September/October 1999 // Vision
Reevaluating the Basics: An Interview with Judith V. Boettcher about the Future of Education
by James L. Morrison and Judith V. Boettcher
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Judith V. Boettcher "Reevaluating the Basics: An Interview with Judith V. Boettcher about the Future of Education" The Technology Source, September/October 1999. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Judith Boettcher is the Executive Director of the Corporation for Research and Educational Networking (CREN), a non-profit organization that provides knowledge services and Internet tools that support research and educational networking.

James Morrison (JM): Judith, what will education look like in 20 years?

Judith Boettcher (JB): In 20 years, we will have seen multiple generations of software applications and agents come and go. Computers and software will be so integrated into educational resources that they will be invisible to the user of those resources. Many of us will have personalized software agents (PSAs) or maybe robots (PSRs) that will provide us with daily digests of information according to our customizable, programmable profiles. Students will use these personalized daily digest assistants as high-level administrative aides. They will update these assistants verbally or "feed" these assistants data about their study areas and responsibilities; the more advanced models will support students in their problem-solving and thinking. Part of every student's program of study will be learning how to use technology tools effectively. PSRs will be able to anticipate what students want and need to do, and the robots will be ready with the resources and tools to help them fulfill their duties. Also, students may go to educational holodecks for special experience training; there they will learn through integrated mind-body experiences that will be guided by the best minds of our age.

I like to think about what will happen in the near future, too—say, five years from now. Higher education is, in many respects, a "cottage" industry today. We have one person (the faculty member) doing a whole course from soup to nuts—from the design and development of the course to its delivery. This same process of creating and building is done every semester because every time the faculty member teaches a course, it is somewhat different than the last time he/she offered it. Sometime over the next five years, I think we will see much more being done to rethink the basic structural components of our institutions. For example, educators will start to reconsider these basic questions: What is education? What is the value of an educational experience or program? What is a course? What is learning? What is teaching? Who is a faculty member? What are the roles of our faculty?

The faculty role will likely undergo significant change. We may find a need for increased faculty specialization and differentiation. I think that the group that is now "the faculty" on most campuses will be a widely disparate group in the future. We already find universities employing a much smaller percentage of full-time, tenured faculty. Many, if not most, instructors will be freelance, part-time, or adjunct faculty. The reasons for this evolving faculty model will be partially fiscal and partially cultural. The need for faculty will be high, but the salaries for faculty who give full-time, online, and skill-focused professional instruction will not be attractive to talented professionals. Our traditional higher education institutions and the new emerging professional learning institutions will staff their faculty with a model similar to that which is evolving in business today. The faculty may well be composed of a core group of full-time research and lead instructional faculty, supplemented by a larger group of specialized or supplemental adjunct faculty. The part-time faculty will support the instructional mission of an institution by accepting lower salaries for the occasional instructional opportunity. In return, these faculty will also bring current practical industry experience and relationships. However, salaries for part-time instruction now are so low that one must hope and expect that they soon will rise. (Of course, salaries for part-time instructors may be respectable in certain high-value markets.)

As for the "cottage industry" analogy, faculty will need to learn how to create courses with less work. This probably means making more use of instructional modules and resources that have been designed and developed by others. For example, one of the fastest ways to put a course on the Web today is to use a commercially available template or adopt a textbook from a Web-savvy publisher who offers subscriptions to a "course or book site." With a template, the faculty member can specify the goals, objectives, assignments, communication methods, and student requirements and assessments that he/she wants for any particular course. However, this still takes time, as one cannot assume that faculty members are familiar with all these tools, that publishers have content in every faculty member's particular field, or that the campus infrastructure or the students are ready to take advantage of Web-based instruction. On the 5-10 year horizon, more of the infrastructure will be in place; but even when that happens, new challenges will replace current ones.

Faculty may still redesign a course frequently, but two things will be different. They will redesign a smaller percentage of the course, and they may not always do the actual delivery of the course. Lead faculty may be the faculty member of record for more courses. More of the faculty work may be in supervising adjunct faculty who will serve as the course mentors and managers of the course dialogues. (Or maybe these responsibilities will be taken up by an "instructional manager," a business person rather than a faculty member.)

You may ask if the PSAs and the PSRs will be in control of instruction. I suspect not. These will be most useful as process and communication tools. There is some research into autoassociative memories that suggests that we may want to look more closely at designing course resources that "chunk" knowledge more efficiently for student learning. These tools might help with that strategy. I suspect that it will take the next 20 years to develop the long-awaited promise of artificial intelligence as an assistant to or leader of the instructional task into a practical, affordable tool. Who knows, though; it might only be 10 years. Of course, by then we may be working on a whole different approach to education, such as the direct transfer of knowledge from one brain to another!

JM: What are the implications of the virtual classroom?

JB: Virtual classrooms will change higher education in ways that we cannot even imagine now. I can, however, speculate about how the roles and responsibilities of faculty members and learners will evolve. Some of the faculty members'responsibilities will remain the same: they will continue to structure, frame, and organize the body of knowledge and to help students learn quickly and effectively. What will change is the perceived responsibility of faculty members to be the hub of all classroom communications and to know all there is to know about a subject and their students.

The bottom line is that the communication dynamics between faculty and students (and among students) will be different. Lectures will get smaller and smaller until we return to something like the dialogue model that dominated Plato's era. One part of the dialogue will be the "embedded" teacher. In the short term, an embedded teacher may closely resemble the talking head of taped lectures. Many of the greatest teachers will be available online in this mode. Over the years, this embedded teacher will develop to be a virtual mentor who can adjust the instruction to the students.

In the virtual classroom environment, faculty will restructure the learning experience so that students can take charge of their own knowledge-building. Learners will be responsible for more of their own intellectual growth; they will be expected to be aware of why learning is important and what knowledge is most useful. Each learner will become a partner of the faculty member and of fellow students. I stop short of promoting a learning community for every class because what is to be learned, as well as the time constraints involved, vary from class to class.

School administrators will want to support this shift of emphasis and redesign their systems and facilities to put the learner at the center. Students will be more demanding and less patient; they will highly value their time and therefore come to higher education for planned, organized experiences that will enable them to learn what they need to know faster, better, and with less anxiety. Consequently, courses will have to: (1) revolve around a defined set of knowledge and skills, and (2) guide learners to the core concepts that they will have to master in order to achieve their next set of goals. This means that academic curricula will need to become more responsive to and customized for learners. There will be an obvious link between the learning experiences and what students need to know. Pessimists might call this training; pragmatic idealists call it efficient and delightful learning.

I do worry that we might no longer appreciate learning for the sake of learning; I don't want to lose the serendipitous part of scholarship. Merlin said to young King Arthur that one of the best antidotes for being sad or depressed is to learn something. I hope that we do not lose the joy of learning in virtual classrooms!

The importance of assessment will grow as virtual instruction and customized learning become standard educational practice. Assessment will emphasize competency rather than the results of bell-curve grading. More programs will focus on skill upgrading, career mobility and retooling, and focused certification—areas in which competency is the key to success. Higher education will feel the full impact of this shift and will have to adapt accordingly. At some point, we need to sort out our feelings about seat-time and competency grading. We also need to define more specifically the outcomes for a higher education experience. Just what is it that we value in, for example, a four-year liberal arts degree? We feel good about someone with a liberal arts degree because we know that that person has spent four years studying a wide range of disciplines and cultures. But just what does a liberal arts degree mean that the student knows? How else might whatever this degree means be achieved? We have bundled teaching and learning experiences for so long that we have not had to think about these questions. Now that teaching and learning experiences can be unbundled, we need to reevaluate everything.

The home front will be affected by the virtual classroom, too. Most importantly, families will need to set aside part of the house for learning. (It is no wonder that the size of the average house is growing.) The TV room will remain a place for entertainment and social activities, but families will need to think and plan more for Information Age access in other rooms. Smart people will need smart homes. Throughout my house, I have category-five wire that can be used to network all the printers and computers in my house today and the television, thermostats, and toasters tomorrow. I also have cable, phone, and Internet connections in all the rooms of the house except the bathroom (some things remain sacred).

JM: Indeed so, Judith. Many thanks for sharing your vision of the future of higher education.

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