July 1998 // Vision
New Media and Borderless Education: A Review of the Convergence Between Global Media Networks and Higher Education Providers
by Lawrence Stedman
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Lawrence Stedman "New Media and Borderless Education: A Review of the Convergence Between Global Media Networks and Higher Education Providers" The Technology Source, July 1998. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The impact of internationalization and technological change has been felt throughout the world, most noticeably in a general shift in employment from manufacturing and commodity-based industries to service industries and those based on the deployment of higher-level skills and knowledge. In the so-called "knowledge age," growing importance is attached to lifelong learning and the capacity of companies to stay abreast of change and respond quickly to emerging markets. Growth in the power of communication and information technologies—and their convergence in the form of the Internet—is therefore assuming ever greater significance. These developments are unfolding against a background of public sector reform in many countries, where governments have been seeking for some time to reduce the size of the public sector and to make publicly-funded agencies operate with greater efficiency and effectiveness.

Universities, as producers and disseminators of knowledge (and in many cases publicly funded ones) are inevitably caught up in these developments. Commentators have heralded fundamental change to the structure and function of the traditional campus-based university, pointing to initiatives such as the Western Governors University, the expansion of technology-mediated distance education, and the emergence of successful private online universities (such as the University of Phoenix) that service the educational needs of working adults and corporate clients. One common expectation seems to be that dominant players in the telecommunications and/or software industries will enter the higher education market, either as content producers themselves or in alliance with leading universities.

To monitor these developments, in 1997 the Australian government commissioned a study, which was undertaken by a group from the Queensland University of Technology. The study comprised three stages. The first was to draw a rough map of the terrain based on information from sources such as the Internet, news reports, professional contacts, and academic literature. Second, a series of semi-structured interviews was held with key individuals from media organizations, computer and software companies, higher education organizations, and governments at various levels. These interviews were conducted in Australia, North America, East Asia, the United Kingdom, and Western Europe. In the third stage, the information was analyzed and built into a taxonomy which differentiated the various players by the reach of their activities, whether global, regional, or local. This taxonomy provided the basis for examining a series of issues pertinent to the future development of technology and media in higher education.

The most prominent finding was that the rhetoric of globalization and media involvement far outstrip the reality. The "Death Star" scenario—in which Microsoft, Disney, Time-Warner, News Corporation, or other major media players team up with leading universities to deliver global education via satellite or the Internet—was considered implausible by many respondents. In part this was because of the conflict in mission between providing elite higher education and "going global" in search of mass markets. Prospects for alliances between media organizations and less elite universities were considered better, particularly in fields such as professional education and institutions catering to working adult students. However, even here there is little evidence that media organizations perceive higher education to be profitable. In practice, the major engagements of communications networks are directed toward elementary and high schools rather than toward universities, since schools are more likely to use standardized materials. Furthermore, most of the cooperative endeavors of universities and media organizations relate to corporate training or to efforts by computer and software companies to encourage the adoption of their products by institutions.

However, it would be highly misleading to conclude that technological developments are not having an impact on higher education. On the contrary, the researchers found a vast array of activities driven by different individuals and agencies, each seeking to further specific objectives. Some governments, keen to use the potential of technology to widen access to higher education at lower cost, are sponsoring virtual universities that broker access to existing university courses. The Western Governors University, the APEC Virtual University, and Open Learning Australia are all examples of this. Many universities are expanding distance education, often using the Internet to deliver courses within their region, nationally, and in some cases internationally. This is happening both at the elite and the mass market ends of the higher education spectrum. Others are using technology to deliver tailored training to corporate clients, in some cases delivering the training to the workplace. Different providers are seeking out different niches within the higher education market.

A realistic assessment of the situation shows that many virtual university initiatives have been enthusiastically launched, but very few ventures have progressed beyond the earliest stages. While recognizing that many of these ventures are only beginning, and some will fail, it is clear that there are fundamental shifts occurring in the conception of higher education and its delivery. New models of the university are emerging that seek to use technology to increase flexibility of administration, delivery and assessment, and to broaden and extend access. In some cases these models are supplementary to traditional institutions, for example extending their operations through distance education, in other cases they act as brokers giving potential students access to a range of existing institutions. Still others represent entirely new organizational approaches to higher education, where the focus is on tailoring higher education to specific groups or clients and where education is delivered to the student's home or workplace. The development of these emerging models is governed by five broad classes of issues:

  1. Practical issues, including questions of cost, intellectual property, core business, and student access;
  2. Pedagogical issues, including questions of education versus training, the effect of technology on learning, and cultural differences in learning styles;
  3. Policy issues, primarily issues of accreditation, consumer protection from "diploma mills," and the possibility of allowing overseas private providers access to public higher education funds;
  4. Philosophical issues, including access, equity, cultural imperialism, and questions about the nature of a university; and
  5. Personal issues, chiefly the attitudes of staff and students towards changed delivery methods.

Successful navigation of these issues is no easy matter, particularly when dealing with markets that are not immediately profitable.

The challenge for universities and governments will be to adapt to a dynamic new environment, where lucrative national and international markets arising from the growing importance of lifelong learning will be contested strongly by traditional universities, new forms of universities, and non-university providers. Threats and opportunities for existing universities depend very much on competitive advantage. A university that wishes to develop such an advantage must be able to develop offerings that suit the nature of its student market and that build upon a distinctive reputation or "brand". Where there is demand for what technology can provide, then change will occur.

We should neither be alarmed nor seduced by promises of global revolution in higher education arising from information technology and the involvement of media organizations. Fundamental change to the higher education sector may be coming, but it will take longer than some pundits have predicted. Nor will all of today's universities be overwhelmed by a global move to a single new approach to higher education. This study supports the notion that demand for higher education is diverse, and that diversity of institutional form and delivery is not only desirable but inevitable.

An executive summary of the report may be found at http://www.deetya.gov.au/divisions/hed/highered/ eippubs/eip97-22/execsum.htm.

The full report (in Adobe Acrobat format) is at http://www.deetya.gov.au/divisions/hed/highered/ eippubs/eip97-22/eip9722.pdf.

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