May/June 2000 // Vision
e-Learning and Educational Transformation:
An Interview with Greg Priest
by James L. Morrison and Greg M Priest
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Greg M Priest "e-Learning and Educational Transformation:
An Interview with Greg Priest" The Technology Source, May/June 2000. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Greg Priest has served as president and CEO of SmartForce, formerly known as CBT Systems, since December 1998. His previous positions include chief financial officer for SmartForce and president and CEO of Knowledge Well, which was acquired by SmartForce in 1998. Prior to joining SmartForce in 1995, Priest was an attorney with Wilson, Sonsini, Goodrich & Rosati, a Silicon Valley-based law firm that represents emerging growth technology companies.

James Morrison (JM): Greg, you are the chief executive officer of SmartForce, a company that provides "learning solutions based on e-Learning." What is e-Learning?

Greg Priest (GP): There is a transformation going on in education. I think that the single most important driver of that transformation is the Internet. e-Learning, essentially, is using the special capabilities of the Internet as a delivery method to reinvent the way that people learn.

The Internet has enormous power to improve the educational process. By using the Internet, education can be personalized to each user, so that each student is given a targeted set of materials based on his or her specific educational goals and previous achievements. At the same time, the Internet allows material to be updated dynamically, which creates an up-to-the minute resource for students.

The Internet also allows for collaboration in a way that has not been possible before with technology-based learning—collaboration not only with the student at the next desk, but also with a student half a world away.

Finally, the Internet is interlinked. It is called the "Web" for a reason. The ability to connect different kinds of resources so that they become a coherent whole is an opportunity to create an integrated curriculum out of an incredibly wide range of source material.

The net effect of all of this is that education is becoming increasingly targeted to the individual; it is going to be integrated more completely into our daily lives, generating a process of lifelong learning, and it is going to happen in real time.

JM: Is it your belief that e-Learning will replace professors? If not, how can we assist educators in using technology tools?

GP: Of course, there are self-styled "visionaries" who present a vision of the future that involves the elimination of all human interaction. That is nonsense. e-Learning will never replace faculty, but it may cause faculty to place more emphasis on mentoring and facilitation.

Certainly, some educational goals can be achieved through the use of technology-based formats. Ever since the invention of the printing press, people have learned from books. Similarly, people can learn through technology. Books alone are not enough, nor are any of the other technologies by themselves enough.

Technology is a tool; by itself, it cannot teach anything. The human element is a critical component of the educational process. The key is to create a set of tools that can be used most effectively to leverage the teacher's time and energy, so that the teacher spends the most time doing those things that add the most value to the learning process. This way, faculty can harness the power in these tools for teaching and research.

JM: We all recognize that lifelong learning is an essential educational goal. How can e-Learning help us to achieve it?

GP: The vision that I have of lifelong learning is a process where individuals are constantly engaged in an exercise of upgrading their skills and abilities. In order to realize that vision, we have to give all individuals exactly the material they want for exactly the purpose they want to achieve at exactly the time that they need it. That requires the infrastructure that is provided by e-Learning.

In order to turn that vision into a reality, the infrastructure alone is not enough. The infrastructure needs to be used by educators to offer the substance that people want and need. That work hasn't been completed, but that is where we—as a company, as an industry, and as a society—are moving.

JM: One of the concerns educators have about technology-based instruction is that there is not sufficient instructor-student interaction. How will you address this concern?

GP: It is certainly true that, historically, methods of technology-based instruction have involved a trade-off. In order to get the convenience and cost advantages of technology, you had to give up real, direct interactivity. This was true up until the very recent past.

But as I mentioned just a moment ago, one of the powers of the Internet is the degree to which we are able to transcend those limitations today. Using the Internet, a student can ask a question of a faculty member or a teaching assistant anytime or anywhere and often get a real-time response. Individual students can have one-to-one conversations about the course. Groups of students can come together for a live, real-time discussion group related to the course.

Virtually all of the interactions that are possible in a live classroom environment are replicable in the Internet environment. In fact, in some ways, the interactivity is more powerful. Students can interact with other students via threaded interaction even if they cannot be available at precisely the same time. Students can interact with students who are geographically remote. Neither of these is possible in a traditional classroom environment.

The existing issues do not relate to whether the technology is capable of supporting a high level of interaction. First, vendors must understand how critical it is to enable meaningful interactions within their systems, and second, any teachers who are using systems must learn to foster interaction. These issues require vendors to think differently about what they are building and teachers to think differently about how they teach. Both of those are possible. Both of those will happen. But it is a challenge.

Just as an example of the kind of power the Internet brings, one of the fastest growing parts of SmartForce's business is an online mentoring structure that allows 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week access to subject matter experts who mentor students on our Internet-based courseware.

JM: In closing, if you could make one point to professional educators about e-Learning, what would it be?

GP: e-Learning is a tool. It is a very powerful tool, but it is only a tool. Just as Internet "visionaries" who prophesy the elimination of faculty are na?ɬØve, those who proclaim that using technology to improve the learning process is a slippery slope, that it will somehow destroy the basic instructor-student model of education, are incorrect.

Technology has created a powerful set of tools for us to use in the educational world. Things like electronic storage and retrieval of text and the personal computer have been powerful forces for the betterment of education and scholarship. In fact, one of the first effective uses of the Internet was as a medium for scholars to communicate among themselves the results of their research.

If used effectively by educators, the Internet and e-Learning can improve education and scholarship immeasurably. Educators can have a profoundly positive influence on how the Internet is leveraged to improve education, but they will have to engage with technology in order to do so.

In short, the Internet is such a powerful medium that it is going to change the face of education. Whether that change is for good or ill depends on the talents and motivations of the people implementing it.

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