November 1997 // Commentary
Taking an Active Role in Educational Reform
by James Garner Ptaszynski
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James Garner Ptaszynski "Taking an Active Role in Educational Reform" The Technology Source, November 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I'd like to address this topic as an open letter in response to Dr. Havholm and the rest of our readers, remarking upon the criticisms—explicit and implicit—within his comments.

Dr. Havholm,

I would heartily agree with your premise that a group of students working around a seminar table with a faculty member is presently (and for the foreseeable future) the best way to learn writing.

That said, I would like to know how you would react to Sir John Daniel's (Vice Chancellor of the Open University) arguments for technology aided learning in the July/August 1997 issue of Change Magazine and in his book, The Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (Open and Distance Learning).

From page 12 of the Change article...

First, higher education is in crisis worldwide. The ingredients of the crisis are access, cost, and flexibility, and they blend differently as you move around the globe. In developing countries, there is a crisis of access. Right now, one large, new campus would need to open every week, somewhere in the developing world, just to maintain present participation rates. Did a big new university open somewhere last week? Probably not. Is another on schedule to start next week? Probably not.

I would add that in my own research I found that a state that has recently (so recently that the results have not yet been given to that state's legislature and, therefore, cannot be officially cited at this time) done a comprehensive survey of its population regarding this topic. In this survey, adults over the age of 18 who qualify for higher education, but who do not presently participate, were asked whether they would take courses leading to a degree if it were convenient and affordable. Over 800,000 said yes! Even if we assume that half of these were not serious responses, this still gives us 400,000 individuals not presently served by higher education in that state. Let's further assume that half of those really are not qualified to attend. This still gives us 200,000 people. Given that the state in question presently has fewer than 200,000 students in it's university system, it seems unlikely that they could add that many more 'seminar tables' to accommodate these new learners under the old teaching paradigm.

The fact is that, while traditional pedagogy may be the best for the students who can afford the cost and time required for a traditional education, there are many more students, both here and around the world, for whom it does not work. So the question is not whether to replace the traditional methods, but rather the best and most appropriate ways to enhance the effectiveness of these methods with technology.

One of the presenters at last year's AAHE meeting said that traditional instructors think that we are not providing a complete educational experience through distance or distributed learning. In contrast, distance learning instructors think that traditional instructors are limiting education only to those who can come to our campuses. Which is the greater good or evil?

I think that we in the academy must be open to new instructional methods and pedagogies. As Sir John argues, the U.S. higher education system is the best in the world, but it is not using technology effectively. In my travels I have found that educational institutions tend to "bolt" technology onto existing systems rather than effectively using it to enhance, augment or...dare I say, replace those systems. To paraphrase Clark Kerr, since 1530, universities have experienced wars, revolutions, depressions, and industrial transformations, and have come out less changed than almost any other segment of society. Perhaps we (the academy) have gotten too comfortable with the notion that we are insulated (or immune) from the driving forces affecting the rest of the outside world. Sir John says in his book,

Many of the technologies now ubiquitous in everyday life grew out of work in university laboratories. Academics have been much slower, however, to develop technology within the teaching function of their own universities. The overhead projector is still somewhat threatening (1996, p.10).

Nevertheless, there are some universities with which I have been in contact that do "get it" and are using technology to enhance the traditional collegiate experience. For example, by using computer-mediated learning to cover "facts," faculty members can concentrate on the analysis and synthesis phases of learning. In addition, these universities are using technology to open access to individuals who otherwise could not take advantage of higher education--adult or place bound students usually referred to as "non-traditional learners."

Let's dream with one eye open for a moment. What would happened if one of our more prestigious universities started to offer degree-granting computer-mediated or distance learning programs that were of almost of the same stature as their traditional programs? What if these programs operated at a lower cost and did not require the student to physically move to the institution? Might a student who was attending a second- or third-tier institution because of financial or geographical considerations trade a traditional education for one provided at a lower cost, in a more convenient format, and from a better institution? I dare say yes. Given that cost and geography are two of the factors that insulate our institutions from competition, what could happen if we eliminate them? Might we see a number of colleges and universities close or consolidate similar to what occurred in other industries such as banking and airline transportation?

The fact is, many of our prestigious universities are quietly but deliberately experimenting with such delivery methods. At one time I thought that, because of their "brand name," and "position in the market," they would be the last to transform. Recent conversations with representatives from many of them have proved me wrong. Similar to the phenomenon of major medical centers purchasing smaller regional "feeder" hospitals, large Carnegie Class I institutions and the rest of the academy may begin to consolidate. One only has to look at the eleven "mega-universities" that Sir John describes to realize that there are universities that service between 100,000 and 500,000 students through teaching at a distance.

The world is undergoing rapid transformation. Clark Kerr's aphorism notwithstanding, I think it rather egotistical to think that our colleges and universities will be immune to changes associated with transformation from an industrial economy to an information-based economy. In the past twenty years we have seen massive retooling and restructuring of almost every sector of our economy. Banking, finance airlines, agriculture, manufacturing and retail all have been transformed from what they were when most of us in the academy were getting our doctoral degrees. Down-sizing, right-sizing, integration, total quality management, just-in-time manufacturing, industrial consolidation, mergers and acquisitions all seem like buzz words to academics, but they help to describe the forces of change in our economy.

The most recent example pertinent to our discussion is healthcare. My father-in-law is a retired surgeon. I discussed with him ten years ago, when he was still practicing, the likelihood that in the future a significant portion of his professional activities in his private examining room would be dictated by non-medical personnel such as accountants, lawyers, HMO administrators, and insurance companies. Instead of laughing at me, he countered that this was unlikely, given that the entire industry was controlled (i.e., regulated) by other physicians. That is, physicians taught and administered at medical schools and therefore set the admission and graduation standards. They chaired the state licensing boards and, through the American Medical Association, controlled or influenced federal policy. No he said, healthcare was not going to dramatically change unless physicians wanted it to.

My wife is a practicing physician. She does not laugh at my prognostication of ten years ago either. As a physician working in managed care she lives this scenario every day.

The major error physicians made is that they ignored the possibility, and need, for change. They felt so secure in the tradition of a physician-controlled industry that rather than accept that change was happening, and thereby be able to influence it, they tried to stonewall it. Eventually, the driving forces of cost, access and flexibility (sound familiar?) forced them to change their practices. The unfortunate result was that changes were made with little or no physician involvement. While I once felt uncomfortable with physicians having a monopoly on healthcare decision-making, I feel equally uncomfortable knowing that those best-trained in medicine are not intimately involved in designing the healthcare systems upon which my life may ultimately depend.

Back to the professorate. Frequently I read articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education in which a faculty member or a faculty union comes out against distance or technology-enhanced education. Their usual argument is that these methods are unproven or inferior to traditional education. I ask, are the traditional methods proven?

Let's be honest. The arguments circulating against distance or technology enhanced education have nothing to do with teaching and learning. These arguments are a ruse. These statements are made by people or associations who are worried about their jobs, period. Most of the teaching methods we use today are at least 400 years old if not older. Are we so closed-minded to think that better (or at least comparable) alternatives don't exist? What other industry uses systems this ancient as their "primary manufacturing techniques"? Let's see a show of hands. How many of you would like the 1980 angioplasty? How about an auto with the safety standards of 1960? Perhaps drinking water that would have been acceptable in 1900? All of us always want the best that is accessible and affordable. Why should education be any different?

The academy must accept that changes are inevitable. While they must not necessarily roll over, they must begin to become intimately and vigorously engaged in changing the paradigm of education. Although it has been said before, I believe that, this time, education is substantively changing. I would feel better if academics were involved rather than sitting on the sidelines trying to stonewall the process.

Although improvements have been made in our nation's healthcare system, there are also a number of deficiencies that might not have occurred had physicians been a more integral part of the transformation process. The same holds true for higher education. It is time for faculty to stop complaining about technology and figure out the best ways to use it. It is not going away. Anyone who thinks so will be marginalized in the future.

Finally, a rejoinder concerning your last point, "they might want to address the suitability of their broadcasting this position in a forum sponsored by the one company most likely to profit directly from the adoption of their recommendation." When President Eisenhower proposed the interstate highway system back in the 1950s, it was to improve commerce. The fact that it also was also in the interests of Ford, General Motors and thousands of highway contractors was totally beside the point. The fact that Microsoft and others in the technology industry will benefit from the integration of technology in education is also beside the point. Yes, Microsoft will benefit and yes we are encouraging the advancement of the issue. But we are also trying to make genuine contributions to the debate and transformation. Alternatively, given our size, influence, breadth and use of products, would you really want us to be silent? Our software runs on about 90% of the personal computers worldwide. Of the Fortune 500 companies, 90% use Microsoft Office as their standard. What a silly, and perhaps inconsequential, debate it would be if Microsoft was excluded. The professorate has much to gain or lose in the debate concerning whether technology is adopted or not. Should they be excluded? Perhaps some "neutral" high-level federal commission is needed to decide the issue. I am not quite sure that after they issue their report in five years (during which time technology and the world will dramatically change) any of us would be pleased with their recommendations.

The only solution I see is the one the academy portents to be most important anyway—the discussion of ideas in an open forum. If the academy really wants to improve and "appropriately" use technology, then it needs to abide by one of its own fundamental rules.

Colleges and universities cannot make this transformation into the information economy alone. Their tradition of "not invented here" or "we have lot's of Ph.D.s, we should be able to figure it out" no longer works. The problems and solutions are too complex. Colleges and universities tried to develop their own computer operating systems and, for multiple reasons, failed. They tried to develop their technology-enhanced instructional systems, and failed. As technology becomes more mission critical to university operations "home grown" no longer is sufficient. The core competencies of most colleges and universities are not technology innovation and development. It is at Microsoft. In contrast, providing higher education is not a core competency at Microsoft. It is at colleges and universities. It seems reasonable to join forces and leverage each other's strengths for the continued improvement of teaching and learning.

Let's keep talking.


Daniel, J. S. (1996). The Mega-Universities and Knowledge Media (Open & Distance Learning). London: Kogan Page.

Daniel, J. S. (1997). Why Universities Need Technology Strategies. Change, July/August, pp. 10-17.

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