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The Learning MarketSpace, September 1, 2002

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.


Ten years ago in the summer of 1992, Bob Heterick wrote an article for the EDUCOM Review called “Operating in the ‘90’s.” His purpose was to lay out the context in which EDUCOM would find itself in the coming decade. At that time, EDUCOM and CAUSE were two separate organizations; they have since merged to become EDUCAUSE.

Bob was in a good position to write this article, having served on the boards of both EDUCOM and CAUSE as well as on advisory committees for OCLC, IBM, NeXT, Apple, and Xerox, among others. As many of you may know, he went on to receive the 1994 CAUSE ELITE Award for lifetime achievement in information technology and to become president of EDUCOM from 1993 until the merger in 1998.

Bob began the article by pointing out that EDUCOM’s future was closely linked with two sectors: higher education and the information technology (IT) industry, both of which were experiencing, as he euphemistically put it, “economic stress.” He also talked about a number of new and pervasive trends that would reshape the futures of both higher education and the IT industry: the growth of networking, increased reliance on information technology in everyday living, organizational restructuring and decentralization, and economic uncertainty.

Regarding networking, Bob wrote, “The growth of networking in all IT-based activities is evident. As all the basic information technologies become digitally based, the distinction between voice, video, and data blurs, and attention becomes focused on the information infrastructure at the campus, national and international levels.”

This may seem obvious ten years later, but there were few who recognized the importance of the Internet in 1992. In his book The Road Ahead published in December 1995, Microsoft founder Bill Gates dismissed the Internet as a mere stop along the way to the "information highway" that would change our lives: "CD-ROMs are one clear precursor to the highway," Gates wrote. "The Internet's World Wide Web is another." In fact, he mentioned the Web a mere seven times in nearly 300 pages. As Salon writer Scott Rosenberg has commented, “The Road Ahead remains a landmark of bad techno-punditry--and a time-capsule illustration of just how easily captains of industry can miss a tidal wave that's about to engulf them.”

Regarding the IT industry and its relationship to higher education, Bob observed the following: “For many years, computer industry leaders were able to maintain high profitability. Higher education benefited from this through deep discounts, equipment grants, and joint research agreements. The era of open systems, interoperability, and clones has turned many segments of the computer market into a commodity market with stiff competition and low profit margins. With profitability seriously eroded, major computer vendors are no longer able or willing to treat higher education as a special market with the same special arrangements as before. In the 1990s, partnerships between institutions and vendors will be based entirely on business arrangements or the perceived need of the vendor for new technology test sites.” I’ll leave it to our readers to decide how accurate these predictions were.

Bob focused most of his comments on the primary challenges then facing higher education, observing that the stresses occurring at that time were due both to short-term economic conditions and to “endemic factors based in part on economics and in part on cultural factors that will persist after the recession [of the early 1990s] ends.” These factors, Bob said, would cause educational institutions to rethink and restructure their operating plans for the 1990s.

Among his comments elaborating this point were the following:

  • Higher education is labor intensive, and for a decade its costs have risen faster than inflation has. Major sources of revenue--tuition, government funds, endowments, gifts, and grants as well as indirect costs--are unlikely to increase at a rate necessary to sustain the current operating style of most institutions.
  • In the absence of increased tax revenue support for public higher education, we can expect similar, if not larger, tuition increases in many states.
  • Reduction in state support for institutions is accompanied by, or a consequence of, the increased hostility of legislators to the high cost of a college education.
  • Higher education will be under pressure to increase its accountability and give more attention to undergraduate education.
  • The concept of higher education as a public good will be called into question.
  • We may witness some public institutions becoming private, either in part or in whole.

Bob also believed that reduction in funding available to higher education would force institutions to pay attention to the problem of reduced human resources, both faculty and staff, that would be spread more thinly across teaching and support areas. He saw information technology as an enabler that could lead to creative solutions to this problem:

  • The provision of an electronic messaging system linking all students and faculty would permit extensive contact without requiring that the student and teacher by in the same place or that exchanges occur simultaneously.
  • Information technology could enable the decoupling of contract from credit as lectures and demonstrations are replaced by multimedia presentations that students utilize independently.
  • *The infusion of information technology into the teaching and learning domain will create shifts in the skill requirements of faculty from instructional delivery to instructional design.
  • These changes will increase the number of students that the institution can serve.

Bob has always kept his eye on teaching and learning--the fundamental business of higher education--and how IT could transform that process for the benefit of students, institutions and the public at large. He viewed EDUCOM’s role as providing leadership and vision for all of higher education, not just the IT sector: “EDUCOM must not only chart a clear course for itself but must also provide leadership for the academic community as it navigates between the Scylla of budget-cutting retrenchment and the Charybdis of major change in the teaching/learning paradigm.”

Five years later, Bob and I wrote another article for the EDUCOM Review, which we called “Interpolating the Future.” In it, we advocated interpolation as a superior planning strategy to extrapolation: that 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. Extrapolation, we said, 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. We also commented, “While interpolation runs some risk of overestimating the rate at which the future will arrive, it is a strategy that will bridge the chasm. 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.”

Bob may have overestimated the rate at which the future arrived, but not by much. He certainly was overly optimistic that institutions would begin to grapple with the cost issue and see how IT could be used to do so. I, for one, am not surprised at how accurately Bob’s predictions read ten years later. What continues to puzzle me is why so few in higher education appear to be paying any attention whatsoever to the fundamental issue our industry faces: how to change the ongoing upward trajectory of our costs. Take a look at the strategic plans, the home pages, and the table of contents of publications for the major higher education organizations and for the higher education organizations that focus on IT. What you will find is tinkering at the margins and nary a mention of the issue of higher education’s ever increasing costs, much less the leadership or vision for how to deal with it.

A good visionary is hard to find.



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?"


[This column was originally published in the January 2000 issue of The Learning MarketSpace.]


EDUCAUSE Full-Day Pre-Conference Seminar
October 1, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia
8:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.

The Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign has funded 30 institutions to show how to improve quality and reduce costs using technology. This seminar will replicate the workshops that have successfully taught grant applicants how to redesign large-enrollment, introductory courses. Through presentations, case studies, and group work, participants will learn the basic planning steps as well as how to adapt the redesign model to the needs of their institutions.

Conducted by:
--Carol A. Twigg, Executive Director
--Carolyn Jarmon, Associate Director
Center for Academic Transformation

For registration information, please visit the EDUCAUSE 2002 Conference web site.

December 6, 2002, Atlanta, Georgia
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.

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Copyright 2002 by Bob Heterick and Carol Twigg.