we are beginning to experience is taking a different tack. The key concept here is the disaggregation of institutional structures and processes made possible largely by the capabilities of information technology. Pieces of the educational enterprise are being targeted by new providers of products and services as the source of new businesses, pieces that can then be re-aggregated under entirely new, flexible arrangements. The impact on our institutions is and will be economic. The dispersion of higher education's currently integrated products and services will be like pulling threads one-by-one from a piece of fabric. At first, there is little noticeable change, but as time goes on, the material begins to unravel.

Let's consider a few examples. Campuses are beginning to experience what Converge magazine has called, "The Great College Textbook Migration." A $3 billion college textbook market, the high overhead passed on to customers of college bookstores, and the 76 percent of U.S. college students who use the Internet regularly add up to a new business opportunity. Companies like VarsityBooks and BigWords, two new online efforts, can by-pass the college bookstore, cut costs from 25 to 40 percent and eliminate the institution's share of the bookstore profits (just a thread in the overall campus budget), all while providing better, cheaper, faster service to students.

How about remedial education? Companies are developing highly sophisticated instructional software that targets this segment of higher education. Most of this software is currently designed to be used in a traditional classroom or learning laboratory format. It doesn't take too much imagination, however, to see the possibilities of a new outsourcing business model that provides remedial educational services, an area that many institutions would gladly cede to others.

What about masters degrees? Most of the serious competition coming from for-profit providers is at the masters level for rather obvious reasons: the difference between 30 -36 credits in a specialized area and 120 - 128 in multiple areas. Testing? Think Sylvan, Kaplan and ETS. Placement services? Library services? Tutorial services? Specialized courses like those for IT competencies? The list goes on. In each case, the competitive case is based on better, cheaper, faster-the watchwords of the Net.

We're already seeing the creation of companies in each of these arenas. Some would say that these are ancillary to the main business of undergraduate education. And perhaps they are. But we are also seeing the emergence of new forms of teaching and learning that have the potential of radically improving student learning. These new approaches go far beyond education- as-usual on the Net. We know, for example, that Virginia Tech has demonstrably improved the way mathematics is learned by students. Why shouldn't they (as a for-profit arm of the university, an independent math faculty "practice" or a company that acquires their methodology) offer mathematics to students across the country? And why won't this example be replicated in all high-demand disciplines?

Today, few would argue with the assertion that the Internet is transforming communications in the U.S. and around the world. Perhaps 20 years ago, people thought that a new communications structure would be an extrapolated replica of the old AT&T. Instead what we have is the disaggregation and re-aggregation of hundreds of communications products and services in place of the monolithic structures of the past, offered by companies that didn't exist when the Internet was conceived.

Who are the new providers? In most cases, we don't yet know their names.



February 29, 2000
Renaissance Charlotte Suites, Charlotte, North Carolina
Cosponsored by the Executive Forum in Information Technology of Virginia Tech

Computer and communications technologies have created new expectations for both improving the quality and controlling the cost of learning. This seminar will present examples of technology- enhanced learning environments that have achieved both goals. The seminar format is designed to provide time for a significant amount of audience interaction.

Topics and speakers include:

* Technology Implications for the Future of Higher Education - Robert C. Heterick, Jr., Executive Forum
* Lessons from The Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign - Carol A. Twigg, Center for Academic Transformation
* The Math Emporium - Bob Olin, Virginia Tech
* The Studio Model - Jack Wilson, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
* Cost Savings through Course Redesign - Linda Thor, Rio Salado College
* Outsourcing - Bill Graves,

April 18, 2000, San Diego, California
June 15, 2000, Chicago, Illinois
Moderators: Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg

An increasing number of companies are entering the higher education market, offering a growing variety of commercial products and services to support network-based teaching and learning. At this workshop, the leading providers of such products and services will participate in a moderated discussion. If you are involved in decisions regarding expenditure of funds for teaching/learning services and products, you can't afford to miss this workshop!


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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.

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Copyright 2000, by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.