RE: Advancements in Technology and the Impact on Higher Education

Lisa Dusseault (
Mon, 27 Apr 1998 15:57:54 -0700

This is a great topic, and I agree, there hasn't been much original thought
on the topic. Most sci-fi stories portray school as just the same as it
always was, except teachers might appear on television screens, and students
might use "electronic slates" to take notes on. An interesting sideline to
discuss: are there any fictional works which portray the future of education
as being fundamentally different from education today?

I've been thinking about this topic for a while -- I even tried to design a
first-year course (for a project when I was in fourth-year) to take greater
advantage of high-tech. So thanks for the catalyst which caused me to at
last get some of this in writing!

Access to information through advanced technology

How is the ever-increasing access to information going to change education?
Increased use of calculators and access to information has affected design
of exams. "Open-book" exams seem to be more frequent. My friends in grad
school are doing take-home exams. These must be written differently than
ordinary exams, because students have the aid of textbooks and computers. I
think this reflects a realization in academia that information is useless by
itself and no engineer becomes successful merely by memorizing all the
physics equations they might need. No engineer ever needs to dredge
equations or even techniques up from memory; engineers now need to know
where to find information and how to apply it. So the exams should start to
test understanding more than memorization, which is understandably much more
difficult and many professors are loth to do the work required to set exams
up that way.

Assignments and projects (which measure achievement, rather than knowledge)
seem to matter much more than in the past. Some courses at UWaterloo were
entirely project-based, and some spanned more than one semester. Students
were required to work in groups, because a successful engineer needs to be
able to find information, apply it, and communicate it to co-workers. We
also got a surprising amount of marks from presentations, which led some of
my classmates to design glitzy multimedia presentations that I have not seen
equalled since I left school. All of this seems to be a big change from the
past, and this trend could well continue.

Caveat: I don't know if there is really an increasing number of open-book
and take-home exams, and a greater number of marks assigned to projects and
presentations. Some of this is speculation, based on personal experience
and common assumptions shared by my classmates.

Access to last year's information

Some courses are now run on the web, with student assignements or journals
or essays posted to the web. This allows students to build on each others'
understanding of the topic. It also forces the professor to be constantly
innovating. Professors used to get away with recycling old exams: now at
UWaterloo they can't, because student organizations keep copies of old exams
to use when studying for exams. In the future, professors won't even be
able to get away with recycling old assignments, because students will have
access to the experience of past years' students.

Smart professors will take advantage of this by designing courses that build
up year by year (each class building on the accomplishments of the last
class), or take on new challenges year after year. I've seen this in the
UWaterloo project courses already.

Wearable computing

Access to information could increase even more if wearable computing takes
off. There's a grad student (at MIT?) who came to UWashington recently &
gave a presentation to some friends of mine, which they in turn reported to
me. This grad student is doing his thesis in wearable computing, and walks
around all the time with a projector & special glasses which can show a
screen in front of the "real world". This is connected to a computer which
he wears in a pouch, I think. The input device can be held in one hand and
does chording. With cellular modem technology, he can connect to the
internet at any time, and does. In the presentation, he had two screens
showing to the audience: one with slides, and one hooked up to his computer
which showed his notes and how he was going through them and even adding to
them during the presentation, so that the audience could see how this
wearable computer was helping him at that moment. He recently obtained
permission to do his PhD examinations with the computer! He can look up
papers & his own notes during the oral. Will wearable computing take off?
And, if wearable computing really does take off, will wearable computers be
just as accepted in exam situations as calculators are today? I think the
answer to both is probably yes. After all, today's programmable calculators
can already store plenty of equations and even notes, and these calculators
were allowed in most of the exams I took.

High-Tech firms and higher education

This section is more about high-tech firms affecting education than advanced
technology, but I think it's an important factor.

Applicability of education to advanced technology fields

UWaterloo (my school -- was a pioneer in the area
of cooperative education. I spent 8 terms at school doing courses, but I
also spent 6 terms in jobs in industry (a term is 4 months). This meant a
total of 5 years non-stop to get my degree, but it was worth it: there was
a positive feedback loop between learning stuff, applying it, and going back
to learn new stuff. I graduated with two full years work experience.
Students' work experiences also fed back into courses: students were not
afraid of telling professors "This is stupid. Nobody uses Pascal in the
real world. Teach first year students how to use C++, right away." What
this showed me is that high-tech companies which are the biggest employeers
of coop students are affecting education by sending back students with real
experience to draw on when choosing courses and evaluating courses.

Economics of education -- supply & demand of employees in high-tech fields

How is the low supply of high-tech workers affecting education? It is
getting harder and harder to find good people to employ. American
politicians talk of restricting the number of work visas granted in
technical areas so that Americans must be employed, while computer
businesses are aghast at this idea. As a Canadian with a visa, I can vouch:
I am no cheaper than an American employee, in fact I cause my employer to
take on additional expense to go through the visa & green card processes.
The reason why I am employed in the US, therefore, is not because I am
cheaper than an American employee, but because there aren't enough qualified

Meanwhile, in Canada politicians are deploring the other side of the coin:
the "brain drain" which sucks educated Canadians into the US means that
there are even fewer qualified Canadian employees. I suspect this is made
up for in part by a more open immigration system. Regardless, there is a
clear trend: not enough qualified candidates for any position in the
computer industry. My fiance cites a study that says that the number of
enrollments in CS in '96 in the US was 50% of the number of enrollments in
CS in '86. Not only is the supply of CS grads not meeting the demand, the
supply is less and less close to meeting the demand, and the supply is even
decreasing in real terms.

(As an aside: the decrease in # of CS grads is happening at the same time
as increased private funding of CS departments. Are they related?
Correlated? Why are CS grad #'s declining anyway?)

What is going to happen as a result of this? Are more employees going to
come from foreign countries? Less? What are high-tech firms doing, and
going to do, to encourage more CS grads?

How high-tech industries help out

High-tech firms can provide funding, directly and indirectly, for education.
In Canada, the government has reduced funding for schools bit by bit, so
that over the 5 years I was in university, tuition doubled, and has grown
more since. Also gov't slashed the amount of money going into scholarships,
and has more recently slashed its own contribution to student loans. Gov't
has been asking banks to step in and fill the void of student loans, but
banks are understandably averse and this has not been working well. Grad
studies are suffering as well. I was among the top students in my class,
but could not get gov't funding for my grad studies.

To some extent, private enterprise is stepping in to fill the void. I was
able to support myself during university because of the coop program and my
internships at BNR and Microsoft. All CS, math & eng'g students at
UWaterloo were in the same program, and companies are happy to hire interns
when they can't find enough qualified grads. Arts & science also
participate in coop, but find it harder to find jobs and make less money.
Many of the jobs they do find are in high-tech (e.g. an English student
writing software handbooks). High-tech industry indirectly pays the tuition
of many students. Also, some scholarships are from high-tech industry.

More private enterprise in schools: My dad, who is a professor and dep't
head of geological eng'g at UWaterloo, relies entirely on industry to fund
his research group, pay salaries of his research assistants, fund grad
student salaries. His group is much more focussed than most on the problems
that industry needs to solve. It seems that a lot more areas could get more
industry funding and may have to if the gov't trends in Canada continue.
Again, most of this funding is from high-tech industries who realize they
need even more tech in order to compete.

High-tech companies are doing education directly: at MS we rely on
university to teach students theoretical concepts such as recursion and
finding the order of an algorithm, but we have to teach new hires all sorts
of specific technology. There are all sorts of programs for getting a
master's degree in business funded by your employer while you continue work.

How will this trend continue? I can certainly envision private enterprise
taking an even greater role in education, expanding partnerships with
schools. Will private enterprise go so far as to run schools and offer
diplomas? Will companies ever sponsor students in the same way the military
does -- paying for a student's education entirely in return for 5 years
employment? Will coop programs expand into many more schools?

Why the privatization of schools might not happen

I don't believe that private enterprise will take over all of higher
education. What interest does private enterprise have in giving philosophy
courses, or pure math? Yet there are still students who will pay to take
those courses. And, as long as pure math departments are run by ordinary
universities, then it makes sense to also have applied math, and probably
also engineering and CS run by the same ordinary universities. Also, a
company can't "own" a student just by giving them an education (like the US
military does) -- a student can go work anywhere when they graduate.

So I don't see the trend (of higher education being more tied to private
industry) continuing unchecked; rather I think there will come some balance
point, or possibly some backlash if people realize that the privatization is
not solving all the problems of higher education.

Continuing contributions of high-tech industry

What I do see is that high-tech industry will continue to feed into higher
education in these ways:

- High-tech firms will continue to hire more and more students to fill the
gaps of qualified workers. These students will go back to school with money
(to pay tuition) and demands on their professors to teach them useful stuff.

- High-tech firms will donate computer labs and software to universities,
in order to help out with the production of grads with experience in
computers & software.

- High-tech firms will offer scholarships for fields like CS and
engineering, in order to encourage more high-school students to enter
high-tech disciplines. I had one of these!

- High-tech firms will increasingly fund some grad students and university
research studies directly, in order to get technical advances which allow
the firm to compete. More grad studies will therefore be practical

Some verification of the trends I've claimed needs to be done.

Impact of feasible distance learning

The advanced technology which will be used to make distance learning
feasible has many far-reaching impacts which haven't entirely been thought
out, as far as I've seen. Change will come gradually and will be resisted
by many in academia. Rough outline of the impacts before I delve into

- Students have greater choice
- Some students will become more specialized
- Some students will become more "marketable"
- More students will be able to attend each course
- Universities will have to work together much more closely to approve each
others' courses & agree on grades
- Fewer professors will be required to teach courses
- Those few professors will be increasingly "chosen" by students, and be
more widely known
- More TA's will be required to grade work in mass distance-learning
- Courses will be more asynchronous; less fixed in location/time

Greater Choice

Students will have vastly greater choice to take the courses which interest
them. Courses like "Conflict Analysis"
(, which I
took in my last year, sometimes get cancelled if only a half-dozen students
sign up. When students from many universities can get together "virtually"
to take a course, it gives students much more choice.

It seems that this might result in increasing specialization of students --
students can take a dozen courses which explore one small area ever deeper,
instead of being forced through restrictions on availability to take 2
courses in that small area, and choose other areas for the other ten

Scheduling will change. If a student is taking 5 courses from 3 different
institutions, 2 of them virtually and 3 of them live, how can these
institutions ever avoid conflicts? Instead, students will interact more
asynchronously with professors and other students. Set hours for courses
will decline.

This trend combines with the trend for students in high-tech fields to go
out and find summer jobs or intern jobs, because it gives students more
power. What will students do with this power and choice? Some of them will
certainly take a highly targetted set of courses meant to garner them the
highest possible wage, focusing on buzzword technologies and making choices
like "C++" rather than "Lisp". The question is will it work? Will
high-tech firms employ buzzword-graduates or well-rounded graduates? If
high-tech firms employ buzzword-graduates, then universities will
increasingly become places of training for work, rather than
higher-learning. That would be a disappointment. However, the evidence
I've seen suggests this will not entirely be the case: we prefer to hire CS
grads rather than community-college "computer systems" or "computer
programming" grads. That probably means there is a balance between specific
skills (how to write a program in C++) and abstract understanding (what is
the nature of a programming language) which makes up a good employable

What is the meaning of a degree? If I take 1/3 of my courses live at
Waterloo, 1/3 virtually at some other university, 1/3 at yet another, which
university gives me a degree? How do schools vouch for each others'
courses? How do you stop a student from getting 2 credits for 2 courses
which are basically the same? I'd suggest looking into how schools do
independent studies programs (such as to see how schools
currently deal with this. I would guess that students would still enroll in
one school and get a degree from that school. In the process of getting the
degree, students will take courses offered by other schools which are
approved by the school they're enrolled in.

Are students going to be able to deal with choice? About its independent
studies program, Waterloo says "this program works best for self-motivated
students with an idea of what they'd like to pursure intellectually. This
very open structure can be daunting to those who are not used to it. " I
think in general universities are going to become more and more like that.

Will there be a backlash to this trend of increased choice for students, due
to some students not being able to handle it? Probably not. By university
age, students are expected to be able to run their own lives. Students will
tend to select universities that offer choice. When I hire students, I look
for an advanced degree not to see if they are likely to know information
necessary for their job (they won't) but whether they are capable of the
learning, discipline, organization, stability, determination and other
skills necessary to get an advanced degree.

Greater impact from great people

Another result of feasible distance learning is that when somebody famous
like Douglas Hofstadter (okay, relatively famous) gives a course, there will
be thousands of applications. How will this be dealt with?

- Sometimes the number of students will be carefully limited, perhaps to
full-time on-campus students only.
- Schools will charge hundreds of $$ (to non full-time on-campus students)
to take the course. This money will go in part to pay for TAs to mark
assignments and tests, part to pay Hofstadter a higher salary, and part to
make the university richer.
- Schools will try harder to attract famous people to teach courses,
offering higher salaries. These people may not have advanced degrees
- Many individuals who would otherwise have been professors teaching their
own courses in parallel will instead have to function as TA's for famous
people giving courses.
- Students will list individual courses more on resumes.
- Fame will engender fame: we will have "superstar" professors, more like
athletes and movie stars today!

What won't change in higher education

For a long time, we will still continue to:

- write papers
- do assignments
- listen to lectures
- do exams
- do library research
- take units of study formed into "courses", designed by professors, which
last a number of terms
- need faculty "advisors" to approve and guide student choices
- get a standard degree like "Bachelor of Applied Science" from an
institution after several years work

Many more of these things will be online, but that won't change their
fundamental nature for a long time.

That's it! I must send this off now before my bits become stale. I'm
looking forward to hearing if others can verify or debunk some assumptions
or guesses I made, such as the guess that open-book and take-home exams are
on the rise.


-----Original Message-----
From: []
Sent: Friday, April 24, 1998 8:55 PM
Subject: Advancements in Technology and the Impact on Higher Education

I am in the midst of preparing a presentation that I will deliver next
on the topic of how advancements in technology will effect higher education
the next decade. I have done lots of reading and research in preparation for
this talk, but have yet to find a published article that makes any
that are truly inspiring.

Most of what I am reading talks about the development of virtual
and the use of e-mail, videoconferencing, muds, moos, bulletin boards etc...
to deliver courses to students off-campus.

Although this is pertinent to what I will be talking about, I keep thinking
myself there has to be something more that I can say.... something that is
truly revolutionary. Universities have been offering correspondence courses
since the turn of the century via snail mail and, in a nutshell, what I am
reading seems to be saying that technology will not so much transform
education opportunties but rather find a new method of delivering an old

Thus, I have decided to post this query to FoRK in the hopes that someone on
this list has an inspiring thought on this subject -- in essence, I am
that the collective wisdom FoRKer's can come up with some better than I am
finding in the currently published literature. Any and all thoughts will be
most appreciated.

BTW, as a point of clarification, I will be doing this presentation as part
the interview process for a new job -- Upstate NY is no place to live (as I
believe Mike will attest) and if my social life is to see any improvement
only thing for me to do is to change jobs. I am not entirely sure that the
position I am interviewing for next week is THE position that I am seeking,
it will be a good practice run at getting back into the interview mode. I
thirty minutes to do this presentation in, so I can't go into a lot of
but nonetheles I want to "wow" them so that they offer me the job and then I
ecide if I want to turn it down or accept it.

I offer the following as evidence that my social life is in need of vast
improvement: It is currently 10:49 p.m. on a Friday night and I am at home
typing out this message to FoRK .... need I say more?

Thoughts on this topic can be posted to me personally or to the group if you
feel it is brilliant enough to share with all!


"Come, and take choice of all my library, / and so beguile thy sorrow."
-- Titus Andronicus [IV.i.34]