March/April 2003 // Vision
The National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII): An Interview with EDUCAUSE's Carole Barone
by James L. Morrison and Carole Barone
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Carole Barone "The National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII): An Interview with EDUCAUSE's Carole Barone" The Technology Source, March/April 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Carole Barone is vice president of EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit association of nearly 1,900 colleges, universities, and corporations whose mission is to advance higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology. She spends a good deal of her time heading up the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII), an EDUCAUSE program that focuses on creating learning environments that use information technology tools to improve teaching and learning, reduce costs, and provide greater access to higher education. I interviewed Barone after her keynote presentation at the 2002 EDUCAUSE Southeast Regional Conference in Charleston, SC.

James Morrison [JM]: Carole, much of your presentation focused on the NLII and its key themes. What are those themes?

Carole Barone [CB]: There are currently 10 NLII key themes, and a list of them can be found at the EDUCAUSE NLII page. Each theme links to detailed project descriptions, research questions, resources, interim reports, and "white papers." The themes mature and change over time as our knowledge increases and as new concepts and practices are adopted. NLII programs and projects are organized around the key themes, and we seek to work collaboratively with other organizations to answer challenging questions surrounding those themes and to enhance the associated body of knowledge. The NLII also showcases exemplary efforts taking place in NLII member institutions and organizations with an emphasis on "systematic and systemic" practices (i.e., integrated combinations of programs, policies, and practices) that use technology in scaleable and sustainable ways to enable enterprise-wide transformation. It is heartening to discover that recently the number and quality of such exemplars has been increasing. An excellent example of such alignment is the Student Learning Outcomes site at the University of Washington. This set of guidelines embodies many of the current NLII key themes with a strong emphasis on the integration of student learning outcomes.

JM: A major point in your presentation was that an emerging faculty role involves designing active learning environments that immerse the student in the cognitive style of the discipline. Can you elaborate on this point for our readers?

CB: Technology enables faculty members to design online learning environments that introduce students early in their undergraduate experience to the conceptual framework of the discipline. In the past, most students did not really develop the thought and knowledge structures associated with a given discipline until they were well into graduate school. The exception to this might be the student in the natural sciences, for example, who was fortunate enough to be given a role in a research lab as an undergraduate. In both instances, active engagement in the work of the discipline is what introduces the student to its cognitive style. Technology enables the faculty member to design learning situations that encourage the student to think like a member of the discipline. To me, this is a far more creative, interesting, and exciting teaching opportunity, especially for those with a passion for their discipline, than standing in a room imparting contextless facts about a particular subject to a couple hundred students, half of whom are surfing the Web or nodding off, and very few of whom are engaged in any learning at that point.

JM: How can faculty members use technology to engage students in active learning?

CB: Don Buckley (2002) published an interesting article in EDUCAUSE Review along these lines. In it he discusses how faculty members can design a three-part learning environment that combines (a) lectures with online discovery activities, (b) research (perhaps through online simulation) with activities that "emulate the process of professional investigation," and (c) assessment with online tutorials. Buckley argues, as do the NLII 2002 Fellows, Colleen Carmean and Jeremy Haefner (2002), that course management systems have the ability to promote "deeper" learning because they can provide a framework within which faculty members can develop such learner-centered practices.

JM: In your presentation, you discussed how assumptions affect perceptions of using information technology. What did you mean?

CB: I mean that we are human beings. Our perceptions are deeply embedded, and our actions are based on assumptions that flow from how we have come to view the world. There is a wonderful interview with the social psychologist Edgar Schein in the March 2002 Harvard Business Review in which Schein talks about "the anxiety of learning" and makes the point that we do not like to have our assumptions challenged. He claims that "transformational learning" seldom takes place because people resist "thinking and acting in fundamentally altered ways" (Coutu & Schein, p. 100).

Our perceptions and assumptions are formed through education and experience. A certain sense of personal security rests on the knowledge that our natural/learned response is the right one, and it is unsettling and frustrating (though also instructive to some) to have those responses come into doubt. Schein is correct. People do not like being put in the position of questioning what they have taken for granted.

Online learning challenges lots of assumptions about what is "good" education, including the idea that "personal" is the equivalent of "in-person"; that (institutionally) shared courses have to be synchronous; that the best learning takes place when a distinguished faculty member delivers an excellent lecture; that today's students learn the same way we did; that deeper learning will occur by simply converting a traditional lecture to online delivery. We are talking about fundamental, wrenching change, not orderly, gradual evolution?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùand it is not a conversation that people are eager to enter.

JM: You argued that helping the majority of faculty develop active learning environments would be prohibitively expensive if efforts were directed toward helping individual faculty members redesign an entire course. Could you elaborate on this statement?

CB: Current support structures and practices, as well as faculty expectations regarding the form and individualized nature of that support, are largely based on the requirements of the faculty pioneers in online course design. The pioneers tended to redesign entire courses themselves, and they often had the advantage of one-on-one assistance from technical experts in the information technology organization. However, such support methods do not scale, and they are not sustainable when they must be directed at the majority of faculty on a campus. Investing in the support of learning object repositories, such as MERLOT, and in course management systems that facilitate the importation of objects from multiple such repositories seems like a more sensible, though perhaps less politically popular, course of action. I would argue further that investing in learning design professionals to advise on such redesign efforts would also be a wise use of scarce resources.

JM: I was intrigued by your discussion of the "READY tool" that you and your NLII colleagues have developed. Please tell us more about how we can use this tool.

CB: The READY tool is a decision engine that was developed to help higher education institutions determine their organizational, cultural, financial, and philosophical readiness to expand their use of technology in various realms of instructional and administrative activity. It is structured as a series of self-assessment questions that lead users to descriptive conclusions and resources for further analysis.

The READY tool challenges assumptions. Its purpose is to engage all of the key campus decision-makers in the process of determining what actions the institution should take toward using technology to transform teaching and learning. The questions posed by the READY tool are challenging; they require decision-makers to get below the surface to examine the salient issues. For example, decision-makers need to assess the extent to which the institution has a well-developed financial plan for online learning, including costs, revenues, and return on investment (ROI).

Because the READY tool questions often challenge assumptions, and because they require a collective answer from the decision-makers, those leadership teams that have had the courage to use the tool have struggled through some tense sessions before coming to a consensus on the uncomfortable changes we have been discussing.

Much of the decision-making related to the transformation of teaching and learning on a given campus remains based on limited perceptions, misguided assumptions, and political expediency. These are difficult times for institutional leaders. It is hard to imagine campus leadership stepping up to the challenge embodied in the use of the READY tool without a strong sense of trust among those who must be involved in making these decisions. Although the chief information officer (CIO) is still a key participant, gone are the days of foisting such technology-related decisions—and their consequences—on the CIO alone.

JM: What are the primary emerging issues related to the implementation of IT tools to enhance education?

CB: Those of us associated with the NLII would argue that the 10 key themes I mentioned earlier are the primary emerging issues, and the NLII has projects associated with each. Technological infrastructure is really not an issue because it is largely in place. Leadership and the alignment of institutional goals, actions, and assessment are key to transformational change. Moreover, the whole notion of assessment has changed from a focus primarily on inputs and satisfaction to what we call transformative assessment strategies. Transformative assessment aligns institutional planning and assessment at all levels with a focus on outcomes. There is strong overlap with the key themes of readiness and strategic alignment. The NLII has been working with the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI), the Flashlight Project, and Washington State University's Center for Teaching, Learning, & Technology to create a rubric for determining were institutions fall along a spectrum of transformative assessment.

I also believe that we are going to hear a good deal about learning outcomes assessment and return on investment, and IT plays a major enabling role in both. Bill Graves (2002) has an insightful article titled "New Educational Wealth as Return on Investment in Technology" in the July/August edition of EDUCAUSE Review.

JM: How do you see us resolving these issues?

CB: If academic leaders do not step up to guide the kind of transformational change required, students will make it happen. Certain trends and behaviors are already apparent. When we were undergraduates, many of us took a course at night if we could not fit it into the regular day schedule or if the daytime session was already full. Today, students shop for courses the way they shop for books?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùon the Web. E-portfolios will serve as a powerful enabler for students to compile an educational history in diverse ways: geographically, structurally (community colleges, universities, liberal arts colleges), and chronologically. We can see the beginnings of the trend toward the unbundling of courses, credits, services, and fee structures. There are still some policies that inhibit such behavior, but students will affiliate where their style of learning is understood and facilitated. Consequently, the marketplace will resolve these issues if we do not, and the outcomes may not necessarily be desirable in terms of long-term social consequences.

With respect to the redesign of the learning environment, students are not going to sit still much longer for a traditional lecture. All of us who have taught know how much we learned in the process. The preparation of a lecture is in fact an active learning experience, and today's students want similarly engaging and active learning experiences.

Institutional leaders are already feeling the pressure from faculty members to provide the support required to redesign their courses. The real leadership challenge here is to change the perception of the learning environment from a place (classroom) to a state or condition in cyberspace where varied learning activities can occur. Leaders must also play a visible role in changing expectations of how redesign assistance will be provided?¢‚Ǩ‚Äùranging from support for individual course "conversions" to the funding of learning object repositories and course management systems, as well as political support for standards and consistent processes.

Learning outcomes are an aspect of return on investment. It is in the interest of higher education to learn how to present evidence of ROI appropriately within the higher educational value system rather than measuring it as a short-term business investment. This is a topic that I expect to receive a good deal of attention in the future.

Finally, the kind of transformative change that is already underway cannot occur merely on a local level, neither among academic units on a given campus nor among campuses themselves. People, functional units, and institutions of higher education need to adjust to working collaboratively. The Student Learning Outcomes program at the University of Washington is an example of how learning needs to be integrated across academic units. MERLOT is an example of institutions of higher education collaborating to provide teaching and learning resources. The NLII-sponsored e-portfolios initiative and NLII Fall Focus Session are examples of collaboration at the project level. Transformational change is too massive, fundamental, and costly to pursue in isolation; in addressing this reality, collaboration challenges traditionally held values and assumptions within the higher education community.

JM: Many thanks, Carole, for informing us about the critical role you, your NLII colleagues, and EDUCAUSE are playing in addressing the critical issues surrounding the use of information technology tools to enhance teaching and learning.


Buckley, D. (2002, January/February). In pursuit of the learning paradigm: Coupling faculty transformation and institutional change. EDUCAUSE Review, 37(1), 28-38. Retrieved September 22, 2002, from

Carmean, C., & Haefner, J. (2002, November/December). Mind over matter: Transforming course management systems into effective learning environments. EDUCAUSE Review, 37(6), 27-34. Retrieved September 22, 2002, from

Coutu, D. L., & Schein, E. (2002, March). The anxiety of learning: An interview with Edgar H. Schein. Harvard Business Review, 80(3), 100-106.

Graves, W. (2002, July/August). New educational wealth as a return on investment in technology. EDUCAUSE Review, 37(4), 38-48. Retrieved September 22, 2002, from

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