March 1998 // Commentary
A Perspective on Technology in Higher Education:
An Interview with John Harrison
by James L. Morrison and John H. Harrison
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and John H. Harrison "A Perspective on Technology in Higher Education:
An Interview with John Harrison" The Technology Source, March 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

John Harrison, Vice President for High Performance Computing at MCNC, has been centrally involved with coordinating networking, telecommunications, and computing for the University of North Carolina system, with establishing the North Carolina Supercomputer Center, and in his current position, with providing high performance computing services to all of the state universities in North Carolina.

James Morrison (JM): John, you have had a great deal of experience with telecommunications in higher education and have been on the cutting edge of developments in telecommunication and higher education for some time. What are the telecommunications issues that challenge colleges and universities?

John Harrison (JH): I think the central issue to be addressed is better connectivity. We have to break down the connectivity to individual sites in a cost-effective manner. Although North Carolina’s information highway is an example of what can be accomplished by connecting sixteen major universities, half of the community colleges, and a small percentage of the public schools via two-way video, we have given little attention to data connectivity per se.

Just recently, Compaq, Microsoft, and Intel joined six of the regional Bell Systems in a pact to deliver ADSL (Asynchronous Digital Subscriber Lines) via existing copper lines by way of a certain modem and protocol that will allow us to maintain a telephone connection and a data connection without having two lines. The standard offers about 1.5 megabytes per second upstream (from the Web to a residence, for example) and has gone as high as 6Mb; downstream (from a residence to the Web) is much less, but still around eight times faster than with a 56Kb modem—about 400Kb per second. That means that we will have cost-effective connectivity to deliver data. Since video is nothing more than data, if I choose to have a system that will send compressed video, I can. Or I can handle audio, textual material, and data exchanges, or access the Web as we know it today. Audio and video will get better as the compression gets better.

This is not "pie in the sky." It’s going to happen within the year. The Bells, with the exception of Bell Atlantic, have said they already have the necessary infrastructure. At the same time, cable companies are offering to deliver the same order of service via a cable modem and the coaxial cable that delivers cable television to homes, schools, and universities. Customers will subscribe to whomever brings the service more quickly. In the context of deregulation of phones and cable, it will be possible to get local phone service, long distance service, TV, and Internet service from the same provider.

JM: What does all this mean vis-?É -vis the delivery of higher education to the public?

JH: Access at a higher rate of speed to students, wherever they are—the classroom, the dormitory room, their residences, or their work place—so that it is not absolutely necessary to have students go to a campus.

By the way, there is also another player in this game—the utility companies, who already have wiring to most homes in the piece of fiber that comes in on the third wire of electrical circuits. This wire is capable of handling a data signal in order to monitor household appliances and to contact the service manufacturer if one fails. Or, it can be used for video or data so that a student can interact with a mentor at the university.

One of these services (phone, cable, or utility) is going to provide high-speed connectivity. Applications will follow, once there is the bandwidth to really make use of it. The video available with Cu-SeeMe applications and Microsoft’s NetMeeting is terrific, but these applications really work best from my office where they can use a dedicated line through my Ethernet. Between myself and someone else within the same building it’s like real-time video, but talking to someone at home on a 28.8 modem is another story. What we’re going to have with the new technology is the ability to actually see smooth audio and video interaction, along with diagrams and whiteboard interaction. That is going to be very useful. It means that students in the workplace or at home will have access to the same type of connectivity.

JM: What are some of the leading-edge institutions doing with distance learning?

JH: Old Dominion University (ODU) in Norfolk, VA, is a good example of an institution that has placed itself out in front early in distance education. Several years ago they decided to deliver distance learning classes to a select group of community colleges via satellite uplink from the central campus. A professor delivers the class in a classroom set up like a studio, with an audience of students who participate as in a normal classroom. ODU employs instructors who are dynamic in their teaching delivery and who use multimedia tools to illustrate their lessons. ODU provides excellent technical support services that make sure that slides come up when they are supposed to and that the projectors work.

As the lecture is given in the studio classroom, it is simultaneously beamed to a satellite and down-linked to a number of community colleges. At those colleges, students who are participating in the same course sit in a room and participate by two-way audio and one-way video. There is an open-line telephone with a conference call from each of those sites so students can ask questions of the instructor. This means that a person can go to a local community college rather than travel to the ODU campus. Students attend the community college the first two years, then enroll at ODU for a bachelor's degree, but take their courses via satellite in a classroom at the community college. At the end of four years their diploma is awarded by Old Dominion University, yet they may never have set foot on the campus of Old Dominion.

The advent of these new technologies means we may have synchronous communication at a distance. Students can view carefully prepared lectures at home, and, with a small camera hooked to their PC or television set, can interact using audio and video with their professor and with the studio class.

JM: Sir John Daniel, in a recent article in Change, said that there was another way of looking at distance education—customize the Oxford tutorial system and deal with individual students as opposed to classrooms. This is the approach that the British Open University uses. Can you comment on the British Open University approach and on its future in American distance education?

JH: The Oxford tutorial method of education is effective and important. If you take a 300 or 400 person class, only five or ten students ever ask questions. Opening up self-paced instruction allows students an opportunity to actively participate in their own learning.

JM: But isn’t this more labor intensive for teachers?

JH: Yes it is. We may need more teachers. Maybe more teachers employed in a different manner.

JM: I don’t see how that’s saving us money. It saves in terms of bricks and stone, but the labor for a teacher in online education is increased substantially.

JH: Nobody said we were going to do this more cheaply. We may be exchanging one cost for another. What we will accomplish is that delivering more and continuing education to more individuals when and where they are able to participate.

JM: In the November/December 1997 issue of On the Horizon, we featured a number of articles on distance education and virtual universities, specifically the Western Governors University and the California Virtual University, which are significant because of their size and constituencies. What is your impression of their importance to the future of higher education?

JH: They’re an experiment at this point; we will have to see whether or not they can deliver consistently good material. that students will actually sign up for. It’s going to depend a lot upon the people who are doing the teaching. It’s not just the gathering of information, it’s the interpretation. That’s the important part of education, and it will take quality faculty to lead the students through the material and to help them make the right interpretations.

JM: Can they do this online?

JH: I think they can. They could do it by using e-mail, or face to face with a video camera. They could also communicate by phone, but data communication offers greater versatility. What we need is the enhanced bandwidth to make this smooth and affordable.

I’m not sure that schools like Stanford and Harvard will necessarily develop online delivery; it may come from non-traditional universities. What is going to happen is that somebody is going to offer and develop a course, Organic Chemistry for example, such that every organic chemist in the country will say, "Wow, kids that master this course will learn everything they need to know at this point in their education." And that course will become the standard.

JM: In Texas there is a serious proposal by the Chairman of the Board of Education to replace schoolbooks with laptops and CD-ROMs. CDs will now be the textbooks, and will be updated every year or two. And a number of colleges are now requiring entering students to have laptops. What implications do you see here for higher education?

JH: The benefits of using CDs to replace textbooks depend on how well the CDs are kept up to date. But when all students have laptops, they not only have electronic textbooks but also a tool that is simultaneously a calculator, a typewriter, and a communication machine.

JM: You also gain a computer-literate student body; probably far more literate than the faculty.

JH: I think that’s a problem we face throughout education. Faculty members are driven to catch up in order to keep their position. If you want to stay ahead of your students you’ve got to be able to utilize the same resources as the students. It used to be a case of walking over to the library and reading books. But with the enormous increase in scientific literature, faculty can’t even keep up with the abstracts. They are reduced to reading the title pages of journals to find specific articles and other searches that find any time a particular word is used within an article. They are being bombarded with information, and have to use technological tools to keep up.

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