CATALYST v23n4 - Here Comes the Information Highway, What Will You Do?

Volume XXIII, Number 4
Fall 1993

Here Comes the Information Highway.
What Will You Do?

Sally M. Johnstone
Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications
Boulder, Colorado

Two decades ago, I did my banking during the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. I had to take time from work, go to a big impressive building, and stand in line to get access to my money. Now I do most of my banking over the telephone and at my corner 7-11. It fits my schedule, not the banker's. I do not miss the impressive edifice nor the lines.

It may have taken 20 years, but students of higher education are beginning to expect the same type of convenience. The majority of our students work and have other restrictions on their time. As Levine (1992) points out, students are choosing to take classes using telecommunications technologies because they are either time-bound or place-bound. They are less and less interested in taking classes at times and places convenient to college and university staff members.

Accomplishing the necessary transition from where we are now into something that reflects the current reality for higher education students is not easy. However, there are many institutions that have begun. Their stories are available for others so they do not need to invent everything on their own. [1] Chronicles of the administrative shifts are a tool to assist in only one part of this three-part transition. The other two parts of the transition involve (a) a change in the way faculty design courses and guide students through the body of knowledge in a particular discipline, and (b) links with and the knowledge to use appropriate telecommunications technologies.

There are a number of resources that college and university administrators can use to assist faculty in their new role. These range from training seminars and annual conferences to publications. The best resource, though, is the faculty themselves. In most cases, when faculty members are offered administrative support in learning to use the technological tools, they develop innovative techniques for accomplishing their own teaching goals. In October, 1993, the National Science Foundation sponsored a conference at Indiana University/Purdue University at Indianapolis of faculty who teach lab courses to students who do not come to campuses. This group of community college and university faculty participants shared their unique solutions to the "problems" presented by the array of technological systems each had available. One of the most creatively used technologies linking students and faculty for laboratory exercises was the U.S. Mail.

Getting access to telecommunications networks that can allow faculty and students to communicate in more intricate ways is getting easier and easier. The Clinton administration has put a priority on the national information infrastructure (NII). As Ken Salomon[2] noted recently at a meeting of the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications, the bills currently in Congress to support the NII are moving fairly quickly. Included in the current authorizing and appropriation bills for the Department of Commerce is language that will allow federal grants to educational institutions to extend access of existing networks contributing to the development of the NII. That seems to mean that educators will be able to apply for funding to lease access on public or private carriers and to assist with the planning and workforce transitions necessary to utilize telecommunications networks. It also means that federal dollars will be available to train faculty in the use of telecommunications facilities.

There are not quick and easy solutions to the difficulties posed by the external pressure to change our models of delivering higher education services. There are, however, resources out there to guide and support the transitions. Most importantly, the core of the higher education enterprise is made up of people who know how to learn and know how to solve problems. There is every possibility that many institutions will be very successful in their transformation. On the other hand there are private firms that recognize the potential of the vast market for higher education services and are ready to step in if our current institutions fail to meet the needs of our communities of learners.


Levine, T. (1992). Going the distance: A hand book for developing distance degree programs. Alexandria, VA: Public Broadcasting Service.


[1]One collection of these stories resulted from an evaluation of seven projects funded by the Annenberg/ CPB Projects' New Pathways to a Degree. This group of private, public, four-year and two-year institutions each took a different "new pathway" and the administrative, faculty, and student reactions are chronicled in three publications available from the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (The New Pathways to a Degree Project Evaluation: First Year Report to the Annenberg/CPB Project (1992); An Evaluation of New Pathways to a Degree (1994); and Seven Stories of How Technology Can Balance Access and Equity in Higher Education).

[2]Ken Salomon is a partner with the law firm of Dow, Lohnes, and Albertson in Washington, DC. His work with the higher education community and the federal agencies dealing with telecommunications is the source of the talks he has given on distance learning legal, policy, and financial issues at several national and regional educational conferences during the last year.

[3]0ther publications available from the Western Cooperative for Educational Telecommunications (Voice: 303/541-0231) include A Guide for Planning Library Integration into Distance Education Programs, 1993 ($12); ITFS Leasing Partnerships Between Educators and Wireless Cable Operators, 1993 ($20); Rural TeleHealth: Telemedicine, Distance Education, and Infomatics for Rural Health Care, 1993 ($8); Faculty Resource Guide to Distance Education, 1991 ($27); Telecommunications and Distance Education: A Guide for Proposal Development, 1991 ($6); and, COMMUNIQUE (445 annual subscription).

Tracy Gilmore