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Universities in Transition: The Promise and the Challenge of New Technologies

by Nicholas C. Burbules & Thomas A. Callister - 2000

This essay reviews two interrelated sets of changes that are having a major influence on higher education, today and for the future. Our primary concern is with the changes wrought by the incorporation of new information and communication technologies into the teaching activities of colleges and universities. Today these are normally discussed under the rubric of “distance education,” but we believe that this label misconceives the importance of online technologies in blurring the distinctions between on- and off-campus teaching. We consider a number of ethical and policy issues arising from these changes and the ways in which the uses of these new technologies affect and are affected by a second set of changes affecting universities, the conditions of globalization. In general, we want to question the forced options of boosterism or rejectionism, along with other unhelpful dichotomies that have characterized much of the discussion of these issues up until now.


Two overarching conditions are transforming the structures and practices of higher education: globalization and the incorporation of new information and communication technologies into the knowledge activities of research, publication, and pedagogy. Both of these sets of changes have evolved over a long time, but matters have reached a point of acceleration as these two conditions respond to and reinforce one another. One site in which this dialectic is working itself out is the increased interest among colleges and universities, and other institutions, in using new information and communication technologies for what used to be called "distance education," an ancillary activity at most campuses. But today the distinction between "distance education" and regular instruction - even the relevance of distance and other spatiotemporal markers as the key distinction between different types of teaching or different categories of student - is beginning to disappear. Faculty at most colleges and universities are only beginning to come to grips with the opportunities, and the challenges, that such changes represent for their educational roles, their relations to students, and their working conditions (1). There has been little reflection on the characterization of new technologies as an alternative "delivery system" for college and university courses and programs, or the limitations of the "delivery system" metaphor. Teaching is not just a delivery system - in pedagogy, form reshapes content. And there has been scant space, between the polar options of boosterism and rejectionism, to argue seriously and realistically about the ways in which these new information and communication technologies are becoming part of higher education's business and about how the business of higher education's business should influence those decisions. The economic and political contexts of college and university decisions, including the context of globalization, put constraints on the alternative futures that might be considered. While many argue for the preservation of educational ideals that in many instances have already become somewhat specious, circumstances surrounding higher education are changing rapidly in ways that colleges and universities can only partly influence. There may be a range of ways to respond to them, but respond to them they must.

In this essay we want to explore some of the ethical and policy issues raised by such decisions; in general, we find the alternative choices ambiguous and difficult (2). New technologies will neither pass through colleges and universities, leaving their core values unchanged, nor will they destroy them. Every significant choice entails a gain and a loss. Some core values and self-conceptions will need to be rethought, and they will need to be justified, if they can continue to be justified, in a new language and with a new set of assumptions. The audiences to whom those justifications need to be offered will not always share some of these assumptions, and this too will be a challenge for colleges and universities. The diverse rhetorical images of the college or university as a haven for scholars, as an engine of innovation and discovery, as a retreat for contemplation and instruction, as a vocational gateway to the professions, and so on, do not carry the unquestioned popular force they once might have. Social and institutional changes are eroding the monopoly that colleges and universities once held over some of these intellectual resources and privileges. Of special concern to us here, the development of increasingly powerful and productive information and communication technologies is putting before people many of the opportunities to learn, to discuss, to create, and to explore that previously had been largely the province of those particular spaces called the "campus" or the "college." Various barriers, some inadvertent, some intentional, effectively excluded many potential participants from those spaces, especially when viewed in an international context: barriers of cost, of ostensibly merit-based exclusion, of difficult or impossible physical relocation, and of cultural displacement. Now, many of those barriers have become irrelevant or only marginal difficulties because of the growth of and increased access to new information and communication technologies around much of the world (though this access is still far from universal, and creates exclusions of its own) (3). What happens to the college or university when new clients and new constituencies expect and perhaps demand access to intellectual resources and privileges that have traditionally been relatively exclusive, scarce, and costly? The implications of these shifts cannot be overdramatized.


A central factor shaping such challenges, and the available courses of action for colleges and universities to respond to them, is the prevailing neoliberal policy discourse that has become nearly hegemonic worldwide. Jean-François Lyotard calls this the language of "performativity," of efficiency and effectiveness, of means-end rationality, and of a technical-vocational orientation that has increasingly become the bottom-line rationale for higher education (universities, community colleges, technical-vocational schools, and liberal arts colleges) (4). Higher education is evaluated in "human capital" terms, measured by enhanced job prospects and rates of return on the investment. Such pressures come from legislatures, from trustees and donors, and (perhaps most significant of all) from those paying rising rates of tuition for the privilege of attending college or university. There is countless evidence of such changes:

• the relabeling of administrative positions with titles borrowed from the private sector (even "Chief Executive Officers"), and the adoption of business models, such as Total Quality Management, for the organization and administration of college and university programs;

• new budgeting strategies that directly reward faculty entrepreneurship in grant-writing and in marketing degree programs (now we even hear the language of running a "profit" from certain courses and programs);

• a new discourse of accountability that stresses "clients," "service," and "delivery systems" as the new metaphors for instruction, and highlights the benefits of employability and increased income as the rewards for earning a degree;

• increased corporatization of the research and patent divisions of the university, including even closer ties to private companies across a range of collaborations, including endowed chairs, research and development grants, new campus buildings and laboratories, and the growth of hybrid "alliances," spanning university, business, and public sector concerns.

Our purpose here is not to condemn these changes outright. Many of them could mean opportunities for fruitful collaboration and a positive synergy of resources. Some of them are responses to external accountability pressures to which colleges and universities, especially public institutions, are subject. Some of them might spark innovations and reforms within the academy that are long overdue. But they do provide a context that will tend to drive the incorporation of new technologies into colleges and universities in certain ways rather than others. We believe it is an oversimplification to say, as David Noble does, that "here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise...[for the]...commercialization of higher education." (5) It is certainly true that new technologies both shape and are shaped by commercializing trends in higher education. But they also remain, to a considerable degree, flexible and susceptible of a range of new uses in research and in teaching; and these uses are still largely within the hands of faculty to determine. While the context and operations of colleges and universities are becoming increasingly commercialized, these emergent values remain in uneasy tension with some of the traditional norms of higher education: academic freedom, tenure, faculty self-governance, the spirit of inquiry, and the pursuit of excellence. College and university administrators are not supervisors or bosses as in other businesses, and by and large do not aspire to be such. This conflicted terrain, as in other political domains, creates opportunities to carve out spaces of innovation, freedom, and creativity, if actors are able to recognize these changing contexts and act assertively to shape them rather than passively responding to them (or ignoring them and hoping they will pass).

The expectation, for example, that colleges and universities must engage in online teaching does not itself determine how faculty might adopt and adapt such technologies for their own purposes. Exciting possibilities do exist for increased student interaction and pedagogical experimentation and variety (6). While we are hardly sanguine or naive about the fiscal pressures that accompany the "marketing" of online courses and programs, or the tendency of such moves to force courseware into very narrow instructional modes, the fact is that many of these trends are well-established in regular courses and programs already. Educators should not make the error of falsely romanticizing the institutions and practices they are trying to "preserve." Moreover, for faculty to opt out of reforms entirely is to put their institutions, their students, and their long-term employment viability in jeopardy. The alternative for colleges and universities is not to return to a mythic past of tweedy seminars and one-on-one tutorials - such interactions became rarefied long ago, before new technologies were much of a factor, especially in large universities - the alternative is that other institutions, more baldly commercial in nature, will step into the vacuum and offer the courses and degree programs online that students are demanding. The ambiguous, difficult, conflicted alternative is to engage these changes and to insist on better, more creative, and more intellectually respectable uses of these technologies. Such compromises may enable colleges and universities to preserve spaces in which more personal (and less "cost-effective") forms of teaching can also still survive.


As we noted, the special category "distance education" is becoming anachronistic. The confusion of using "distance education" rather than "online education" can be seen in a recent report by the AAUP, otherwise quite helpful in setting out proposed intellectual property rights for faculty in online teaching, which stated, somewhat strangely, "[D]istance education may apply to both on- and off-campus courses and programs." (7) This shows how strained the insistence on using that term has become. It is better, we believe, to drop the label as a general description of online teaching and learning, or as a discrete category of students or courses: in the future, many online courses will mix on-campus, off-campus, and international students. In their online interactions, location or distance will often not matter at all (in fact, differences in time zones turn out to be a much greater issue).

Serving students who cannot or will not come to campus, or who cannot attend full-time, has long been part of the mission of colleges and universities, particularly those designated "land grant" institutions, through extension courses, continuing education divisions, and so on. Other institutions in the range of higher education providers (community and junior colleges, for example) have traditionally focused on such students, bringing courses to more convenient locations and teaching during evenings, weekends, summers, or in other ways that attract those with family or other work responsibilities. The use of new information and communication technologies renders such spatiotemporal constraints much less onerous. One of the appeals of asynchronous technologies is that learners can access materials, complete assignments, participate in discussions, take exams, and so on, according to schedules that they largely determine themselves. What is lost in terms of spontaneity and immediate face-to-face interaction may be, for them, more than compensated by the convenience (and perhaps lower cost) of such course offerings. For such students the alternative is not the full, rich experience of on-campus, real-time, face-to-face instruction - the alternative is not taking these courses or programs at all. This frames the challenge for colleges and universities in different, less idealized terms, we believe.

The discussion needs to get beyond a comparison of "which way of teaching is better." There are clearly many advantages for on-campus, real-time, face-to-face teaching relations, and some important aspects of the college experience, especially for undergraduates, can only be learned in the sort of living-learning environment that a residential campus provides. But new questions need to be asked. First, "which way of teaching is better for whom?" There are many reasons to argue that on-campus, real-time, face-to-face teaching relations are not the best option for every student. For one thing, as noted, there are certainly real costs - tuition, housing, travel, and "opportunity costs" arising from forgoing other employment - to the privilege of being on campus. Many potential students weigh such costs as an unacceptable burden; for others they are simply unthinkable. Moreover, on-campus, real-time, face-to-face teaching relations are experienced by some prospective students as high-pressure, uncomfortable, even exclusionary circumstances; these are not necessarily people lacking the ability to perform well, but those who because of their cultural difference, their social class background, their insecurity, their lack of facility with the English language, their age, and so on, cannot see themselves as part of the comfortable community of learners on campus that colleges and universities aspire to maintain. For many of these students, the security, the perceived safeness, the convenience, the lower cost - indeed the very anonymity - that online interaction affords may be regarded as significant advantages over living and learning on campus. This is not meant to reject the value of on-campus, real-time, face-to-face instruction, but simply to point out that it might not be the best option for everyone. We note with emphasis that when online courses and programs are established, a major difficulty turns out to be on-campus students clamoring for inclusion, and their perception that off-campus students are privileged to have first access to take these opportunities. (8) If on-campus, real-time, face-to-face teaching is so demonstrably better and more satsifying, how does one account for such complaints?

This raises a second question, which is "what is being compared here?" To contrast the imperfect, experimental, and sometimes technically glitchy circumstances of online teaching to some idealized, even mythic ideal of college and university teaching is not the comparison needed. Faculty should not romanticize the reality of the classroom as experienced by many students, especially undergraduates. Auditoriums with a thousand students, faculty lecturing from behind a podium on stage, discussion sections run by earnest but often inexperienced teaching assistants, office hours that afford a brief interview with a preoccupied or impatient professor, are not so clearly superior to their online equivalents. It was not the introduction of new technologies that made so much instruction impersonal, blandly information-oriented, and numbers-driven; and refusing to adopt new technologies will do nothing to make this situation any better. On the contrary, we think it is at least plausible to consider that the creative use of new technologies can alleviate some of these trends, increasing student-student and student-faculty interaction, and actually broadening the opportunities for exploratory and discovery-oriented learning.

What we are seeing here, as the Internet becomes not only an archive of information, but an actual medium of communication and collaboration, is that the metaphors of "distance" and "delivery" (transporting some thing over a distance to give to someone) are less appropriate for the kinds of educational interactions that are possible within this new technological environment (9). Increasingly, the Internet is a working space within which knowledge can be co-constructed, negotiated, and revised over time; where disparate students from diverse locations and backgrounds, even internationally, can engage one another in learning activities; where collaborative projects can be developed; where communities of inquiry can grow and thrive; and where simulations, models, and visually based projects can be created that allow real interactions within complex, vivid environments that span sensory experiences (for example, three-dimensional virtual models that allow "walk through" exploration, or remote instrumentation projects that allow learners to interact with environments they could never experience directly). Such activities are not just supplements to the classroom experience; they are unique and irreplaceable learning opportunities themselves; and often they can exist only online, not in "real" classrooms.

Indeed, virtually every course on a modern campus already involves the use of information and communication technologies in some way (10). From electronic enrollment procedures, to duplicated course materials, to online library catalogues, to using word processors for paper writing, and so on, teaching and learning activities on campus are already highly structured by various technologies (even if they are now so familiar that they are no longer seen as "new" technologies), and we point out here that some of these other changes were also decried when first introduced as compromising the integrity of "core" educational values. More and more classes are adding e-mail discussion groups as, at the very least, a supplement to in-class discussions; course syllabi are being posted on the Web; in short, almost every class is turning into a hybrid of traditional and online practices. To be sure, the actual mode of interaction between teacher and student has not been as affected by new technologies. By and large the formats and conventions of classroom instruction are decades, even centuries old; some critics of educational technology, such as Neil Postman, take this as evidence itself that there is something educationally essential about them. But an honest assessment of these modes of pedagogy must, as we noted previously, acknowledge what is exclusionary about them for many prospective students; must justify their costs; must admit the many, many compromises that campuses have accepted away from this ideal; and must confront the evidence that for many students their benefits are not realized anyway (we note, for example, that attendance in large lecture classes is increasingly spotty because students know they can purchase copies of the class lecture notes that are taken by commercial note-takers, duplicated, and available for sale).

Finally, it seems simply self-evident to us that colleges and universities must incorporate the technologies that students will be using for work, for entertainment, and for social interaction in contexts within and outside the college or university. The "consumer" orientation to attracting student numbers, like other trends we have noted here, long preceded the issues surrounding new information and communication technologies (11). Just as today's students expect as a right of privilege to have cable television, refrigerators, and microwave ovens in their dormitory rooms, they will have computers to write their papers, to access the library, to maintain e-mail contact with friends and family back home, and to "surf" the Web for information or for fun. More and more off-campus students and prospective students will have such resources as well. Colleges and universities have a tremendous opportunity to help students learn to use these technologies in creative and effective ways, to learn with and through them, as well as about them. Some of this learning, we would add, should be critical: skeptical of the limits of technologies and what they can and cannot do, and reflective about the unintended consequences of technology use, of what they take away as well as what they enable (12). But to do any of this, the technologies need to be infused into course content, not only as a means and medium of interaction and work, but also as an object of study. Computers and the Internet are not simply repositories of information, but media in which knowledge claims are continually proposed, critiqued, tested, and modified. There is not an area of the curriculum in which these issues are not of profound and immediate concern.

Or, the same point can be put negatively: There really is no choice for colleges and universities. Where these technologies are widely available, where the cost and convenience factors are of such potential importance, and where the demand is increasing, someone will step into the vacuum if colleges and universities do not. Certainly there have always been fly-by-night operations advertising graduate degrees on matchbook covers and in small print in the back pages of popular magazines. Colleges and universities have easily maintained the perception of quality and prestige in their own programs by comparison. But new technologies are changing all that. Programs that feature the use and study of technology have an immediacy and appeal that prospective students will seek out. And the number of competitors is increasing. Ten years ago there were 400 programs offering computer-based course and programs; today there are four times that many (13). Major corporate players, including companies with enormous technological (and marketing) resources and expertise, have moved into the market. Aggressive and fast-growing institutions, such as the University of Phoenix, have acquired both an increasing "market share" and in some instances institutional credibility and accreditation that makes them equal to, if not superior to, many existing college and university options (14). Large consortia of schools, such as Western Governors' University, can offer a range of courses, selecting the best from the best institutions within their collective, that no single school can match. The ability of such programs to advertise and reach target audiences has been tremendously advantaged by the fact that the medium of reaching and recruiting prospective online students is the very medium that these students are already showing their preference for.

In such a competitive context, there may be a few schools with sufficient prestige not to worry that they will lose students to other providers. But for the vast majority of colleges and universities, both private and public, the race is on. We do not favor this circumstance, and in many ways we view it with alarm. Yet the circumstance is not of our making, and it is not fundamentally susceptible to change. There is no third way here. Colleges and universities do not need to buy into the assumptions of least-common-denominator content, bland delivery-oriented instructional approaches, or a baldly profit-driven attitude. As we have stressed, colleges and universities retain some important advantages in this competition, and they can bring them to bear on the development of high-quality, creative, intellectually stimulating course materials and programs. Colleges and universities have certain "marketing" advantages as well. But none of this means anything if faculty think that they can carry on their activities as usual, ignoring the potential of new technological resources for rethinking the practices and aims of higher education, while they are being powerfully adapted for educational (and countereducational) purposes by institutions outside higher education.


All of these considerations weigh even more heavily when the other major sea-change is taken into account: the increased globalization of social, economic, political, and cultural institutions in our time (15). The modern college and university is both a cause of such globalization and a manifestation of it: travel, international conferences, faculty exchanges, and the recruitment and training of international students have been prime factors in the development of both a network of teacher/researchers with common interests and concerns, and an international language of publication, interchange, and academic debate (in this instance the term "international language" isn't allusive - the privileged language is English, by and large, and becoming even more so) (16). Every major university is quite literally a world university, or aspires to be, regardless of what country it happens to be in.

Related to this point is that the Internet also is a globalized and globalizing medium. The term "information technology" has tended to oversimplify and obscure the fact, noted previously, that these new technologies are media of communication and collaboration themselves, that is, actual (not "virtual") environments in which communities of inquiry discover, negotiate, and build upon their common interests. The processes of online publication of research, along with sharing raw data and other primary source material, has made the Internet an indispensable scholarly resource in most fields (17). The Internet, too, has helped drive the process of filtering cultural and intellectual differences through a common medium and a common language, which has significant long-term implications for the loss of local and regional diversity of cultures.

Globalization has raised both the stakes of recruiting customers of educational programs and the number of legitimate and crass competitors for that market. Both pools are enlarged enormously when the "distance" of distance education is extended worldwide - but, as we have said, the point is that distance ceases to be the primary factor in determining educational access, interaction, collaboration, and common interest. Many faculty have already had the experience of engaging in more, and more substantive, online interactions with colleagues or students than with others sitting in rooms right down the hall. The same considerations, of course, exist on the student side as well.

Educationally, the activities of publication, pedagogy, and collaborative inquiry have never been entirely discrete: learning in most colleges and universities is involved with research, which is involved with reading, producing, and critiquing published work (and being critiqued), as well as undertaking primary investigations, individually or in collaborative groups. Increasingly, on the Internet, these activities are utterly inseparable, phases of ongoing interactions with partners within a community of inquiry (whether this community is called a "classroom," a "laboratory," or a "conference"). Viewed from a global perspective, the Internet is the only environment in which such widespread, continuous interactions are possible; these relations accelerate enormously the rate at which new knowledge can be developed, shared, and modified over time, involving learners/researchers/collaborators in every part of the world.

Finally, and unfortunately, globalization is also driving the neoliberal, decentralized and deregulated, context in which this competition is taking place. The significant advantage of transnational corporations and other market-oriented international policy bodies (the World Bank, the IMF, the OECD) has meant that global discussions on, for example, matters of educational policy have been dominated by the discourse of open markets, encouraging competition, and an emphasis on higher education as a vehicle for promoting employment and economic development. Many countries around the world - and not only the so-called "advanced economies" - have bought into this model enthusiastically. In the developing economies of Southeast Asia, for instance, access to higher education courses and programs online, and to the other fruits of advanced technology, is regarded as a primary engine of growth, and they are aggressively seeking out quality online educational opportunities from whomever will provide them.


What happens when we consider these changes (globalization and the rise of new technologies as a teaching/learning environment) in relation to each other? A few likely trends can be anticipated, some of which are already well underway even if many faculty on campus do not feel affected by them (yet). With these trends come some thorny issues for higher education.

We raise these issues not to stipulate recommended positions on them: in every case, there are risks and dangers either way. But we are arguing for raising these questions and actively engaging them on campus with the constituencies that stand to gain or lose from them. Choices about these new technologies will dictate choices about the kinds of institutions colleges and universities will be trying to become, and these should be made by those with a direct stake in those choices. We want these to be honest choices, with an awareness of their possible consequences; in this process, we believe, the rhetoric of boosterism and rejectionism, the promulgation of false dichotomies, the nostalgia for a vision of education that is no longer a reality on most campuses (and perhaps never was), all have interfered with a realistic assessment of the alternatives, the opportunities and the risks, that lie ahead. This is not the latest fad, like educational television. Colleges and universities will change because of pressures from the outside as well as conscious decisions made from the inside, and technologies will be incorporated, in some ways and to some degree, in everything that colleges and universities try to do.

The first trend will be an increase in online courses and programs from a variety of sources, some approved by public institutions and accreditation agencies, others not. The nature of the Internet is to have a kind of leveling effect: each Web page is one point in the network, and one Web page can look pretty much like another. The sources of credibility and accreditation that stand "behind" a page's information may not be readily apparent to the viewer. Overt markers of status can be mimicked. As a result, some nonaccredited programs may develop a reputation for quality and prestige, over time, at least equal to that of accredited college and university courses and programs.

It is important to note here that these online competitors will not only be alternative "virtual universities." As corporations and entrepreneurial startups get established, they will be focused on particular degree and program areas. The greatest competition will be in degree areas where large student numbers or high tuition revenues make expending the startup costs to deliver quality programs worthwhile. Private corporations and start-ups are not very interested in offering degrees in philosophy or comparative literature; and they will not be defining their role in terms of the traditions of liberal education. They will be attempting to pry off the most lucrative degree areas and those with the clearest vocational stream: business, law, and so on. These will include especially those areas in greatest demand by developing societies in the rest of the world; societies whose students will be much less interested in studying anthropology than they are in studying engineering. In this competition there will be a premium on either maintaining low cost and high volume, or on higher cost but demonstrable quality and innovation. Colleges and universities will need to decide which of these competitive niches they plan to occupy, and the result will be new stratifications of prestige, popularity, cost, and (therefore) educational access and opportunities.

For colleges and universities this will mean that formerly separate (and even sometimes self-funding) continuing education or distance education divisions will be more integrated with the standard curriculum. Most, if not all, courses will have some online components, whether they are serving students on-campus or off. Some of the faculty involved with these courses will become more or less full-time entrepreneurial course developers. Whether these faculty will also earn rights of tenure, how they will be paid (and how well, compared to entrepreneurial research faculty), and whether over time they might choose to split off quasi-independent "consulting" and teaching activities off-campus (as faculties in other areas do) all will determine the shape and composition of college and university faculties in years to come. The image of the solitary teacher/scholar, recruiting a few students to come to campus to study as apprentices, teaching a few large-section courses to keep the credit-hour averages up, and going home at night to work on that Major Book, is fading from the scene; individuals may aspire to this life, and a few may be fortunate enough to attain it - but it can no longer be the sole professional role that new academics prepare themselves for.

Second, in this environment, colleges and universities will need to find new ways to articulate the advantages of coming to campus. When even on-campus students are clamoring for online courses, there must be better arguments for their spending tuition and housing expenses to come to campus than for proximity to the football stadium and the weekend social scene. Many students will prefer to obtain part-time jobs, live off campus, and interact as if they lived hundreds of miles away. For some, being able to do so will make the difference between whether they remain enrolled or not. Here we think a profound paradox haunts those resisting online teaching and learning. As we have tried to make clear, there are many reasons to distrust the marketization of higher education, and to seek ways to preserve the values of the college and university as a community of inquirers, a community partaking of the advantages of on-campus, real-time, face-to-face interactions. But to make that case also requires confronting two factors: first, admitting the ways in which those values are attenuated in the modern university (less so in smaller liberal arts colleges); and second, acknowledging that to denigrate the virtues of lower cost instruction, wider access, and asynchronous, more convenient, scheduling is to commit colleges and universities to an exclusionary discourse that will be perceived by many of those excluded as privileged and elitist. If reformers are serious about increasing access to higher education, today, they must be willing to increase the use of new technologies and diminish the necessity of on-site learning.

As Nigel Blake has pointed out, there are good reasons to think that the incorporation of new technologies in college and university instruction (1) could have the effect of democratizing higher learning, attracting more, and more varied, students to the opportunities universities offer; (2) could proliferate the number programs available to learners; (3) could allow for the greater customization of programs to particular student needs and interests; and (4) could promote increased quantity and quality of student-student interaction and cooperative learning (18). Underestimating this potential of new technologies is effectively turning one's back to the countless prospective students worldwide who are craving the opportunity to learn and to gain access to the benefits of higher education and professional certification. This realization should cause deep doubts, we believe, to those who believe that the "progressive" policy here is automatically to reject any technological, market-oriented approach to education. The choices are not so simple today.

Third, these trends will begin to encourage both more higher education-business "alliances" and more coordination and even consolidation across college and university systems. Where University X can make a course or set of courses available to students at University Y in a format that is better than can be offered locally, there will be powerful incentives to limit "duplication" and to make those courses available across institutions (and even across national boundaries). Different colleges and universities may have different expertise to contribute to joint degree programs online. Similarly, higher education-business compacts may result in colleges and universities contributing what they do best - providing interesting, quality content and teaching expertise - and businesses contributing what they may do better - marketing, promotion, job placement, and customer service (19). The roles here are not clearly antagonistic, and colleges and universities may be able to secure such partnerships on terms favorable to their faculty members and their constituencies. There will also be more "mergers" as institutions seek economies of scale and combine strengths and resources. Some colleges and universities may license or "franchise" some of their degree programs for use in satellite locations; the name of the college of university may become a kind of "brand name" denoting quality, prestige, and dependability. All of these marketization trends, however, introduce new paradoxes. As in other industries, how will mergers and the growth of mega-institutions be reconciled with the values of personal service and diversity of choices (20)? Will there continue to be a niche for smaller schools, albeit more expensive schools, that offer the unique benefits of living away from home, smaller class sizes, and on-campus, real-time, face-to-face instruction? Will corporatization make schools (what Noble calls "EMO's") similar to HMO's - large, less expensive, but more impersonal and bottom-line oriented? These are questions that need to be engaged.

Fourth, moving and working within this conflicted educational space will require a more strategically savvy attitude than many academics have previously wanted to adopt. Noble notes the dangers that working conditions within colleges and universities could follow trends within other working environments: that the commercialization of higher education and online teaching could result in what labor theorists have called intensification (expectations of more work, more productivity, more hours, for the same or less pay); deskilling, as ancillary staff deliver course content that, once developed, makes skilled faculty less necessary; and a blurring of work and home life, as e-mail and other technologies make faculty perpetually "on call" for student questions or reviewing assignments delivered via the network. Noble extends the analogy of faculty with other workers, and administrators with bosses, noting the dangers that new technologies would facilitate "control over faculty performance and course content [and]...administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship (21)." While this litany of dangers is sure to invoke alarm among professors used to the comforts of tenure and academic freedom, the fact is that these risks are made no more or less imminent by the advent of new technologies. In our view, the situation here exists as it does in every other area of academic life - that the onus is on faculty to take charge of these developments and seek to shape them to their purposes, and not to awake some morning to a fait accompli. Yet by refusing to accept the possibilities as well as the risks of new technologies, many faculty (or, to be more precise, faculty in certain parts of campus, especially the humanities and so-called "softer" disciplines) have opened a wider space for others to dominate the discussion of new online pedagogies, bringing to them a stronger managerial, efficiency, "delivery system" mentality (22).

Here the choices are, again, difficult and conflicted. In a neoliberal policy context, many of the pressures for standardization, accountability, efficiency, and top-down management come not from private, corporate influences, but from the public agencies (and from the public citizenry) that control many colleges and universities. Ironically, perhaps, many private foundations, research partners, and corporate sponsors have shown a greater willingness to encourage experimentation, independence, and variety in instruction and scholarship. Simple dichotomies like private/public, corporate/democratic, industry/government do not capture the range of actual choices that colleges and universities face; and some taken-for-granted theoretical categories and assumptions have sometimes interfered with thinking about the pragmatics of how colleges and universities should be responding to the opportunities and risks of new technologies.

Fifth, entrepreneurial models that have been more or less accepted as commonplaces in college and university research are beginning to be applied to teaching activities as well. This introduces another profound dilemma. University research (governed by patents, copyright, and royalty agreements) has already established customs and rules that enable producers of knowledge and information to protect perceived "property" rights to these materials (although these are often not well understood by faculty). Many within the online environment reject this orientation in all but a few very select circumstances. There is a major conflict emerging between an open-access versus a proprietary ethos on the Internet. For many information providers, Web page creators, e-journal editors, and so on, the basic attitude is "come one, come all." For them, the Internet is regarded as a gift economy or exchange economy, not as a profit-making one (23). Conversely, there are obviously many tendencies to commercialize and limit access to Internet resources.

Now academics confront a situation in which the same clash between values is emerging with respect to teaching and course materials. Teaching seems in many respects the prime gift economy. While teachers normally expect to be paid for their time and effort (Socrates was a conspicuous exception), they do not expect property rights over the content of what they teach; for example, few teachers worry that students might repeat their classroom comments, incorporating them as their own ideas - in one sense it is a compliment if they do. The blending of borrowed and original ideas is seen as intrinsic to (indeed the point of) the teaching relation, especially in dialogical modes of interaction (24). Yet online instruction, because it depends upon the production of durable courseware, syllabi, video-taped lectures, graphics, simulation models, data sets, and so on, seems to many to fit more in the proprietary mode. Online courses are often password-protected so that only registered students can access the materials. The tension between pedagogical norms and proprietary norms will prove to be a major source of contestation in determining the shape of online teaching environments. Ironically, while some want to emphasize the non-proprietary, pedagogical value of much research (sharing it far and wide for the general good, and encouraging more reciprocal and collaborative models of knowledge production), the opposite trend, emphasizing the proprietary value of all knowledge production, including teaching, seems to be on the rise today.

In contexts where property norms reign, the application of intellectual property rights and copyright (even patents) to instructional materials will become a significant area at issue between individual faculty and their institutions (25). If campus rules and regulations concerning these issues are not carefully drafted (with strong faculty input), then instructors could become simply "work for hire," developing course materials that universities will own and exploit for online educational markets, even after the creators have moved on. If, on the other hand, faculty assert their interests here as they have over issues of academic freedom or tenure, colleges and universities (which are still not profit-making institutions per se) have little reason not to respect the prerogatives of those who, after all, are still the ones who constitute the core academic community on campus (26). But such recognition does not come automatically, and it requires, again paradoxically, that faculty may need to engage the very market-oriented, entrepreneurial arguments that they might otherwise be inclined to resist. There is even a possible future in which faculty become individual teaching entrepreneurs, accruing benefits directly from the student numbers they attract to their courses - not only those on campus, but those elsewhere who are attracted by the quality or reputation the professor brings to the course - and through the licensing of their course materials. In response to those who regard this as corrupting commercialization of the worst sort, one must ask, How is this different from professors who write books, especially textbooks, and garner profits from their sales? Or those who take fees for public speaking and lectures? It seems that most academics passed this fork in the road long ago.

Sixth, the analysis and critique of these new online pedagogies needs to go further than the alternatives of boosterism or rejectionism, or simple-minded questions like "which way of teaching is better?" The issues, as we have tried to show, are more subtle than this. Online environments encourage certain kinds of interactions and discourage others (so do classrooms); online environments feel comfortable and safe for certain participants and alienating for others (so do classrooms); online environments are well suited for certain kinds of teacher-student interactions and not for others (so are classrooms); online environments allow for the reflective study and evaluation of certain kinds of student contributions, at the cost of missing out entirely on others (so do classrooms); online environments stimulate enthusiasm and the eagerness to work harder for some students, and create dismay or boredom for others (so do classrooms) (27). As noted earlier, the irony is that it is often just those students who have not thrived in the traditional college or university classroom setting who stand to benefit the most from online innovations.

At the same time, on-campus, real-time, face-to-face instruction accomplishes things that online teaching cannot. The very "negatives" that concern some prospective students - relocating from home and family, living in a strange, new community, dealing with the myriad interpersonal pleasures and frustrations that accompany living together in proximity with others who are different - are part of the very opportunities for learning that the on-campus experience provides. Moreover, the smaller, more intimate, and one-to-one teaching opportunities made possible in on-campus environments (and, generally speaking, more typical of smaller colleges and campuses than larger ones) cannot simply be replaced by online equivalents.

Therefore, the analysis of new technologies of education needs to take a finer-grained view of which technologies have educational potential for which students, for which subject matters, and for which purposes. As we argued previously, regarding "distance education" as a separate category of effort does not help with this sort of analysis: the point is that the incorporation of online content and interaction makes courses in principle available to many students, whether on-campus or not, full-time or not, enrolled or not, within the U.S. or not.

Many important questions follow from this finer-grained analysis. What sorts of motivations work for different sorts of students (younger or older, full time or part time)? Online coursework may call for a greater degree of focus and self-direction than courses where the attention and approval of an immediately present teacher are available. Are there certain subject matters or aims that cannot be taught in a non-face-to-face context (though increased access to videoconferencing technologies may render this objection somewhat moot)? We see a great deal of a priori arguing here, about what can and cannot be taught in this medium, mostly by people who have never tried to. One wonders at times how much of this is driven by serious pedagogical concerns, and how much it makes for a handy rationalization not to attempt something that seems difficult and unfamiliar. Certainly, as we noted earlier, in online teaching form affects content: Will the use of new technologies reinforce the propensity for canned lectures, information and fact-oriented textbooks, and easily-graded multiple-choice tests? Conversely, will the capacity of some new technologies be used constructively to foster greater hands-on learning, to create rich simulations and exploratory environments, and to increase the options available for student-student communication and collaboration? It is easy to imagine alternative futures in which new technologies are incorporated in such a way as to exacerbate the lecture-oriented, fact-driven, impersonal modes of pedagogy that exist on many campuses already; or incorporated in such a way as to alleviate those constraints and create new, more innovative, educational possibilities. What will determine the direction of implementation? Pressures of cost, efficiency, standardization (and, we would add, faculty passivity) will tend to press reforms in one direction; an insistence on educational quality, diversity of options, innovation (and faculty control over course content and methods) will tend to press the reforms in the other direction. Ignoring the inevitable impact of new information and communication technologies, for better and for worse, is counterproductive and self-defeating.

For example, in what ways are there new versions of the traditional skills that colleges and universities have long sought to foster: skills of civic awareness, of literacy and communication in multiple modes, of knowing where to go to find information to supplement what one already knows (and of being able to critically evaluate it), of adapting to new work environments, of learning how to learn, and so on? Can these new skills be taught any longer without involving the use of new technologies - given the ways in which these new skills are being learned and applied in the online environment, does it even make sense to try to keep them separate? But at the same time, can they be taught using only online instruction? Questions such as these cannot be answered with either/or dichotomies.

Seventh, and perhaps most fundamentally, these trends entail a reorientation of the kinds of legitimacy the contemporary college or university seeks for itself. The claims to certain kinds of knowledge, to certain privileges of inquiry, and to the authority to certify professional candidates have set colleges and universities apart from other social institutions; yet more and more these avenues will be available to learners through many other media. Potential students will be asking different kinds of questions about the merits of a college or university education, as opposed to other intellectual and vocational endeavors. The advantage colleges and universities have maintained in defining to a large degree the standards of quality by which they will themselves be judged may be superseded by accreditation organizations, by state agencies and legislatures, by testing services, and by employers who will wield what is (for most students) the final judgment. At a time when job-related competencies are judged more highly in many workplaces than certificates or degrees per se, many students will decide that they can obtain these competencies through alternative, more convenient, and less costly methods. Among other things, this will mean a boon for testing services, who will be asked to assess these competencies, in lieu of the proxies of competency that college- or university-certified degrees have been taken to represent. If that happens, colleges and universities will need to find new ways of describing and justifying the unique value of what they offer.


Our purpose here is not to sound a note of crisis for the contemporary college and university; higher education includes many types of schools, with different strengths, different resources, and different constituencies. Nor do we want to minimize the objections that have been raised against the further commercialization of higher education or the promotion of new technologies as a way of increasing efficiency or profitability within these institutions. Part of the college and university mission should be to pose challenges to such crass and ends-driven thinking. But at the same time, we have argued, conditions that colleges and universities do not control constitute constraints to which they must respond and, in some instances, adapt. In addition, we have argued, such adaptations might actually have the effect of allowing colleges and universities to serve more and more varied people, at lower cost, many of whom would never be full-time on-campus students. To these audiences, the defense of higher education's traditional prerogatives and the insistence that the truly committed learner must relocate and leave work, home, and family behind rings of a stodgy complacency, or worse.

We have noted three important sets of contextual factors that shape and constrain the available options for higher education, particularly public institutions. The first set concerns the available funding for public institutions from state legislatures seeking increased efficiencies and accountability in return for the investment of public dollars, and the demand that schools become more and more entrepreneurial in supplementing the percentage of their budgets funded by the state with revenues secured elsewhere; this has encouraged an increasingly corporate and managerial spirit within the administration of most campuses. The second set of factors concerns the changing demographics and aspirations of prospective students, at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. These students, by and large, have more specific vocational purposes in pursuing postsecondary studies; most of them are employed part-time or even full-time during their enrollment; and many are older and have family or other commitments that make their lives unsuited to full-time, on-campus involvement. These students are demanding access to alternative paths to undergraduate and graduate study, and expect it to be available to them on their terms, as consumers with alternatives elsewhere. The third set of factors concerns an increasing number of competitors, including other higher education institutions, private corporations, or new hybrid consortia between them, who are offering quality online courses and programs in a more straightforwardly and aggressively market-oriented way. None of these trends is new, but each has advanced to a qualitatively different level in the era of new information and communication technologies. The threats and the opportunities under each of these headings are multiplied even further when these changes are situated within a global context, where the stakes escalate enormously. No school of any size or prestige can ignore this context; as we have repeated, this does not require catering to baldly commercial motivations in "selling" instruction, but it does mean acknowledging the extent to which such considerations are inseparable from (and in tension with) the more purely academic purposes that higher education institutions define for themselves.

In closing, it must be said, more online education and more providers of education means more garbage, more empty trendiness, and more catering to the least common denominator. Helping learners to identify educational quality and importance (whether they ultimately choose to look for it from the college, the university, or from other sources) will need to be addressed as choice-based and consumer-oriented models dominate public policies, including educational policies. Increasing choices means also an increased responsibility to learn how to make good choices, and this is itself a crucial educational problem - a sort of meta-educational problem. Online courses and other resources that can inform and support learning how to make good choices (including educational choices) is one way to address this problem before students even begin to consider college or university as an alternative. For rather obvious bootstrapping reasons, failing in this educational task will mean that there is less chance to reach such prospective students later on.

This critical and formative endeavor is as much a part of the potential of online education as are didactic prerecorded lectures, skill-and-drill exercises, flashy, insubstantial "eye candy," or any of the other commercially viable commodities that online educational hucksters will be offering (and finding paying customers for). The alternative cannot be to shun the medium entirely, for that simply leaves a vacuum that other providers will fill; the alternative is to provide models of the best that the online medium is capable of, to remind people of what is lacking elsewhere (28).

End Notes

 (1) See, for example, Gerhard Caspar, "Come the millennium, where the university?" Presented at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association (April 18, 1995), San Francisco; Helga Deppe-Wolfinger, "Administering the university of the future," Partisan Review, Vol. 65 No. 3 (1998): 435-439; and the Learning Partnership Roundtable, "Transformation of higher education in the digital age" (May 11, 1998). Online publication: [http://consulting.us.coopers.com/clcsite/clcpress.nsf/ef404ae1aac513e7802564db007a9625].

 (2) This difficulty is the central theme of Nicholas C. Burbules and Thomas A. Callister, Jr., Watch IT: The Promises and Risks of New Information Technologies for Education (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, forthcoming), which deals with educational dilemmas at all levels of teaching and learning, not only higher education.

 (3) The problem is that initiatives intended to increase access for some, often end up inhibiting access for others: see Burbules and Callister, "Dilemmas of access and credibility: Access for whom? Access to what?" Chapter Two, in Watch IT. For an overview of these issues in the context of higher education, see "The virtual university and educational opportunity," Lawrence E. Gladieux and Watson Scott Swail, available from The College Board online: [http://www.collegeboard.org/index_this/policy/html/virtual.html].

 (4) Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 47-53. For an exposition of this analysis, see Michael Peters and Peter Roberts, "The question concerning virtual technology and tertiary education - The shift from knowledge to information," in Michael Peters and Peter Roberts, eds., Virtual Technologies and Tertiary Education (Palmerston North, New Zealand: Dunmore Press, 1998), pp. 15-39.

 (5) David F. Noble, "Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education," [http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/jak8/workshop/NOBLE.HTM]. This version was then supplemented by two more installments, "Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education, Pt. II" [http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/jak8/workshop/NOBLE2.html] and "Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education, Pt. III" [http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/jak8/workshop/NOBLE3.html]. The entire series of essays was responded to by Frank White, "Digital diploma mills: A dissenting voice" [http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue4_7/white/]. Some of Noble's criticisms have been echoed by Janice Newson, "Technopedagogy: A critical sighting of the post-industrial university," The Canadian University in the Twenty-First Century, Research Monograph Series in Higher Education Number Three, University of Manitoba (1996), pp. 45-66 and "Technopedagogy: A critical evaluation of the effects on academic staff of computerized instructional technologies in higher education," Higher Education Policy, Vol. 7 No. 2 (1994), pp. 37-40. Other, more ambivalent views on the implications of new information and communication technologies for higher education include Phil Agre, "The distances of education: defining the role of information technology in the university," a speech at California State University, Fullerton, August 1998, forthcoming in an abbreviated version in Academe, and "Information technology in higher education: The 'Global Academic Village' and intellectual standardization," [http://dlis.gseis.ucla.edu/people/pagre/global.html]; Andrew Feenberg, "Distance learning: Promise or threat?" [http://www.tao.ca/wind/rre/0622.html]; and William R. Klemm, "Will distance education really revolutionize higher education?" Technology Source (January 1999): [http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/vision/1999-01.asp].

 (6) For example, Curtis Bonk and Donald J. Cunningham, "Searching for learner-centered, constructivist, and sociocultural components of collaborative educational learning tools," in Bonk, C.J. and King, K.S., eds., Electronic Collaborators: Learner-Centered Technologies for Literacy, Apprenticeship, and Discourse (Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, 1998), pp. 26-50; Cutis Bonk and Thomas A. Reynolds, "Learner-centered Web instruction for higher-order thinking, teamwork, and apprenticeship," in Badrul H. Kahn, ed., Web-Based Instruction (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Educational Technology Publications, 1997), pp. 167-178; and Linda Harasim, et al., Learning Networks: A Field Guide to Teaching and Learning Online (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1995).

 (7) Available online: [http://www.aaup.org/spcdistn.htm]

 (8) Lisa Guernsey, "Colleges debate the wisdom of having on-campus students enroll in on-line classes," Chronicle of Higher Education (March 27, 1998): A29.

 (9) David Beckett, "Disembodied learning: How flexible delivery shoots higher education in the foot: Well, sort of," Electronic Journal of Sociology, Vol. 3 No. 3 (1998). Online publication: [http://www.sociology.org/vol003.003/beckett.article.1998.html].

 (10) As pointed out to us by Bertram (Chip) Bruce, from the University of Illinois.

 (11) Mark Edmundson, "On the uses of liberal education: As lite entertainment for bored college students," Harpers (September 1997): 39-49.

 (12) Burbules and Callister, "Critically reading the internet," Chapter Four, and "Misinformation, malinformation, messed-up information, and mostly useless information: Is censorship the best response?" Chapter Five, in Watch IT.

 (13) Corporate universities are big business," Financial Times (June 18, 1998).

 (14) Jones International University was the first virtual university to receive accreditation from the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

 (15) See Nicholas C. Burbules and Carlos Torres, eds., Globalization and Education: Critical Perspectives (New York: Routledge, forthcoming); see also Paige Porter and Lesley Vidovich, "Globalization and higher education policy," unpublished manuscript.

 (16) Colin Lankshear, "Meanings of literacy in educational reform proposals," Educational Theory, Vol. 48 No. 3 (1998): 351-372.

 (17) Nicholas C. Burbules, "Digital texts and the future of scholarly writing and publication." Journal of Curriculum Studies, Vol. 30 No. 1 (1997): 105-124.

 (18) Nigel Blake, "The management of learning," in Blake, N., Smith, R., and Standish, P., The Universities We Need: Higher Education After Dearing (London: Kogan Page, forthcoming).

 (19) A private company, UNEXT.com, has just signed an agreement to offer courses in association with five major universities: Columbia, Chicago, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon, and the London School of Economics.

 (20) See Agre, "Information technology and higher education." See also Gary Chapman, "Will technology commercialize higher learning?" Los Angeles Times (January 19, 1998) and Burbules and Callister, "Information for sale: Commercialization and the educational potential of the Internet," Chapter Seven, in Watch IT.

 (21) David F. Noble, "Digital diploma mills," Part I [http://www.people.cornell.edu/pages/jak8/workshop/NOBLE.HTM].

 (22) Tina Kelley, "Virtual classes trend alarms professors," New York Times (June 18, 1998).

 (23) For an interesting experiment in this sort of venture, see Apple Computer's Educational Object Economy: [http://trp.research.apple.com].

 (24) Nicholas C. Burbules, Dialogue in Teaching: Theory and Practice (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993).

 (25) See Robert A. Gorman, "The rights of faculty as creators and users," Marjorie Heins, "Academic freedom and the Internet," M. M. Scott, "Intellectual property rights: A ticking time bomb in academia," Karen Cardenas, "Technology in today's classroom: It slices and dices, but does it serve us well?" and Fred H. Cate, et al., "Distance learning: A report to the American Association of University Professors," Academe, Vol. 84 No. 3 (May-June 1998): 14-45.

 (26) The University of Illinois has, we believe, a well thought-out and relatively faculty-oriented approach to these issues: [http://www.vpaa.uillinois.edu/policies/courseware.htm].

 (27) There have been many attempts to characterize the state of the evaluation research that compares online and regular classroom instruction. The general conclusion that one draws from these studies is that few are untainted by a pro-technology or anti-technology bias. See, for example a recent study that received a great deal of attention in the press, "What's the difference: A review of contemporary research on the effectiveness of distance learning in higher education," by the Institute for Higher Education Policy (a study funded by the NEA and AFT, who are skeptical about these new technologies): available at [http://www.ihep.com/difference.pdf]. For a critique of this study, see "The difference frenzy and matching buckshot with buckshot," by Gary Brown and Mary Wack, Technology Source (May 1999): [http://horizon.unc.edu/TS/reading/1999-05.asp]. Technology Source, of course, is much more sympathetic to these new technologies, and is sponsored by Compaq, Microsoft, and others.

 (28) This essay has benefited from numerous discussions with Bertram (Chip) Bruce, Barbara Duncan, and Jim Levin. It was presented in an earlier version at the "Paideia Conference," the Twentieth World Congress of Philosophy, Boston, Massachusetts, Autumn, 1998, and benefited from the comments and suggestions of colleagues at that session. It has also benefited from discussions in, and presentations to, the "Teaching at an Internet Distance" faculty seminar, funded by the Vice President for Academic Affairs at the University of Illinois, and organized by John Regalbuto.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 102 Number 2, 2000, p. 271-293
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10362, Date Accessed: 5/20/2022 12:34:56 AM

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About the Author
  • Nicholas Burbules
    University of Illinois, Urban/Champaign
    E-mail Author
    Nicholas C. Burbules is Professor of Educational Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois. He is the editor of Educational Theory. His recent articles have appeared in Access, Philosophy of Education 1997(, and the Electronic Journal of Sociology.
  • Thomas Callister
    Whitman College
    E-mail Author
    Thomas A. Callister, Jr. is assistant professor, department chair, and director of teacher education in the Education Department at Whitman College.
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