January/February 2003 // Vision
The Future of Higher Education:
An Interview with Parker Rossman
by James L. Morrison and Parker Rossman
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: James L. Morrison and Parker Rossman "The Future of Higher Education:
An Interview with Parker Rossman" The Technology Source, January/February 2003. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

I first encountered Parker Rossman's work in the early 1990s via his groundbreaking book, The Emerging Worldwide Electronic University: Information Age Global Higher Education (Rossman, 1992). When I saw that his current project is a freely accessible online book-in-progress on the future of lifelong and higher education, I asked if he would allow Technology Source readers to learn about and participate in the project. He graciously consented to this interview.

James L. Morrison [JM]: Parker, I note on your Web site that you have three book-length volumes concerning the future of higher education: Volume I, The Future of Higher (Lifelong) Education and Virtual Space; Volume II, Research On Global Crises, Still Primitive?; and Volume III, Future Learning and Teaching.

What struck me in particular was your note asking readers to contact you if they saw errors, or if they could contribute Web site URLs or items of information that were pertinent to the material. As these notes indicate, you clearly regard this to be a work in progress. Certainly this project is in keeping with the free online scholarship movement described by Peter Suber in our September/October issue (2002). It is also a great way to develop the manuscripts relatively quickly, although this "moving target" will be difficult for people who need to cite your work in their papers. What do you expect to accomplish via this technique?

Parker Rossman [PR]: My objectives are to examine the ways in which a global virtual education system can come into existence and to raise questions about needed research on learning, teaching, and overcoming the problems (such as hunger, bad health, war, and revolution) that stand in the way of providing education for everyone in the world. I realize that education for all is impossible, but perhaps only in the sense that the United States, out of necessity, accomplished what was "impossible" after the attack on Pearl Harbor. I assume that H.G. Wells was right when he said that civilization is in a race between education and disaster. So I am willing to be audacious?—as someone retired and with no axe to grind?—and to initiate a project that might at least stimulate thought and discussion.

For 30 years or more I have been studying the university, higher education, and academia in the developing world. In the 1980s I began to see the emergence and potential of a global virtual university; this insight culminated in a book (Rossman, 1992) that was widely read and used and that led to my being invited to lecture in various countries. The next year Praeger published it as a paperback in their Contributions to the Study of Education series. Developing world delegates to the 1997 UNESCO conference on higher education in Paris complained that it was too expensive for them. So I said that I would put a sequel online, free to anyone in the world. I asked that, in return, they send me feedback and suggested links. And I have now accomplished this.

JM: Doesn't your online manuscript deal with far more than higher education? Your classification is a bit confusing to me, because each volume looks like a book. Why not say that you have three books on the Web?

PR: It must be one book if it is to be holistic. It should introduce all of the needs and problems that must be dealt with at once as we enter a time of lifelong education. "Education for all" must include programs for pre-kindergarten children, for primary and secondary school age learners, and for college students. It also must include continuing educational programs that foster job skills, career planning, and hobbies, as well as special interest programs for senior citizens. Instead of talking about a "global university," the time has come to explore possibilities for a global virtual education system.

JM: Then why do you keep speaking of the "future of the university?"

PR: It is also my assumption that the university, however it changes, will continue to be the major research center for all education. It will be a crucial locus of educational vision and the gathering place of scholars and educators. There will continue to be residential campuses for those who can afford them, and higher education institutions will continue to be the springboard for online education for all?—all places, all ages, all needs, lifelong, in the world.

JM: Aren't you taking an anti-corporate stance when the global programs you propose must have the financial support of commercial businesses that are already tremendously influential in education?

PR: No anti-corporate stance is intended. Elite and avant-garde profitable products will continue to thrive. As in many potential areas of conflict or competition, we do not face an either/or situation. Alongside the elite must be the best that can be provided for billions of people. Big business has a well-established role, but it will continue to devote itself to areas where money can be made. Any aid given to poverty areas will likely be seen as charity until experimentation leads to mass-produced products that can be profitable.

JM: What are your other assumptions?

PR: I begin with other theses that are also debatable and that propose conversation about larger-scale planning. In fact, I wish that this project could stimulate online global conferences (at least on the scale of the 1997 UNESCO conference) that anyone in the world could audit online, with developing world educators encouraged to participate, as in the 1997 Global Knowledge Conference I describe in Volume 2, Chapter 4. Anyone in the world should be helped, not only to listen in, but to set up and participate in spin-off discussions.

Therefore, one assumption is that larger-scale online discussions are now an urgent need. There are many online mailing lists on many aspects of education, globally and locally, but they are neither coordinated nor integrated into a global planning process. Their archives are not cross-indexed.

A second assumption is that within 2 decades we will have powerful new technologies that will make it possible for us to do things never before possible. For example, one might consider the computing power that thousands of inter-linked supercomputers will be able to provide in concert with a more intelligent "Internet 3" or "Internet 4." We need to begin preparing for these possibilities now, rather than only trying to keep up with current or emerging technological tools.

Third, it soon will be possible to accomplish the UNESCO goal of "education for all." The Internet, Web, and their successors can bring essential education to nearly everyone in the world, when and where it is needed, across an individual's lifetime.

Furthermore, much education can be automated?—and inexpensive, as Bork and Gunnesdottir (2001) have demonstrated?—for those who cannot afford to go to a campus or purchase expensive courses online. The poor will be able to obtain basic education, literacy (including multimedia literacy), political savvy, entrepreneurial skills, and job skills (particularly those in agriculture); those with ability will be able to move on to advanced education online. The technology available in a particular neighborhood or village of a developing nation will determine what learning resources can be provided initially (battery-powered CD-ROM and radio, for example, can be used until Internet connections are established).

Another possibility is the ability of educators to conduct global-scale research and be more holistic and transdisciplinary, bringing together many pieces of research and experience that are now separate but that exist around the world (see National Science Foundation/Department of Commerce, 2002). This is especially true as educators seek to cope with crises that limit educational opportunity in the developing world, such as hunger, mental and physical health, poverty, warfare and revolution, and ecological problems. We must approach crisis-scale global problems simultaneously rather than one at a time. It is now possible for helping agencies to better coordinate their efforts.

I see a global virtual university already coming into existence. Maybe it need not be organized and planned, but it is evolving on a biological model. The five models that I propose in Volume 1 to stimulate discussion and the imagination might all be part of one virtual institution. What consortia might do for the developing world is discussed in Chapter 6 (face-to-face learning communities), Chapter 7 (a global multi-cultural virtual university), Chapter 8 (a global virtual research university), Chapter 9 (a local need-based consortium of community colleges), and Chapter 10 (a global-scale land-grant university).

JM: What kinds of constructive criticism or negative feedback are you getting?

PR: Well, the list is long. I try to cover too much. Some information is out of date. Web URLs disappear, which limits my ability to link to the latest research as a means of avoiding excessive detail in the text. Also, different readers come with expectations that are not met. In discussing technology, for instance, how can we address those who are technological experts and those in the developing world whose knowledge is still limited? My project seems out of focus in that it struggles with the nature and future of the university in a time of lifelong education, and with the added problem of how to provide education for everyone in the world.

JM: How much of this project do you do by yourself?

PR: Only a little bit. I have many partners who do not know that I am leaning on them?—the authors of books and articles that I cite and/or link to, for example. I depend on mushrooming Web pages. My project is already useful to some educators, particularly in the developing world, as I point them to such references. Those who give me feedback?—even small suggestions and possible links?—are essential partners. I make use of many education mailing lists. However, the project cannot continue to be useful over time unless it is taken over by a team, and that probably means some sponsoring agency or university. Meanwhile, it is a worthwhile experiment in seeing how far one person can go. In the long run, this idea of a regularly updated and enlarging online global textbook would probably require an international team on each chapter. So I am just trying to see what the problems are and are going to be.

I am stimulated by history. Years ago, Charles Ferguson (1938) published an experimental book entitled A Little Democracy is a Dangerous Thing. He decided to create it democratically. This was before online and electronic books. He invited everyone involved in producing the book to participate. Even the janitor at the press was invited to read the book and make comments and suggestions. So were all the editors, printers, and wholesalers; their suggestions were included as footnotes in the text. More recently, Jay Bolter (1991) pointed out in Writing Space that new technology now makes it possible to have "growing books" that are regularly updated and hypertext books that could leap in many different directions, not having to be linear like the printed page. In the 1990s, William J. Mitchell of MIT created an experimental "growing" online book on urban architecture into which colleagues could insert text, criticisms, and so forth. The idea was exciting and highly significant (at least to me), but even with a team devoted to it, the project soon got too voluminous and out of hand and had to be stopped. (A project description is still available online, and a traditional hardback version was published as Mitchell, 1995.) Projects like an encyclopedia that need to be kept up to date generally have a different scholar or team of scholars in charge of each section.

JM: Are you encouraged that others are getting involved?

PR: One reader has suggested that the most important thing about my online project is that it calls for larger and more sustained conversation?—globally?—on what the future of global education ought to be. Personally, I wish it could be developed in a way similar to Linux, which is supported by a community of technicians but has no official sponsorship or funding. Recognizing the perils in my experiment, I must be prepared for all kinds of criticism, even antagonism. Perhaps now that I am retired, I am better prepared to face antagonism and scorn than those who have jobs and careers to consider. Even if my project were seen only as a sort of annotated bibliography of some articles and books that I personally recommend, especially for educators in the developing world, it would be partly successful. However, I see the whole project as an initial effort that might later be enlarged to be more useful to those who need to discuss current problems and future issues. I see it as nothing definitive, but as an outline on which to hang all kinds of ideas and topics that might stimulate discussion, imagination, and conversation.

JM: What are your aspirations for the long term?

PR: Well, if you want me to dream about what this or some other project might grow into, I would wish the following:

  1. That the G8 and other political leaders would establish a global network (and, perhaps, designate a satellite) devoted exclusively to education that would contain all essential programs, resources, texts, media, and so forth to meet the needs of "education for all." In time it would become a semantic network, which among other things would cross-index everything for instant retrieval. It also would contain many textbooks (including mine) (a) that would be in all languages; (b) that would allow users to click on any word for a definition or a translation; (c) that would likewise allow users to click on any idea or concept and jump to an encyclopedia article on that topic; (d) that would incorporate links to related sections of the text, so that one could click on any author's name and go to an annotated bibliography that would contain other links; and (e) that would provide simpler explanations or multimedia illustrations for concepts that a youngster or a person with limited education would not otherwise understand. Thus the network textbook would exist in the context of a "cosmopedia" (i.e., an encyclopedia that links everything, as briefly discussed in my Volume 1, Chapter 3).
  2. That we would employ a "bottom-up strategy" for lifetime education for all, whereby, for example, a neighborhood-empowering school could be the local center for lifetime education, connected to all needed resources, and operated by a community education cooperative. I would wish also for a global "cooperative" distribution network that would provide second-hand learning materials free of charge once for-sale, upgraded versions had been produced. Perhaps it is just a dream that some universities would undertake such a project; MIT, however, has set a precedent.
  3. That we would learn more about each learner's talents and gifts, opportunities and needs, and handicaps or limitations. Future materials should be able to "study the learner" in an automated process, while the learner studies the electronic materials. This is the hope also of some researchers who have been studying possible learning uses of computer games such as Nintendo. Technology can create a computerized profile that could be the basis for a tailored, individualized education plan that grows and changes across a lifetime. Such profiles and individualized education could be the real revolution in future education.

JM: How could such a vast education network and services be funded?

PR: Bork and Gunnesdottir (2001) suggest that such a network can be financed out of existing funds spent on education. They anticipate, among other things, financial savings as software becomes standardized and mass-produced and as many learning activities become automated. If all the software and services were online, the latest editions might be paid for, like long-distance calls, with a per-minute user fee. If the telephone were invented today, funding a global network for a billion telephones would seem like an impossible task. Yet such a network was financed, at first, with 5?Ǭ¢ a call. Software, textbooks, and multimedia education modules need not be replaced every year; they could be connected to the Internet and updated. Much more will be said about this once we see the possibilities of technology currently in development. Wireless connections and downloads should be affordable once there are billions of learners using the same standardized products. Meanwhile, the elite will still be able to use new learning programs and technologies before they are made available to many in developing countries.

JM: What are your next steps?

PR: A number of retired college and university presidents (and some younger faculty members who see that there are going to be radical changes for global education) have been making helpful suggestions. For example, one has called for seminars to discuss my project, saying that "it is the most important existing book on the future of higher education." (In all humility, I must assume that he means the most important online book.) He and several others are working with me to criticize and improve the text. I have been online with educators on four continents?—using, for example, the TAPPED IN virtual campus with World Association for Online Education (WAOE) sponsorship, another venue for ongoing discussions. I have met online with students in several classes to discuss a chapter of my online text. In the summer of 2002, a number of experts?—including some from Africa, Asia and Latin America?—inserted comments into one chapter that then was sent to other readers for their comments, criticisms, and suggestions. If that experiment is successful and enlarged, then it will help define several major issues and questions that might be discussed in spin-off online seminars. One retired college president has proposed a large-scale discussion of the entire project, but the most qualified people like you, Jim, are too busy to do that with the entire three volumes.

JM: Parker, via this interview and the subsequent webcast, many more people will learn of this creative, exciting, and valuable project. Be prepared for a flood of eager volunteers!


Bolter, J. (1991). Writing space: The computer, hypertext, and the history of writing. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bork, A., & Gunnesdottir, S. (2001). Tutorial distance learning: Rebuilding our education system. New York: Kluwer.

Ferguson, C. (1938). A little democracy is a dangerous thing. New York: Association Press.

Mitchell, W. J. (1995). City of bits: Space, place, and the infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Morrison, J. L., & Suber, P. (2002, September/October). The free online scholarship movement: An interview with Peter Suber. The Technology Source. Retrieved September 15, 2002, at http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=330

National Science Foundation/Department of Commerce. (2002, June). Converging technologies for improving human performance. Retrieved September 15, 2002, at http://www.wtec.org/ConvergingTechnologies/Report/ NBIC_pre_publication.pdf

Rossman, P. (1992). The emerging worldwide electronic university: Information age global higher education. Westport, CT: Praeger.

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