Campus champs tackle heavies

May 18, 2001

Universities must act quickly to grasp the opportunities IT offers for education or risk losing market share to non-traditional providers, warns Richard Katz.

Sales of CD singles fell by 14 per cent last year, a trend blamed squarely on the growth of Napster, a software application that allows users to share music files across the internet. Such is technology's power to disrupt and transform social and commercial institutions.

For higher education, the advent of the so-called knowledge-driven society presents challenges and opportunities. As organic institutions, universities have traditionally oscillated between the role of arbiters of the culture they serve and of guardians of traditions that span centuries. The questions on the minds of pundits, political leaders, educators and entrepreneurs is how will information technology make it possible for universities to meet society's growing need for educated workers at a cost that society is willing to shoulder, and does information technology really matter?

Most university educators and leaders agree that the internet and related advances in IT are influencing economies and social institutions in material ways. It is not clear whether - as Cisco chief executive John Chambers put it - education will become "the next killer app" of the internet, but the case for significant change is compelling.

According to the UK Office of National Statistics, 82 per cent of internet users in the United Kingdom in 2000 were between 16 and 24 years old. This communication medium has proven itself with students, and the burden falls to the universities to pioneer and demonstrate the application of the internet to teaching and learning in ways that are economically and pedagogically compelling.

But information technology has the ability to disrupt as well as to develop learning. It can, for example, lower the barriers to competition. The internet and worldwide web make it possible to rethink the roles of location and schedule. Commercial enterprises have been quick to seize the day by gaining ownership of lucrative markets for e-learning-based corporate training and information technology certification that might otherwise have provided significant revenues for traditional higher education.

Yale professor David Collis argues that commercial firms are focusing on lucrative training markets while gaining the expertise and market credibility to move into more traditional university domains. The emergence of a competitive market in university instruction more than technology per se will challenge universities' time-tested modes of response.

The road that our universities must travel will be rocky. As communities of sceptics and truth seekers, university leaders and staff are quite properly resistant to intellectual fads. New ideas are more often than not discarded after long periods of spirited debate. In non-competitive environments that are secure in their expectation of reasonable government funding, slow-moving cultures of scepticism and debate serve real social and educational purpose. In competitive markets that value fleetness of foot and innovation, such an approach can be dangerous.

Moreover, technologies pose their own intrinsic risks. Technologies that feature portals, e-procurement and customer relationship management are subtly subversive to university culture. The long-standing university posture of in loco parentis makes it hard for lifelong members of the academy - except in our schools of business - to utter the word customer when discussing students. The belief that the teacher-student relationship is far more complex than the one between consumers and merchants is noble and correct, but it is unhelpful in the contexts of technology and competitive markets.

Information technologies are making it possible for educational institutions to identify promising candidates early in their school days, to develop relationships with these candidates and to reinforce strong lifelong links between graduates and their electronic alma mater. Whether or not this vision is attractive to a university, it is a vision that is being adopted without question in the commercial educational sector and with increasing enthusiasm by individual universities in the United States, the UK and Australia. In the race for higher standing in educational prestige, universities are likely to become more aggressive in recruiting students internationally. Those that are slow to respond could risk losing some of their most promising students to the competition.

The emergence of competitive markets and new information technologies will force universities into a series of possibly painful assessments about their beliefs and roles in society. How "market-driven" does a university become before it ceases to serve some of the broader purposes on which it was founded? Do unprofitable medieval history or Slavonic language courses get "downsized" in the effort to maintain a modern and earnings-focused curriculum?

Despite the challenges ahead, universities are durable institutions that have survived centuries of social upheaval, war, economic plight and revolution. Despite their retention of ceremonial regalia and trappings, universities have survived because of their organic nature and their ability to protect themselves against or even resist potentially destructive changes in the environment and to adapt to and even lead changes that appear to be beneficial. University scepticism about technology's role in teaching and learning is already yielding to significant experimentation and analysis on the impact of delivery techniques on student learning, satisfaction and knowledge retention.

The emergence of new technology-mediated "learning objects" is breathtaking, allowing students to peer into virtual atoms or to witness the virtual birth of a galaxy. Higher education will endure this latest challenge and - in a knowledge-driven era - may even experience a renaissance.

Richard N. Katz is vice-president of Educause, a consortium of more than 1,600 universities worldwide, and director of the Educause Center for Applied Research in Boulder, Colorado, United States.

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