Tech-Driven Transformation Taking Place on Campus

WASHINGTON (03/20/2000) - Forces largely driven by new technologies and the Internet have the power to unmake the American university system, a top administrator at Columbia University said today.

New technologies, including hardware that could replace books as well as software that organizes and displays course material online, make it possible for universities to reach larger numbers of people spread out across the country and even the globe. Combined with other factors, such as changing demographics, such technologies are bringing radical changes to higher education, said Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teacher's College.

Levine spoke at a conference sponsored by Blackboard Inc., a two-year-old Washington, D.C.-based company selling software to universities to enable online learning and integrate back-office functions. About 350 educators and university information systems administrators gathered for the company's conference here today, which continues tomorrow.

Technology already is being used to broadcast existing course material over the Internet, but the potential of many of the new technologies hasn't been realized yet, Levine said. The use of virtual reality, for example, will mean that the "talking heads" of traditional pedagogy won't stand a chance against a virtual walk around fifth century Athens or the Washington, D.C., in which Abraham Lincoln lived.

"On most of our campuses this is a very scary moment," Levine said. "For us as a group, it's a time at which the answers are uncertain, but no generation will have the opportunity we have to put our mark on the look of education in the future."

Technology also will call into question the need for the 3,600 campuses currently in existence in the United States as students take advantage of online offerings that they can access from any location. Students will additionally increasingly resist paying for university services that they neither want nor use.

Levine also predicted there will be traditional campuses in the future where students live and attend classes, but there will also be virtual universities that only exist online. However, the real future education battleground could be for the territory occupied by bricks-and-clicks institutions, which is what most of today's major universities are likely to try to become, Levine said.

The experiment with e-commerce thus far has shown that online shoppers appear to favor the bricks-and-clicks models so they don't sacrifice having a physical location where they can get advice, view products or make an exchange, a fact which bricks-and-clicks universities are likely to recognize and copy, Levine said.

Universities also are beginning to feel threatened by the privatization of higher education by fast moving technology companies who are putting course material online and offering it at worldwide electronic campuses, Levine said.

A group of venture capitalists that visited Teachers College last year estimated it would take a company only a few years to become certified and begin competing against traditional universities, he added.

Certain barriers still exist, most importantly the lack of an established brand name in higher education and the ability to award degrees, but businesses feel they will be able to surmount these barriers, making them look "incredibly fragile," Levine said.

Another force that has made university-level educators wary of the online world is that organizations from museums to libraries to symphony orchestras are all getting into the content business, mainly by putting information on the Internet. The result will be that people who once turned to universities for instruction now have a lot more choices, Levine said.

More than 3,000 universities and schools in 70 countries use Blackboard's software to put content online, said Matthew Pittinsky, chairman of Blackboard, whose industry partners include Oracle Corp., Microsoft Corp. and PeopleSoft Inc. The majority of the firm's customers use the company's free service, which allows teachers to post materials at Blackboard.com, but about 560 schools use a version of the company's core product, Course Info, Pittinsky said in an interview today.

Faculty members at those schools have used Course Info to create fairly robust Web sites where they upload content, manage discussion boards and chat rooms, post announcements and track what students view at the schools' Web sites, Pittinsky said.

"Our job is to make it really easy to use so that an instructor without a lot of technical knowledge really can get up and running on their own," Pittinsky said.

Course Info, which costs US$5,000 per server per year, typically is used by instructors to start their online offering slowly by posting only the syllabus and other general information. However, the instructors are sometimes prompted by their students to put more material online so that students have more opportunities to use the Web sites in their studies, according to Pittinsky.

Blackboard is working on enhancing its software, and plans to provide versions tailored to the various countries where it's sold and to improve its products to model the way teaching and learning takes place. For example, that might mean in the future that universities will have to use technological tools to find out what a student already knows and teach around that, which, Pittinsky said, is quite a different approach from the current course offering that assumes little about a individual student's knowledge of a subject, and teaches the same syllabus to everyone enrolled on a specific course of study.

Blackboard, based in Washington, D.C. can be found on the Web at http://www.blackboard.com/.

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