May/June 2002 // Vision
Higher Education and Today's Learning Economy: An Interview with CollegisEduprise's William H. Graves
by James L. Morrison and William H. Graves
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and William H. Graves "Higher Education and Today's Learning Economy: An Interview with CollegisEduprise's William H. Graves" The Technology Source, May/June 2002. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

William H. Graves is a leading pioneer in the effort to use information technology (IT) and the Internet in the educational process. Founder of Eduprise, he is a member of the board of directors of EDUCAUSE and the Instructional Management Systems Global Learning Consortium. He was also one of the founders of the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development and its Internet2 project. I was able to interview him during the recent 2001 EDUCAUSE conference in Indianapolis.

James Morrison [JM]: Bill, higher education is in a transformative period in adapting the Internet and other technology tools to its fundamental mission of educating students. Where do we stand in this transformation today?

Bill Graves [BG]: As is so often the case, Jim, the answer is, "It depends." There are four primary perspectives from which to answer the question?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùthe student's, the instructor's, the institution's, and the policymaker's. Let's start with the student's perspective.

Both Internet-savvy younger students and working adult students now demand integrated, comprehensive, and personalizable online self-service. That last phrase is long, but it embodies the purpose and function of a campus "portal" based on technology that provides authenticated access to a one-stop, Web-based service environment integrating a range of academic and administrative services and transactions. Students can customize both the interface and the information available from the administrative system, the course management system (CMS), and other internal and external systems?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùincluding information that is unique and private to the individual student. There is clearly a market, primarily comprised of working adults and their employers, that places a premium on the flexibility of anyplace-anytime online instruction. Academic programs aimed at working adults and employers not only deliver this kind of instruction via the Web, but they also incorporate student-centered online administrative services, recognizing that students who prefer the flexibility of online instruction may balk at the inflexibility of place-based administrative services. Even younger students who choose the residential experience for its role in personal maturation and acculturation want as much online self-service as possible. For these students, after all, the Internet is not a new medium to be questioned or otherwise considered external to their everyday forms of communication. They are hardly more conscious of the Internet than you and I are of a light switch. Institutions that focus on customer satisfaction as the key determinant in their competitive reputations are exploiting the ideal of integrated, comprehensive, personalizable self-service as a mantra for student satisfaction, both in the context of the traditional residential learning experience and the online learning experience that many working adults and their employers now favor. Most students appreciate this trend toward flexibility.

JM: What about the faculty perspective, especially in light of what you just described as the student's increasing appetite for "self-service?"

BG: Self-service does not necessitate the demise of human mediation, but it does challenge us to transform the form and substance of human mediation, such as the mediated learning provided in a classroom. One goal might be to eliminate the classroom to increase the flexibility of instructor mediation. Another goal might be to place the instructor's notes online in order to replace the lecture with group discussion in the classroom. We need to keep in mind that, upon its invention, the printing press increased our capacity for self-service in a similar way. It reduced the need for transcription, both by the creators and keepers of knowledge and by knowledge seekers. Still, we did not simply build libraries and send students to libraries to educate themselves. Rather, we built classrooms and hired teachers because most students require more than personal access to knowledge to learn effectively. They require the kind of instructor mediation and collaborative learning that we associate, for example, with the classroom seminar. So, although the Internet increases access to knowledge resources and further lubricates self-study, it does not eliminate the need for instructor mediation. It simply forces us to reconsider the form and substance of instructor mediation.

JM: Can you give us an example of the new "form and substance" of instructor mediation?

BG: Yes, but first we should note that today's course management systems reduce the scope of the instructor's course management efforts. CMSs like WebCT, Blackboard, and eCollege allow instructors to increase self-service substantially by providing them with authenticated and authorized online access to the syllabus, class schedule, assignments, course notes, external online content resources, learning assessments, and the grade book. In addition, integrating the administrative system with a CMS further reduces these tasks by automating the enrollment process, drop/add procedures, and grade reporting. Once instructors have mastered these tools, they can concentrate more on student learning than on knowledge delivery and course management. Educators have used e-mail and listservs to encourage collaborative learning for several years. However, these tools are more difficult to manage than the CMS's Web-threaded discussions, which frequently become the center of instruction that pedagogically focuses on anyplace-anytime dialogue among students and their instructor. Instruction and learning become more continuous and spontaneous and less episodic, whether instructors use these tools to supplement class work or to lay the foundation for an online "classroom." Of course, these are not the only expressions of the "classroom," but they do represent the extreme points on a continuum of instructional delivery possibilities?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùfrom 3 weekly contact hours constrained by time and place to online contact free from these constraints.

Some institutions and their faculties have even used the flexibility of anyplace-anytime instruction to move away from a fixed academic term and/or cohort-based instruction. Rio Salado College, for example, allows students to enroll in a course every second week, and this means that the instructor's objective is to facilitate individual student learning rather than to lead the class through course material as a cohort. Even within the context of the academic term and the residential experience, there is strong evidence that educators can redesign instruction to improve learning outcomes while reducing instructional costs. These efforts, many of which have received their funding from the Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign, often involve the use of rich and engaging learningware for self-study, a redesign of the instructor's role, and, often, a reduction in contact hours.

JM: When you speak of "reducing instructional costs," are you transitioning from the faculty perspective to the institutional perspective?

BG: Yes, to an extent. It is important to align faculty interests with institutional interests (and vice versa). The importance of this idea might seem obvious, yet I hear more "us-vs.-them" discussion by faculty members and administrators now than at any time since the Vietnam war era. That is a failure of leadership. Consider, for example, that leaders in higher education are struggling to manage IT expenditures while simultaneously facing pressure to spend more on competitive IT necessities. They feel pressured, for example, to upgrade their administrative system, to license and support a CMS, and to create a campus portal to provide the kind of self-service that I mentioned earlier. The necessary expenses to provide these innovations, if simply attached to traditional service models, constitute additional expenses. This is hardly the time to incur additional expenses, and that's why it's so important to rethink the form and substance of human mediation.

The institutional challenge is to increase societal and private educational benefits through technology-enabled increases in academic productivity. In other words, IT can represent more than an expenditure, but only if leaders embrace IT as a means to increase the quality and flexibility of academic and administrative services and their attendant levels of "customer" satisfaction (as well as the ratio of institutional revenues to expenditures). Success often requires additional IT resources, IT expertise in new areas of technology, new continuous levels of IT quality assurance, and experience in the management of academic change. These additional resources place serious demands on capital budgets, support staffing, and staffing for other ongoing needs. Because of these demands, partnering has offered a cost-effective, results-focused strategy for achieving both an internal and a societal return on investment in the technologies of the Internet revolution?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùin "Internet time." The Internet reduces the difficulty of partnering, and it also eases communication and the sharing of information, knowledge, and other resources. This applies not only to partnerships with companies like ours but also to inter-institutional "metacampus" partnerships, such as those that characterize the Tennessee Regents Online Degree Programs, Kentucky Virtual University, CalStateTEACH, and the Associated Colleges of the South Virtual Classics Program.

JM: You also mentioned the policymaker's perspective. Please elaborate.

BG: The nation's traditional colleges and universities are in a paradoxical position within current discussions of the state of higher education. On the one hand, educators often describe American higher education as having no peer, while others consider it unresponsive both to current educational needs and to the need to contain continuously rising tuition prices. Governing boards, politicians, and businesses often express the need for more business-like leadership and management practices in higher education. They seem frustrated that academic programs are frequently more supply-driven than demand-driven. By "supply-driven," I refer to the traditional academic model based on faculty governance of the curriculum, tenure, and other inwardly focused institutional practices. In this model, the faculty decides what is taught. Institutions established these practices, in large part, to provide education as a societal good. They allow educators to focus on providing knowledge for knowledge's sake and on the preparation of a generally educated citizenry to provide social, political, economic, and cultural leadership for our democracy. This is a noble goal, and it is the main reason that I became an educator and believe that education is the keystone of democracy.

However, education can also represent a private good for employers who are determined to improve their company's performance, as well as for individuals who hope to advance their job or career interests, sometimes for purely economic reasons. Education as a private good represents "demand-driven" education. Enrollments continue to increase throughout our country for students who seek education as either a societal good or as a private good. These two approaches correlate closely to the traditional, younger student who seeks a residential experience loosely based on a societal good model versus the working adult or younger student who seeks practical, skill-enhancing education as a private good. However, the number of students who seek education as a private good is increasing much more rapidly than the growth of education as a societal good. Executive and legislative branch policy makers and employers recognize this situation and have experienced frustration with the tendency of many colleges and universities to rely almost solely on supply-driven policies and practices, which are appropriate for education as a societal good but frequently ineffective as a model for developing and delivering education as a private good. We need strategies and practices that we can define and differentiate by the particular goals we are trying to achieve.

Policymakers' reactions to decades of price increases that have outpaced increases in the Consumer Price Index are legion and driven, in part, by the relentless, technology-enabled march towards increased competition and productivity in other important sectors of the economy. Both commercial and nonprofit organizations have had to partner, merge, or acquire other organizations to remain competitive, which has often created a complete reversal of the supply and demand equation. Physicians and hospitals, for example, no longer control the provision and pricing of medical services. In only a few short years, political and consumer dissatisfaction with skyrocketing prices shifted control toward the consumer, the federal government, and employers who demanded more control over their share of the price of medical services. Medical services, imperfect as they remain, are now more demand-driven than supply-driven. Education as a societal good has long been supply-driven and, arguably, should remain so, but there is no reason for education as a private good to be faculty-driven rather than demand-driven.

The differences in these educational goals seem to require different fulfillment strategies. I am not arguing that any particular institution should pursue one goal over the other; that is an institutional decision, not mine. Of course, private institutions have more freedom than public institutions to favor one of these educational focal points over the other. However, public institutions must respond to publicly mandated goals, and these goals often embrace education as both a societal and private good. My main point is that higher education needs leaders who can help their internal constituencies understand the difference between education as a societal good and as a private good, the forces that are bringing that distinction to the fore, and the need to pursue strategies defined by the nature of their goals. Many institutions should not rely on a one-size-fits-all model of management, but that is often the current practice.

JM: Going back to my original question, can you summarize higher education's progress in harnessing technology to aid its fundamental mission of educating students?

BG: I think a phrase I coined several years ago still applies: Higher education is in the throes of "random acts of progress" (Graves, 1999). However, that observation does not do justice to the institutions and their leaders who are looking ahead and, in the oft-quoted words of Walter Wriston, are focusing on "creating new wealth, rather than managing expenditures." "New wealth," of course, is a metaphor, in the context of higher education, for the increased societal and private benefits that can flow from those colleges and universities that seek to make their IT expenditures pay off with increased learning productivity.

Another way to summarize the status of higher education's progress is to play on the word "learn," which is the only word that captures the essence of the traditional mission of higher education, with its dual focus on faculty learning in the form of scholarship and research and student learning as the centerpiece of instruction. Higher education has been learned-centric for years, with its inward focus on the institution, the instructor, the contact-hour, the 3-hour course, the semester, the 2- and 4-year degree, and so on. This construct has served us well, but we are clearly in the midst of a transition from a learned-centric focus to a learner-centric focus, in which many institutions pay more serious attention to students' preferences and requirements for integrated, comprehensive, personalizable, online self-service. Such a transition essentially reflects the need for more flexibility in the overall educational process. Flexibility, however, does not necessarily equate with quality, so we also need to transition to a learning-centric focus that values learning over teaching. The transition to learning centricity, of course, is another reason to rethink the form and substance of human mediation, and should be part of the faculty agenda.

Finally, we must understand the policymaker's belief that all of this will fail if we continue to bolt IT onto the overall educational process and consequently increase the cost, and likely the price, of education. Institutions should focus IT resources on measurable strategic goals and demonstrate new levels of academic productivity in the process. There are already many examples of successful combinations of leadership and partnerships (see Exhibit 1).

JM: To conclude, could you offer some comments on the role of disciplinary and professional societies in this transformation?

BG: Disciplinary and professional societies could provide leadership by assisting their constituents in rethinking the form and substance of instructor mediation, and in understanding the distinction between education as a societal good and as a private good; this would help to align faculty priorities with institutional priorities. For example, the Mathematical Association of America is proactively directing attention to pedagogical issues in mathematics instruction, including online instruction. In a state of partial ignorance, however, I will risk suggesting that disciplinary and professional societies are not paying as much attention to these issues as they perhaps should. The exceptions are those societies that operate board certification programs for continuing professional development?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùeducation as a private good that clearly calls for flexible academic offerings.

I believe the fundamental issue is that we need faculty, institutional, and policy leadership dedicated to aligning their perspectives, each of which is naturally predisposed to its own legitimate interests. Each has reasonable concerns with the future of technology-enabled education. Unless these groups work together to improve the form and substance of higher education through the wise use of technology to increase academic productivity, our collective progress will indeed be random.

JM: Thanks, Bill, for giving us much food for thought. We applaud the efforts that you and your colleagues at CollegisEduprise are making to help educators use information technology tools and learning-centric paradigms more effectively.


Graves, W. H. (1999). The instructional management systems project: Converting random acts of progress into global progress. EDUCAUSE Review, 34(6).

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