December 1997 // Commentary
Higher Education and Information Technology:
An Interview with Carol Twigg
by James L. Morrison and Carol Twigg
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James L. Morrison and Carol Twigg "Higher Education and Information Technology:
An Interview with Carol Twigg" The Technology Source, December 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

Carol Twigg serves as Vice President of Educom (whose Web site has been selected as December's Spotlight Site), a nonprofit consortium of colleges, universities and other organizations dedicated to the transformation of higher education through the application of information technology. Dr. Twigg is one of the nation's leading experts on the impact of telecommunications on restructuring higher education and training, the need to improve productivity in higher education, engaging college faculty in using educational technology, and managing academic computing systems in a distributed environment.

James Morrison: Carol, what do you see on the horizon for higher education?

Carol Twigg: I see a period of tremendous and rapid change, brought about first by an expanding definition of higher education and second by the entry of new competitors to traditional higher education providers.

JM: What do you mean by an "expanding definition of higher education"?

CT: We are already experiencing a blurring of the traditional distinction between education and training. I think our definition of higher education will focus more on the concept of postsecondary learning, or lifelong education. The tidy package of the four-year degree will become less and less relevant as we think about the learning needs of the twenty-first century.

JM: Do you see colleges and universities changing organizationally?

CT: Some will, but many will not. Those that understand the implications of the information age will begin to change their organizational structures, but they will probably be in the minority among institutions.

JM: How will the new organizational structures look?

CT: Higher education institutions today are organized around departments and schools. These structures are appropriate for curricula that experience minor or infrequent changes. To meet the challenges of the information age, institutions will need to become more entrepreneurial and responsive to external requirements. It will be difficult for traditional institutions to move their entire organizations in a new direction. Institutions that wish to change direction need to organize units that coordinate direct marketing of educational products and services to students, negotiating contracts with other organizations to send and receive programs. These coordinating units will co-exist with traditional structures. As more institutions try to figure out what to do with distance learning and virtual university initiatives, they will inevitably begin to create these new internal entrepreneurial structures.

JM: How will professors in these entrepreneurial units work, compared to traditional professors?

CT: Traditional expectations tend to require professors to be all things to all people. Of course, the reality is that professors do some things well and others not so well. We can expect to see further differentiation in the faculty role, not just between researchers and teachers but also within the teaching role itself. Course design, product development, delivery, assessment, certification-these are some examples of the many aspects of faculty responsibilities that can be differentiated.

JM: How is this likely to affect accreditation?

CT: Accreditation will place increasing emphasis on outcomes, focusing much more on student competencies and how they can be demonstrated, and less on the educational process itself. Accreditation will also place greater emphasis on competencies that make up particular fields or disciplines. That trend has already begun. A significant question is whether traditional accreditation can adapt and remain relevant. If not, new agencies and methodologies for assuring educational quality will begin to emerge.

JM: As a second indicator for bringing about tremendous and rapid change in higher education, you referred to the entry of new competitors.

CT: Higher education will face competition from private sector providers of educational products and services delivered via the net. Some may be new institutions like the University of Phoenix; others may be traditional players in the education marketplace like publishers or software companies. Still others may be new enterprises that disaggregate and deliver higher education services like assessment and certification.

JM: Could you comment on the Western Governors University (WGU)?

CT: WGU exemplifies significant aspects of the future of higher education, especially in its emphasis on market responsiveness. WGU represents a regional approach to an educational problem. Although it has chosen the name "university," it could easily be called the "Western Consortium for Educational Services." WGU serves as a broker that enables students to access a broad variety of different institutions and educational providers.

JM: But of course WGU does award degrees.

CT: Degrees are important credentials today, but increasingly the degree will be less important. The great demand in postsecondary education is for post-baccalaureate educational experiences. The demand for workplace training and skills development encourages returning to school to gain specific knowledge and skills rather than a degree.

JM: You have been concerned for some time with integrating technology in higher education. How would you characterize the issues in this area?

CT: Educational leaders need to use technology to address the fundamental problems facing institutions of higher education: increasing access, improving quality, and reducing cost. The continuing effort of institutions simply to layer technology onto their existing structures will break down. Institutions will have to examine how they can reorganize their basic academic practices to take advantage of technology beyond administrative uses. The challenge is to implement technology holistically rather than merely tacking it onto existing processes. Those institutions that are successful will be serious competitors in the new higher education marketplace.

JM: What strategy should we employ to persuade professors to use technology?

CT: First, we need a differentiated strategy. Although all faculty need baseline technology support, institutions shouldn't treat professors as if they were all the same. For example, institutions need to target more sophisticated support to those faculty members working to achieve specific institutional goals. Second, institutions need to establish hiring criteria for new faculty based on the specific technological competence needed. As the older generation retires, a new core faculty should be expected to bring new skills to the university. Third, because technology is so important to the future of institutions, they should implement mandatory training programs for new faculty when they first come to the institution. Technology should be a requisite, not a choice. Donald Tapscott, author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation, points out that students coming to universities over the next decade are simply not going to put up with a technology-ignorant faculty.

JM: If the chair of an institution's board of trustees invited you to address these issues, what would you advise them to do right now?

CT: I would suggest they first decide on what direction their institutions should take-what their ultimate goal is; and second, I would help them focus on steps appropriate to achieving their goal. For example, if they want to be a world class research university, they should make sure that their research faculty have the equipment they need. If they want to improve productivity, they should focus on the 25 courses that make up 35 to 50 percent of their enrollment and improve those courses. If they want to provide access in their state, they should focus on developing distributed learning programs.

JM: Thank you, Carol, for answering my questions regarding an expanding definition of higher education, new competitors to traditional higher education providers, and suggested strategies for persuading professors to use technology. Is there a particular message you would like to convey to institutions of higher learning?

CT: Institutions are grossly underestimating the competitive challenge that they are about to face from other providers, both its magnitude and the pace at which it is developing. Finding new ways to use technology to provide educational services should be at the top of every institution's list. Educational leaders are beginning to pay attention to these issues, but they act like they have decades in which to implement change. That's simply not the case. As an example, Ziff-Davis, one of the nation's largest providers of computer magazines and materials, has recently created Ziff-Davis University. They offer courses in computer-related topics built around their materials. Students can enroll any time, and the tuition is only $4.95 a month. While faculty senates are debating how to implement technology-based instruction, students who want it will go to new providers like Ziff-Davis University.

Individual faculty members like you are creating individual courses here and there. But this may be too little, too late. A change in traditional decision-making processes is required in order for institutions to respond to this competitive challenge in an aggressive and coherent manner. This requires serious planning, serious commitment of resources, a sense of urgency and a willingness to take risks. That's what higher education leadership is all about as we enter the twenty-first century.

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