Ivory Towers and Ivy-Covered Walls Will Yield to On-Line Learning

How the Information Age will revolutionize higher education

THE Information Age will do what no other age has been able to do since the creation of the printing press - radically change the way universities and colleges educate students.

The standard college classroom has remained remarkably unchanged for hundreds of years. Socrates would have little trouble picking up his philosophical lectures right where he left off 2,400 years ago if he were here to teach university students in 1996. But once higher education undergoes a modern transformation to meet the needs of students in the Information Age, Socrates and his fellow scholars of yesteryear wouldn't find it easy to recognize a university classroom.

Universities will be forced to shun the old textbook approach because the public will need information and education on demand to survive in the Information Age.

In the next five years, 4 out of 5 people living in industrial nations will be doing jobs differently from the way they have done them the last 50 years. By 2000, 3 out of 4 employees will have to be trained for new jobs or taught fresh skills for their old ones.

People will no longer be able to complete an education, because they will have to continue to gain new knowledge and new skills to be competitive.

For the 21st century, the body of information in the world will double every five years. In their recent book, "Transforming Higher Education," Michael G. Dolence and Donald M. Norris estimate that an equivalent of 30 credit hours will be required every seven years for a person to remain gainfully employed.

If we used today's approaches to provide the information and education to the 141 million workers who would complete the additional 30 credit hours every seven years, it would require 672 campuses of 30,000 students each - at a cost of $235 billion to build and $217 billion annually to operate (in 1995 dollars).

Universities will be under intense pressure to deliver up-to-date knowledge on a greater variety of subjects to people of virtually all ages. New knowledge will not only be the gateway to employment opportunities, but will also provide people with information to enhance their quality of life.

To meet these new demands on higher education, universities won't be able to operate under today's structure. But a new approach in higher education may be difficult for faculty to accept because universities are accustomed to being insulated from many of the public's needs.

Higher education must realign its educational organization with the demands of an expanding learning society. People who have ATM cards, access to on-line shopping malls, and interactive communication at their fingertips aren't going to tolerate antiquated educational services.

We have to break out of the mind-set that a degree-seeking program is the answer for all students. Students will continually demand the most up-to-date answers to questions about specific subjects. Instead of the student going to the university to learn, the university will typically go electronically to the student. Rather than being charged for tuition by the credit hour, students will pay for on-line access through debit cards to obtain knowledge and have questions answered.

On the other hand, universities that don't step up to the plate will eventually lose credibility and funding. Quite simply, if universities don't effectively deliver information services, corporate America will. Already, commercial on-line services and some corporations are providing expanded learning opportunities.

If universities don't adapt to the public's needs, tomorrow's students likely will gravitate to business and other organizations that offer information and training programs on demand.

Further, many companies will no longer require a college degree as a prerequisite for certain professional employment. Instead, they will hire skilled workers who began building their portfolios and have the potential to quickly access information and learn new skills.

Because wholesale changes move at a snail's pace in higher education, universities must begin preparing for the Information Age now. This means modifying the "teaching" approach - emphasis on teaching and classrooms - so they can reach a "takeoff" stage electronically for a "learning" approach - a student focus with emphasis on learning outcomes and multiple means of delivery.

Once a university takes ownership for the new "learning" approach, it will have to examine how courses, educational processes, and academic culture will need to be modified to take advantage of new digital opportunities.

It will open somewhat of a Pandora's Box of issues fundamental to higher education: How, for instance, will colleges respond to electronic classrooms? Are campuses necessary? Will large lectures survive? Who will pay for the new technology? How many faculty members will be needed and how will technology revolutionize the role of the professor?

Technology lays the groundwork for the reshaping of class lectures - the poorest form of teaching because the student learns passively - so that students and faculty can, collaboratively and proactively, come together to access information and learn.

This synergistic approach will transform the role of faculty members: Rather than being omniscient scholars, they'll serve as navigators, facilitators, and intermediaries to help students pilot the information superhighway and keep pace in an ever-changing society.

The Information Age revolution in higher education will be dramatic and transforming. It will unfold relatively quickly and require massive changes for our colleges and universities. At the same time, this revolution will create a learning potential for the public that is virtually unlimited.

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