Two Previous Transformations of Higher Learning
l The Third
Access Proposals That Can Improve Quality, Too
Quality Proposals That Can Improve Access, Too
Summary: Visions Worth Working Toward
Access and/or Quality? Redefining Choices
in the Third Revolution
Many college presidents today worry that "we’ve passed
the point of no return when it comes to spending money on
technology, but we don’t know where we’re going."
-Steven W. Gilbert
In my eighteen
years as a program officer with the Fund for the Improvement
of Postsecondary Education (FIPSE) and with the Annenberg/CPB
Projects, I often saw the following two types of grant proposal.
wanted to use distance learning technology to increase
enrollments, often by reaching out to certain types of
people who would not otherwise get an education. Some
reviewers charged that these proposals were cheating
students of most of the support needed for excellence:
laboratories, rich libraries, interactive seminars, and
informal interaction on campus.
type of proposal used computer technology to change what
students learned or how they learned. Some reviewers
accused such proposals of being tiny bastions of
expensive exclusivity, hoarding rich resources for the
lucky or the strong, excluding the vast majority of
learners who were most in need of excellent teaching.
words, most technology proposals were designed either to
enlarge the number of learners, or to improve what some
learners could learn, but not both. Applicants and
reviewers seemed to believe that extending access would
damage quality, and vice versa. Why? Key resources in education
exist only in limited quantities: space at the seminar
table, access to the one-of-a-kind books in the research
library, use of expensive laboratory equipment, access to
faculty attention, dollars. Concentrate those resources?
spread them thin? Improve quality or improve access? Or
perhaps raise the price of education so much that we can
afford more of those resources for each of a larger number
of learners? Those seemed to be the only three options.
quality and access, simultaneously and affordably, may seem
impossible. And it is impossible to do so
painlessly. But this dual improvement has happened before,
at least twice. Each time access was gained by many while
being lost by some. Each time quality was improved in many
ways while declining in others. And each time the total
costs of higher learning certainly increased but probably
without a proportional increase in the costs per learner.
previous changes both enlarged and reorganized higher
From the oral dialogue of Socrates’ day toward
educational forms that included reading and writing;
From independent scholars teaching independent
learners in ‘ad hoc’ settings in the early middle ages to a
new mode of learning: organized scholars and students
working within university campuses.
revolution: Imagine small groups of learners and their
tutor who learned only by explanation and conversation. Now
imagine such learners and teachers beginning to rely on
reading and writing, too.
Access gains: No
longer would the words of a teacher be limited to the small
group of learners fortunate enough to be present at a
particular place and time. Hundreds of
learners, eventually hundreds of millions, could learn from
a teacher like Plato, millennia after his death.
Reading and writing, aided later by the printing
press, laid the foundation for enormous increases in the
scale of education, even at the cost of increasing the
distance between the learner and the teacher.
In fact, it's been said that the birth of distance
learning was the first time a scholar said to a learner,
"take this manuscript, go away, and read it."
Obviously distance is not
entirely bad. Quality also
benefited from those same processes of reading and writing.
Each reader-learner could now learn about more
subjects. Within each subject area,
reader-learners could benefit from more opinions and more
versions of the facts. Students and
scholars were leaving limits of the grove of Academe for a
larger intellectual universe. The single
scholar no longer was responsible for everything the student
learned. Paradoxically, increased
"distance" between the student and scholar could improve
their conversation. Reading and writing
while away from one another altered the character of their
dialogue. When talking with Socrates,
many of us would either have blurted the first thing that
came into our heads, or else remained prudently silent.
In contrast, readers could take the time to interpret
a scholar’s question and then, as writers, compose a reply
at a thoughtful pace, too. And this
reading and writing could enrich their oral interchange as
These and other gains came
at a price, however. While huge numbers
of learners gained access to a scholar's thinking, reading
is not the same thing as conversing (as Socrates warned): no
one could be sure that the reader had understood the writer
if they didn't also talk with one another. And some scholars
and students, unable to read or write, would now be barred
from education even if they previously had had full access.
There were many other losses, too: books and their
errors were sometimes mindlessly copied and spread, oral
traditions were lost, and so on. But the
revolution went on. The gains in access
and quality were too important to be abandoned.
Almost two thousand years
later, the campus revolution also bridged space and
Campuses attracted both scholars and students from great
distances to a community where they could interact
spontaneously. Because Medieval Latin served as an
international language for books and lectures, students
could more readily come to university towns from other
countries. That's one reason why some
cities funded the creation of medieval universities: to
attract scholars and students. Large
lecture halls and the library were just two mechanisms that
increased education's capacity to handle students (and
Once again, the bridging
of space and time had a fundamental impact on our
organization of knowledge for research and teaching. For the
second time, higher learning had broken out of a smaller,
more intimate space into larger worlds of learners and
learning. Of course, the transformation
was again at a price. Access was
increased for many but some were shut out, e.g., those in
towns whose scholars had left for the big university cities.
Quality was increased in many ways, but so were the
risks of passivity and pedantry, especially as lecture halls
Today a Third Revolution is underway, striking in its
parallels to the first two. The signs of this third round of
improvements in access and quality are appearing all around
Access to presentations: live and prerecorded
video and audio stream out across the Internet (a facility
with some of the same strengths and weaknesses of earlier
'broadcast' technologies such as textbooks and lecture
The library: once again the lode of
intellectual resources is growing in size and accessibility.
, The World Wide Web as well as online library catalogues
provide access to gigantic collections of information.
Students and scholars can use this information from
great distances and at times when traditional libraries are
not open. Of course, the new library
does not contain all the information of the old, anymore
than the first manuscripts contained all of Socrates'
Seminars: the seminar was given new shape when
learners started reading before talking, and again when they
and scholars lived in the same colleges.
Now asynchronous seminars enable learners to participate
more conveniently (access). Even more striking are the
potential improvements in quality, stemming from more
diverse student backgrounds and the ways in which students
can open up when they don't need to worry about interrupting
or being seen.
Growth of larger-scale educational structures.
Reading and writing brought with it the need for
copyists, librarians, and, later, publishers.
Campuses mobilized, enriched, and focused the efforts
of scholars by providing them with new support structures
(laboratories, janitors, and administrators to raise funds).
Today even larger scale educational structures such
as the Western Governors University, the University of
Phoenix, and state networks are providing new contexts for
In 1987 I suggested the
label of distributed learning environment to
denote all the tools, resources, instructional materials and
experiences currently within a student or scholar’s reach.
Each revolution has radically expanded and redefined
the distributed learning environment of the day, thus
enhancing both access and quality (while also harming them
in certain ways).
These parallels may be
startling because the three revolutions depend on such
For reading-writing, key technologies include paper,
pen, and, later, printing presses;
For the campus revolution, important technologies
include lecture halls, chalkboards, dormitories,
laboratories, and libraries as well as roads that could
bring scholars and students to universities far from their
For the Third Revolution, key technologies include
silicon chips, a globe-spanning network optical fibers and
satellites, telephone, fax machines, video cameras, and the
agreements about communications and data storage that
undergird the World Wide Web.
technologies such as paper, buildings and computers don’t
cause change by themselves. Our choices
of how to use them determine those consequences.
Because these three different families of
technologies have been used in similar ways for similar
purposes, the gains have been similar. The losses also
resemble one another.
of today's proposals are still single mindedly pursuing
either access or quality improvements.
So let's consider how to rethink access innovations so that
they also improve quality, and vice versa.
The typical proposal for a
virtual college or program often describes in detail how
access can be improved, while making rather vague claims
about improving quality (if the latter is mentioned at all).
How might we transform the proposal so that a virtual
university creates substantial improvements in quality,
relative to what single institutions could have offered in
The first step usually is
to make sure that enrollment expands enough, justifying
larger investments in program quality. A virtual program
serving fifteen students has few options not open to a
traditional campus program serving fifteen students. In the
past, enrollment growth has justified the enlargement of
libraries and laboratories, assembling a more diverse
instructional staff, equipment for machine marking of exams,
and other investments. Therefore, the program's content,
marketing and capacity must be adequate for significant
numbers of students.
How can we use these
capital investments to create distributed learning
environments superior to what a small campus could once have
Build a well-structured Web library.
This effort will usually include collecting and
creating new materials (e.g. primary sources, tools for
inquiry or design available over the Web). Equally important
is the creation of mediating pages to help students find and
use extant sites around the world. These
mediating web sites might include specialized search
engines, reviews, organization of sources, and
self-instructional materials. The
students themselves could help create and update these
structures on a regular basis, under faculty supervision.
Institutions could specialize.
Each could gain a reputation for tending a different part of
the intellectual garden. Courses of
study ought to be organized to help students gradually learn
the complex skills they need to discover, evaluate, and
organize information. The peril, as
ever, is the risk of investing heavily in specialized
materials that are rendered obsolete too quickly by changes
in computer operating systems and the Web. The Instructional
Management Systems initiative is seeking to make this
progress of incremental, long term growth more feasible; its
standards would make it easier for bits of instructional
material to be developed in one place and used (and
sometimes paid for) at other places.
Enrich and diversify the
instructional support. For example,
lecturers might work closely with specialists in the
development of instructional materials and Web sites.
Experts from the outside world could lend their
expertise and prestige to the assessment of student
projects. The faculty member’s role ought to be redefined so
he or she can be rewarded for being an effective part of
such a team. This kind of division of labor is nothing new:
think of the specialists and organizations that create and
publish mass-produced textbooks, an earlier innovation made
possible by the growth in scale of education and the
technology of mass copying of text and images.
Seek a more diverse student body.
Organize and teach the course so that students '
differing backgrounds, values and settings create more
energetic debates and inquiries. Make the varied settings
where students work and learn into assets for the course. If
the course is about the art of the Southwest, include
students from different locations and have them research the
art that is near them, and share what they learn with other
Exploit the slower pace of e-mail.
A teacher of philosophy at the Rochester Institute of
Technology once remarked only half-jokingly that he'd never
talk philosophy with an undergraduate again. "Ah but
e-mail," he continued. "With e-mail,
students have time to think about what they've heard, time
to think about what they say next."
Students who are inarticulate face-to-face sometimes
converse clearly and thoughtfully in the slower pace of the
electronic seminar. Such courses might
thus be made more challenging as well as more accessible.
Improve assessment and feedback: It's unfortunate that many faculty members don't know enough
about assessment. One result: they hope
that students will learn one thing (e.g., higher order
thinking, academic values) but unwittingly test them for
something else (e.g., memorization).
we work on a larger scale, the advantages of appropriate
assessment, and the dangers of inappropriate assessment
grow. It's also important to make
assessment faster and thus more effective.
Some institutions are making greater use of online
practice quizzes. MIT instituted a
program of online teaching assistants for freshman classes
several years ago, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
Learning how to learn: This
doesn’t happen by accident. Courses of study need to be
organized to help students gradually become conscious of
their theories of learning and then to improve them. Some
students enter college believing that their job is to listen
and repeat, working alone. Changing that paradigm is as
difficult as challenging their ideas about philosophy or
physics. A graduate who knows how to
learn in today's world likely has far different attitudes,
values, skills and knowledge than that person did when
entering college. Capstone courses ought to test and improve
students' ability to learn within their fields and as
liberally educated adults.
Quality Proposals That Can Improve Access, Too
Suppose on the other hand
that the original proposal was to improve the quality of
education for a very small number of students.
As an example, let's imagine a program in management
that is investing in technology for role-playing simulations
and specialized business software. How
can that idea be revised to also improve access?
Letting more students know the course
or resource exists: working through a “virtual
university” is one way to inform a new group of students
about the existence of the innovation.
Another is to enlarge the innovation by working with one or
more other institutions, and then drawing on the student
bodies of all the partners.
Attracting more students:
"Location, location, location" used to be the hallmark of
many college programs. What was special about them was that
they were within the reach of nearby learners.
To expand enrollment it will often be necessary to
create programs that are more distinctive and valuable,
perhaps by combining one's strengths with those of other
institutions, certainly by taking a fresh look at needs.
Our business program, for example, might take a fresh
look at how its students master the interpersonal skills
needed to mobilize colleagues and employees over the
Internet. That's an important skill in
this era of international business, when one initially does
not know the culture or background of the people with whom
one is working. What business program
(yet) is able to stake a claim there? If they could, how
many students might they attract?
Handling more students: Many
boutique innovations in management education are marked by
high costs per learner. But often there are ways to handle
more students while reducing costs per student.
It may be as simple as renegotiating site licenses
for specialized software so that costs per student can be
lowered in exchange for serving more students.
Sometimes it may require changing the organization of
academic work. Virginia Tech, for
example, created a Math Emporium. A
former retail store was converted into a massive facility
for supporting a variety of math courses, sharing a common
corps of tutors for operation seven days a week at almost
all hours of the day and night.
Providing instruction in more
accessible formats: For generations higher education has
treated student time as though it was of no value.
Students had to stand in line, commute often to
campus, and sit silently in classrooms, more shoulder to
shoulder than face to face. Yet when
instructors lectured, there was usually no recording made
(other than student notes) if the student wanted to review.
Our management program's use of technology could be
strengthened if it were more thoughtful about when students
and faculty really must be face-to-face.
As we've seen, sometimes education is better when distance
is increased, saving time and creating new educational
options in the process (e.g., the option of rewinding a
lecture and listening to it a second time).
Controlling the long-term costs of
materials: Courseware in the past has often been
educationally quite effective, but expensive in the long
term because it was used by only small numbers of students
for a small time. Ironically computers
themselves have been the worst enemy of homegrown
courseware. Rapid changes in operating
systems and hardware render educationally effective
courseware obsolete long before it ever gains wide
acceptance. One response: use
worldware such as spreadsheets and more sophisticated
business software as the foundation. Because instructors can
usually rely on such software (in new versions) to be around
for a decade or two, they can gradually reshape courses of
study to take advantage of it. The
Instructional Management Systems initiative, mentioned
above, also hopes to create standards that will improve the
viability of courseware.
Steve Gilbert coined the
phrase "visions worth working toward" to describe images of
the future that can mobilize action.
There are at least four levels of vision for using
technology to improve access and quality.
Think of these as stages in the development of our
The first vision -- almost
always a mirage -- imagines that technology is magic.
A few academics and people in government still
believe that if they merely provide enough hardware or
network connections, education will automatically become
better, faster, more accessible, and cheaper.
But that makes as much sense as giving children
paper, pencils, and a library card and expecting that
millions of them will learn to read and then learn calculus.
The second level of vision
is the one with which this essay began:
Use technology in activities that only
increase access (with the hope that quality will be damaged
little, if at all).
Use technology to improve the quality of
learning (while unfortunately benefiting only a small number
of students for the time being).
Attend any conference on
technology and learning and most presentations will boast of
only one type of gain: either in access or quality but
rarely in both. We ought to leave this
kind of vision behind as quickly as possible.
Transforming learning almost always results in some
losses in both access and quality.
Proposals that focus too single mindedly on access could
create net losses in quality, when they could have made net
improvements. Proposals that focus too
single mindedly on quality could create wider gaps between
"haves" and "have-nots" when, if the proposal had been
reconceived, the gap could have been narrowed.
The third level of vision
suggests using technology in activities that simultaneously
increase both access and quality by linking larger numbers
of learners, scholars and resources together in a richer,
more effective distributed learning environment.
This is a truly transformative vision. A number of
institutions have begun taking steps along this path. It's a
The fourth level of
vision, however, is the one I recommend. It is much like the
third, but with an added touch: its proposals recognize from
the beginning that each step forward involves tradeoffs and
damage. When the innovator can predict
these kinds of potential damage in advance, the proposal can
include steps to limit the harm. Such
predictions are made easier by exploring parallels with the
two earlier revolutions.
For example, we know that
each revolution has immersed learners in a larger set of
possibilities for learning while increasing their distance
from a single teacher to which they are accountable.
Thus each revolution increases the chances for
student passivity, floundering, and cheating.
The first step in responding is to explore current
best practices: what have been our best responses to
passivity, floundering, and cheating in the past?
For example, we've challenged students with realistic
projects, used faculty with deep insight into student
learning and life, mixed large classes and small ones to
give those experts a chance to see what students are really
doing, paid attention to advising, and used authentic
assessment. In the Third Revolution
we'll need to think even harder about how to help
instructors (some of whom may no longer be resident on
campus) to work together to deal with these problems because
they are going to get worse. This is
just one of the new Grand Challenges posed by the Third
Revolution: challenges to research and experimentation that
are too big for one institution to deal with alone.
serious problem we can anticipate is loss of access.
Just as in the two previous access revolutions, some
people are likely to lose. Unfortunately
this risk is heightened when proponents and government hype
virtual education mainly as a way of saving money. The
potential losers could include the same kinds of people who
have been slighted in the past, minds and talents we cannot
afford to lose. There is no one solution.
Maine demonstrated one strategy by creating a virtual
college based on video and computing with points of access
in high schools, helping to assure that the rural poor would
not be shut out. That's not the whole
problem, of course. Each enlargement of
the distributed learning environment gives students more
options and thus puts more stress on their ability to take
responsibility for their own learning.
Many of today's adults and young adults were not well served
by their upbringing or their school education.
They will need extra help. If
every college and every state legislature says, "Right, but
that's not my department," we're in for trouble. How to help
them: that's another Grand Challenge.
A third Challenge is one
of organizational fragmentation. As
technology leaves its niche on the wall and becomes
fundamental to the work of the academy, our old ways of
organizing work become barriers. Too
many looming problems are no one office or department's
business, or they're the business of too many offices.
That's one reason why hundreds of colleges and
universities have begun Teaching, Learning, and Technology
Roundtables: to share information and coordinate strategies
as their institutions gathers themselves to make major
improvements in teaching and learning.
These and other such
challenges are serious. Our two favorite
options in higher education -- either doing nothing for the
moment or else adding something new to an otherwise
unchanged program -- look risky.
Nonetheless, we do not
know whether the Third Revolution will be good for most
learners and scholars, or disastrous. It
may be affordable or it may bankrupt us.
It may narrow the gap between "haves" and "have-nots," or
widen it. It may enrich education or
eviscerate it. Evaluation becomes more critical in such a
period of turbulent change. We are less
likely to make real progress if we don't take time to see
what we've just done and where we're going.
The Flashlight Program is working to provide tools
and training for institutions and instructors that want to
take a hard look at just what is going on in their programs.
Clark Kerr once wrote,
"The most enduring institutions of Western civilization are
the Roman Catholic Church; legislative assemblies and other
government entities in Great Britain, Iceland, the Isle of
Man and Switzerland; the Bank of Siena; and 61
universities." Those institutions, and
thousands of others like them, are no longer quite so
stable. They are in the early stages of a profound
transformation. There is no King of
Education who will determine what that transformation will
bring. The direction and the results of
the Third Revolution will be determined by thousands of
thoughtful and thoughtless choices being made today by
institutions, governments, and corporations around the
About the Author
Stephen C. Ehrmann, Ph.D.,
Flashlight Program at the non-profit
Flashlight helps educators study and improve educational
uses of technology. The Teaching,
Learning, and Technology Group, Inc., is a non-profit
corporation affiliated with the American Association for
A revised version of this
draft was published in the September 1999 issue of The
Educom Review. If you liked this article and want to see
a complementary piece that describes R&D challenges raised
by this transformation, see
that appeared in Academe, also in 1999.
Stephen C. "Improving a Distributed Learning Environment
with Computers and Telecommunications," in
Mindweave: Communication, Computers and Distance Education,
Robin Mason and Anthony Kaye (eds.), Oxford and NY:
Pergamon, 1988, 255-259.
Instructional Management Systems Project is described on the
The Pew Grant
Program in Course Redesign is a $6 million institutional
grant program that focuses on large-enrollment introductory
courses, which have the potential of impacting significant
numbers of students and generating substantial cost
Learning and Technology Roundtables are described on the Web
Tech's Math Emporium is described at