March 1999 // Vision
Information Technology Tools and the Future:
An Interview with Sally M. Johnstone
by James L. Morrison and Sally Johnstone
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Sally Johnstone "Information Technology Tools and the Future:
An Interview with Sally M. Johnstone" The Technology Source, March 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Sally Johnstone, Director of WICHE's Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, has been working for the past fifteen years to increase the effective use of and planning for educational telecommunications activities. She serves on the boards of the U.S. Open University and the American Association of Higher Education, and she was one of the initial planners of the Western Governors University. She works with legislators and state higher education planners throughout the United States as well as academic administrators at colleges and universities on several continents.

James L. Morrison (JM): The Western Governors University is distinguished by being a virtual university and by requiring competency-based examinations for the degrees that it awards. Do you see competency-based courses and degrees as an emerging trend in education?

Sally M. Johnstone (SJ): Yes, I do. One of the driving forces behind competency-based assessment is that many college and university administrators, particularly those in the smaller institutions, want to give their students experiences of the highest possible quality through the use of technological tools that allow us to share expertise across institutions. This means that we need to find ways by which student work "counts" in different institutions. Articulation is a thorny issue in a number of states—whether it's acceptance of a community college's core curriculum by a four-year institution, or transferring credits between a group of similar institutions. Articulation is tough when credits are based on the Carnegie unit. In fact, the accrediting community is openly discussing what will replace the Carnegie unit, a unit that equates the number of hours spent sitting in a classroom with a specified number of academic credits. As we look for greater comparability between institutions, it becomes critical that there be some means of measuring learning equivalents that is not time-based.

For example, I was recently in a Western state where I participated in discussions with college and university administrators about articulation among the community colleges and the flagship university in that state. They were trying to equate one-on-one courses (e.g., attempting to make English 101 at the community college the exact same thing as the English 101 at the university campus). I suggested that instead, they look to a set of external criteria against which to measure student competencies, and apply these criteria statewide. With a system such as this in place, they can still award credits, but they also have external criteria against which to judge equivalencies.

JM: Do you think that in the future we'll have national competency standards for courses and degrees?

SJ: No, I think that what we will have are agreed-upon conventions. We won't have national standards in the U.S. because our higher education system is based on state and institutional autonomy. However, we have reached a point where we need to find equivalencies between institutions; to that end, I think it's more reasonable to think in terms not of national standards, but of agreed-upon conventions that different institutions can express in slightly different ways.

For example, in popular courses, faculty members will sometimes base a decision about equivalency on the textbook used in a course from a different institution. The "common convention" in this case is the standardizing of the textbooks, which has occurred outside of any intentional development of national standards. Academic associations can have a growing role in developing these conventions more systematically.

JM: Why is developing these standards so important? Are we seeing more students transferring among institutions?

SJ: Yes; almost half of all students currently enrolled in four-year institutions will have attended at least two institutions by the end of four years. Policy analysts call this phenomenon, students going in and out of different institutions, "swirling." These students expect to have some form of currency that goes with them. Right now we call this currency "academic credit." Sorting out the intricacies of transferring credits among multiple institutions is extremely complex, and forming academic credit banks has not been too successful in many cases. This is why we need to develop a convention based on what people have actually learned.

JM: The concept of equivalencies seems tougher for students who are used to showing up in class, completing the assignments, then moving on to the next term with no specific responsibilities regarding information from previous classes.

SJ: In many ways it is. Shifts toward stronger expectations for a student's comprehensive performance do place more responsibility on the individual to ensure that he or she is learning as much as possible in any particular setting. Just meeting one faculty member's expectations for a passing grade will not be enough to be awarded a degree. For the last 15 years, I have talked about the fact that distance learning requires students to take greater responsibility for their learning. This is just another step in that direction. I think we really are moving toward a more student-oriented higher education system, and I believe it may push us all toward higher-quality teaching and guidance of students.

JM: Where is distance learning headed?

SJ: I think the concept of distance learning is changing; what we have called distance learning is converging with on-campus learning. For example, ten years ago it was unique for a student who did not to come to campus to have access to any of the campus's resources. Now, students register online or by phone—even if they live on the campus. Students have access to search engines at their libraries, from their dorm rooms, from an apartment down the street from campus, or from 1,000 miles away. Campus services are being designed so that, more and more, a student does not have to be in a particular place at a particular time to have access to them. Students expect their schools to automate services so that they are convenient. As this begins to happen, where the student is physically at any point in time becomes less of a critical concern. It's the same in the instructional realm: the trend of requiring all students on campus to have their own laptops is increasing, which will surely change the way faculty members work with students and the way students work with one another. In addition, more and more classes are developing their own Web sites. This all results in an environment in which a student may come to the campus when it is convenient and appropriate for a particular activity, rather than necessarily every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday at 10 a.m.

JM: You illustrate the impact of information technology tools on enabling students in higher education to customize their learning and services. How is this affecting public (K-12) schools?

SJ: The development of learning tools for kids is exploding, and teachers are making use of them. A few years ago, the state of Texas began allowing money allocated for textbooks to be used for software; a major shift. First graders in these schools are now working with software that lets them know right away if they have made a mistake. The kids are learning to expect immediate feedback.

In addition, colleges and universities are beginning to take advantage of the computer and media skills our schoolchildren are developing. For example, University of California system administrators are talking about developing an electronic school, tentatively called The University of California Virtual School. This school, as I understand it, would offer courses to California high-school students who otherwise might not be prepared for university-level work when they come to campus. This allows the university campus to decrease the amount of remedial education—which has become a very unpopular budget item with legislators—it offers to students. Another California example is the Young Scholars Program that originated at Cal Poly Pomona. Faculty members from the California State University campuses offer college classes to juniors and seniors attending rural high schools that do not have enough students to offer advanced classes.

JM: Publishers are now building electronic courseware around textbooks. How do you see this trend affecting educational organizations?

SJ: For several years, publishers have maintained that they do not want to get into direct competition with the colleges and universities to whom they sell books, because higher education is their biggest market. But all of them are now beginning to develop materials that do not require a faculty member as guide. Textbooks have associated Web sites that can link students to the authors of the book and to other scholars. Some books are packaged with compact discs that have a built-in tutor to demonstrate how, for example, a physics experiment is done. These are better than any demonstrations I saw in college. The animation is very good and you can watch the effect at slow speed or as many times as you need in order to understand the principle.

If these packages are marketed directly to adult students who might prefer to work on their own and have the maturity to do so, these individuals will seek and find competency-based programs that can award their degrees. When people start demanding validation of their hard-earned academic work, the higher education community is likely to find a way to respond.

JM: This sounds like faculty will do less teaching. Do you think that is the case?

SJ: No, I think faculty will actually do more teaching. What they will do less of is gathering and presenting information. I think the role of most faculty members will be that of guide and integrator of information. They will no longer be the keepers of the sacred information, because it will be out there for anyone who wants to find it—in books, CDs, and videos and on the Web. Individuals who understand a field of knowledge will be critical in helping novices (students) find the appropriate path through the vast forests of information. Such paths may be different for different students, but that makes the faculty member's task—of assisting the student in interpreting what he or she learns and giving it a context—even more important.

JM: One of the things that has struck me is how unevenly faculty members on campuses throughout public and higher education are adopting and using information technology tools. What do you see as the obstacles to faculty members using these tools, and how can these obstacles be overcome?

SJ: The obstacles are multi-faceted, and many of them are cultural and individual. Throughout most of our system of higher education, faculty members are not promoted or honored by their academic colleagues for using information technology tools in their teaching. However, the more traditional activities—researching and publishing in one's field—still get rewarded with tenure, salary raises, and praise. This limited reward system has to change. But it cannot change for everyone all at once, or we will undermine the academic core of our higher education system. There is no simple solution to overcoming these types of obstacles.

Let me share some observations about what happens at some institutions that are fully wired and are requiring entering students to own computers. The students are making an investment. If their professors do not model good uses of information technology tools, the students get upset and let everyone know about it. This spurs professors to use the tools. If professors remain resistant to technology, students start to turn to other options, like surfing the Web for courses at other institutions or utilizing "smart" programs. "Smart" programs help students move through a set of learning experiences. The best applications of this are not in higher education at the moment, but in industry, where training programs modify themselves to let the student go backward and forward through the program. As technology becomes more sophisticated and storage, memory, and transition systems become cheaper, instructional systems will be able to act as individual tutors to students.

JM: Are you talking about the application of artificial intelligence to instruction?

SJ: I suppose I am. If we judge an intelligent system by the old Turing Test, then I definitely am. For the informational and introductory parts of any academic field, it makes sense to help students work through the material by giving them feedback on their understanding of it as soon as possible. Some instructors use the quiz-every-week technique. We are now able to create electronic quiz-as-you-go tutors that are engaging and motivating. Faculty members then have the role of guiding students in the integration of their knowledge.

Just to bring this back to some earlier parts of the conversation, the full development of these tools really requires a big enough market to make the enormous investments worthwhile. That means the agreed-upon conventions (not standards) that we discussed earlier become even more important. We are unlikely to see these types of tools fully developed by very many of their producers, as the costs are too high, and we certainly cannot expect every university or even every state to be able to finance these types of tools. It may well be that the publishing community becomes the common denominator by default.

puzzle gamescard gamesbest pc gamesaction gameshidden object gamestime management gamesword gamesdownloadable gamesbrick buster
View Related Articles >