Teaching and Learning Forum 2000 [ Proceedings Contents ]

Information and communication technologies: The socio-economic transformation of tertiary education

Herb Thompson
School of Economics
Murdoch University
    This paper will analyse the socio-economic transformation of tertiary education based on information and communication technologies (ICT) over the past five years. A background will thereby be provided for a synopsis of potentialities of this continuing transformation for the next few years.
    • Will the "change managers" continue, as they have in the recent past, the corporatisation and commercialisation of knowledge, following the dictates of budgetary pressures?
    • Will the "change managers" collaborate with students and academics to leverage intellectual capital with information and communication technology (ICT) to prepare for the future together?
    • Will academics and students actively take control of the capacious potentiality of ICT for teaching/learning or leave it to the "change managers"?
    Technology is beginning to blur the line even further between good business and good education.

    For instance, the University of Colorado assumes the copyright to online courses, sharing profits with the producers and distributors (academics) of those products. Colorado professors choose to teach online by signing "work for hire" contracts. The contracts specifically prevent them, without express permission, from using the online version of the course in class lectures, consulting work or at other institutions. If the online course is sold, the professor receives 10% to 15% of the profit. The actual management and packaging of online courses for the University is handled by a private global firm, "Ecollege" http://www.ecollege.com/


    Collaborative participatory planning at the Metro State College in Denver, Colorado, USA has resulted in one of the fastest growing and appealing "online institutions" in the USA. Beginning in 1996 with 30 courses and 420 students, it has grown to 2,100 students in 87 courses fully taught online via computer mediated communication.


    In 1997, the staff of York University, Canada, carried out an historic two month strike and secured formal contractual protection against "change management" control over ICT. The student handbook now contains a warning about the dangers of online education.

    These descriptive examples provide the parameters for the analytical content to be provided in the paper.

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There are a number of forces driving the transformation towards a knowledge based set of integrated economies. The growing role of information and communications technologies, a continuing shift towards services, and the inter-weaving of markets and social formations are just some of the key ones [Pilat 1998: 5].

The transformation of particular concern in this paper is based on the growing role of information and communication technologies (ICT) in tertiary education. To engage this issue, three constituents are highlighted:

  1. Change at the level of production structures and the interrelations between universities and between universities and business. The production structures are subdivided within universities and businesses into the production of knowledge, information, or training, and the production of credentialled graduates.

  2. Change at the level of the social relations of production between 'change managers' and academic staff. The social relations are of production are subdivided with the university in productivity increasing arrangements and quality of service developments.

  3. Change at the level of the social relations of distribution between academic staff and students in the teacher/learner/artefact interface. The social relations of distribution for the teacher/learner/artefact interface are subdivided into behaviourism and constructivism as epistemological principles of what it is to know, teach and to learn [Cunningham, et.al. 1993].
The paper proceeds as follows. In the following section some of the ways in which tertiary education and universities, as institutions, are being transformed by ICT technologies is identified. This is followed by a section tracing the effects of this transformation on "productivity" arrangements and pursuits in academia. Finally, pedagogical insights as functionally dichotomised by the author are put forward as methods which are capable of absorbing either the best or the worst of transformative technologies and productivity arrangements.

ICT and university structures

Computer mediation of knowledge production and consumption is proliferating rapidly at all levels of education. 'Knowledge for profit' is being seriously assessed, and pursued globally, by the managers of public and private tertiary institutions. A growing number of universities and other educational institutions are offering degree programs which can be produced and distributed, in their entirety, via the Internet (Virtual University, Jones International University, Metro State College or the University of British Columbia). Digital libraries exist for data sharing (the University of Phoenix), collaborative research and group conferencing [Rudich 1998: 23], and administrative procedures are being electronically modified such as Western Governor's University, which separates the electronic processing of assessment procedures from the academic provision of education [Coaldrake and Stedman 1999: 7-8].

Corporations also are turning to computer based training for the provision of everything from company regulations, to health and safety compliance, or to factory operations (IBM, Lucent Technologies and Microsoft). Estimates suggest that upwards of $1.5 billion in annual sales will be generated by the corporate web based training industry by the year 2000. "Employees can be trained at their desktops no matter where they're based, without incurring travel, hotel and meal costs, and there's no lost productivity from the time spent travelling" [Rothfeder 1998: 34]. Of concern to 'frontline' tertiary institutions, leading the way in the use of ICT technologies, these same corporations are moving into areas of continuing education that directly intersect with vocational degree programs (e.g., information systems and technology as well as business), that is, those components of teaching/learning which promise increases in the present discounted value of a future stream of earnings.

Academics involved in the production and distribution of services with the rapidly burgeoning ICT technologies, are quickly discovering the weighty time required to electronically create, maintain and update high quality teaching/learning materials (In 1997, the staff of York University, Canada, carried out an historic two month strike and secured formal contractual protection against "change management" control over ICT which implied a significant increase in staff workloads). Furthermore, this new medium not only requires time consuming preparation of materials for delivery, but also demands the intensive re-engineering, re-structuring and re-designing of face to face (FTF), as well as traditional distance education, methods of teaching/learning [Neumann 1998: 136-137].

Newly corporatised employees of the public university are being pushed to identify with, and follow the 'demands of the marketplace', to upgrade their skills, to become more entrepreneurial, literally to sell both their courses as well as themselves. The electronic transmission of knowledge has set off waves of competition between universities, between businesses, and between universities and businesses, to reduce transactions costs, to cut labour costs, to increase the number of fee paying students, and to restructure the manner in which knowledge and credentials are delivered. In other words, electronic commerce has arrived in tertiary education, and is becoming more explicit as a factor in decision making.

Presently, for purposes of knowledge production, ICT is less a substitute for the 'human factor' than a complement [Castells 1996: 397]. While the evidence already exists at places such as the University of Colorado that promote "work for hire" contracts for both the production and the separate delivery of online courses, there is little reason, or available evidence, to refute the proposition that FTF interaction can be, and should be, greatly enhanced with the use of ICT inputs throughout undergraduate education regimes. Summarily, it is possible to take an optimistic view of the role of ICT in tertiary education, while remaining cautious, and keeping a keen eye on the administrative emphasis being placed on the efficiencies of credential output. It is not only the question of 'efficiency' which is driving the administrative approach to ICT in universities. Institutional irrelevancy is seen by some as a much greater risk [Hamel and Sampler 1998: 80].

Knowledge and information processing ICT will reach substantial proportions of the population in the industrialised world in the very near future. Some ICT will be incorporated into the efficient provision of client directed credentials. The University of Phoenix, presently one of the most rapidly growing postgraduate tertiary institutions in the United States has one group responsible for the production side of ICT curriculum design, and another for the ICT delivery of teaching. Staff are contracted to develop or deliver standardised curricula. With this division of labour, the university is able to avoid what it considers to be the overhead cost of research, which is not seen as central to its mission [Coaldrake and Stedman 1999: 8]. Some ICT promote the production of knowledge and will be used to enhance the quality of teaching/learning, of which there is an exponential increase in the available examples [See the World Lecture Hall http://www.utexas.edu/world/lecture/index.html].

Education through ICT involves combining computers, the Internet, educational software, software tools for design and production of HTML pages, and a re-examination of pedagogical and andragogical philosophy and methodology. ICT tools and processes are dramatically changing the relationship between teachers/learners, and will continue to do so in ways that we cannot yet imagine. Whether or not this is for the better or worse depends on whether we are simply talking about more efficiently produced credentials or the qualitative enhancement of knowledge. If we view ICT as simply another way to push stuff at students, we are choosing to become irrelevant academically. As Herbert Simon noted: "a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention" [cited in Shapiro and Varian 1999: 6]. From a knowledge perspective, for quality purposes, ICT must be primarily about interactivity - pulling from the WWW whatever is of interest, leaving behind that which isn't, and engaging others on discussion forums, listservs and bulletin boards.

This is another lesson for universities and teachers who continue to use FTF solely to push information. They are no longer the sole, or even the most conveniently accessed, repositories. We must not be seduced by the apparently effortless gathering of information that ICT makes possible, thereby discounting the labour intensive transaction costs of turning information into knowledge, and knowledge into wisdom [Harris 1987: 395].

Differentiation of the educational product of the academy is now either based on infotainment, or deep Socratic dialogue perspectives, available in FTF interaction. Both FTF and ICT must be combined to capture the attention of learners with different wants, needs, constraints, and who are located in different geographical and social circumstances [Shapiro and Varian 1999: 45-53]. If tertiary institutions simply attempt to compete with the private corporate world supplying efficiently produced information for purposes of credentialism then one of two things will occur. Either academic life will be bifurcated into the production of ICT material and its monitoring and assessment on contract, with the goal of maximising the output of credentialled students; or universities will be marginalised and limited in what they can do by more efficiently run corporate enterprises in the marketplace. Alternatively, if FTF and ICT is combined with the necessary resource allocation to enhance the teaching/learning process, then those teachers/students for whom knowledge is important, in a non-instrumental fashion, will gain substantially.

ICT and "academic productivity"

Student demands have shifted over the past two decades. Beginning in the 1960s and continuing until the early 1980s, student demands were often about taking part in university governance and influencing curriculum. Students in the 1990s, partially one might assume due to the increased cost of university education, appear more concerned about flexibility and convenience, the quality of teaching, ensuring the status and quality of their awards, obtaining more attention and feedback from staff, and having access to high quality facilities[Coaldrake and Stedman 1999: 5].

ICT has the potential to enhance the quality of teaching/learning while promoting more flexibility, in response to the demands. What university management knows as well is that the same tools can also be used to boost academic productivity, quality being more difficult to measure. The constant in both of these perspectives is that changes in the way academics work, what they teach, and how they teach/learn will be continuous, possibly opaque, but unrelenting. And the result will be the continuing transformation of tertiary education over the next few years. The questions are begged: What will be compromised by substituting ICT based programs for traditional classrooms? How will the acquisition of capital intensive ICT be afforded? Will ICT be used to fund its own growth through fees, charges and cross-subsidies? Will technologies be substituted for labour or will labour be used more intensively to provide for use of the technologies.

ICT provides for economies of scale where the marginal cost of each additional student declines, albeit following a huge investment in time and resources for "start up" costs. Furthermore, the provision of information after heavy investment in "search costs", usually the responsibility of the academic, is capacious. We are effectively talking here about a medium that provides the benefit of a common property resource wherein no single individual can put more in than they can take out. This allows the individual staff, and the institution, to customise information and knowledge production for individual differences in student goals, learning styles, and abilities, while, simultaneously, providing improved convenience for both students and staff on an "any time, any place" basis [Resmer, et.al 1995]. This is equivalent to moving away from a type of "handicraft mode of production" typical of university teaching to date with a teaching/learning revolution [Massy and Zemsky 1996]. Not only will the sense of place and purpose of the individual academic be at stake, but so will the institutional positioning of groups and institutions within the university, such as the library, become more problematic.

To the present, an entire ceremonial structure has been built up around academics with the illusion that they were in control of their classes and course material. Norms relating to teaching methods and styles, academic freedom, autonomy in the classroom, teaching loads and their measurement, and class size have all been issues of definition, delineation and struggle in the past. Along comes ICT and the academic must move, almost overnight, from this vision of autonomy to one of collaboration, or even dependence, with instructional designers, graphic designers, web designers, teaching and learning centres issuing dictums about "constructivism", and technicians filtering out their websites; not to mention quality control guidelines, 'netiquette' or software and hardware dependence. Work for hire and contracting out replace notions of tenure. And standing in front of a classroom delivering information for so many hours per week becomes an inadequate, almost fatuous, measurement of workload.

Resource based teaching involves significant preparation and shifts the focus of academic time from designated FTF contact hours to more distributed patterns of activities. These can include responding to emails or hosting online discussions outside usual work hours. The shift is from the transmission of information towards the management and facilitation of student learning. We must begin to "account for effort in teaching by means other than how long a student sits in a classroom" [Plater 1995]. Whatever subjective notion of productivity has been constructed over time now appears quaint in light of ICT changes within the last five years.

For traditional universities, where teaching/learning remains solely based on FTF, the process of reducing the average costs of producing and distributing knowledge has been for the past decade, and remains today, focused on reducing unit costs of production. Since labour is the major variable cost in tertiary institutions, this has the consequence of increasing workloads, either in terms of increased contact hours and/or increasing the number of students per contact hour. If ICT is to be used to enhance the quality of teaching/learning it is most likely that time spent interacting electronically with students will increase. Will this replace the time and much of the effort that previously went into locating, filtering, and transmitting information to the student?

For much of the past decade, academics have primarily been doing more with less. This includes teaching more students, more hours during the week, with higher levels of quality control, while being provided with comparatively less pay, fewer resources, and increased appraisal standards. The danger of ICT, of which most academics are completely aware, is that a new mode of delivery, via a new medium, is now being added onto what they are already required to accomplish. Instead of buying time for reflection and analysis with the increasingly efficient technologies, they know that "change managers" will continually find new ways to sell what they do in overlapping parcels [Acker 1999]. This, one should not be surprised to discover, puts academics under extreme pressure to respond individually by doing less with more (e.g., using the Web improperly by simply uploading lecture notes as a adjunct to internal lectures and tutorials, or avoiding the situation altogether and instead, choosing to do less with less (ie., refusing to become familiar with, or utilise, new forms of ICT). The resolution of the conundrum is obvious but easier said than done. Failure to find a way to do more with less without reducing enhancing the quality of teaching/learning will allow management to continue the more with more scenario even though that will undoubtedly lead to the undermining of educational quality in the long term.

More attention must be given by academics to the processes by which teaching and learning actually take place via ICT. Unfortunately, more time and energy will have to be invested in learning about what they do and why they do it, opening themselves to the possibility of doing things differently. Departments, Schools and Divisions will have to understand teaching/learning costs and benefits at the level of specific activities, not simply in broad functional terms. Activity based costing becomes critical when one considers substituting one process element for another. Academics may be able to judge technology's impact on the quality of their own output, but such information cannot produce decisions at management level without good data on relative costs [Massy and Zemsky].

ICT and teaching/learning


To simplify, there remains, when approaching the teaching/learning process within tertiary education, the bifurcation between the philosophies and methodologies of behaviourism and constructivism. With reference to the disciplines with which I am most familiar, both forms are utilised with varying degrees of ignorance and success.

By and large the teaching/learning tradition with which most academics have become accustomed could be defined within the parameters of behaviourism. Implicit in this view of learning, according to Atkins [1993:253-254] is operant conditioning in which the instruction itself is responsible for, and directly related to, prescribed learning outcomes. The learner benefits from review and practice opportunities, combined with feedback on relative performance against explicit criteria. Knowledge is viewed from a 'positivist' perspective as objective and universal (independent of context and culture, such as the "maximisation" hypotheses in Economics). Within constraint, it is possible to generalise and abstract knowledge and skills in order to communicate them deductively (apriori assumptions with respect to 'rationality' abound). Knowledge units are seen as having structure which can be analysed (whether for research or teaching, notions of 'macro' and 'micro' knowledge persist). Skills dissected into sub-skills which can be isolated and identified (e.g., models and tests for allocative efficiency, consumer behaviour, linear programming, or theories of the firm all make up the sub-skills within 'micro-economics'. This makes the acquisition of both empirical and theoretical knowledge and skills capable of being pursued developmentally, with authority and clear understanding by teachers/learners.

The textbooks and instructional design of both theory and applied courses are based on discrete instructional steps based on rules, categories, principles, formulae or definitions followed by positive examples including negative implications to establish conceptual boundaries. The learning activities are then sequenced, and repeated, for increasing difficulty or complexity (Introduction to Economics --> Micro and Macro Economics II --> Micro and Macro Economics III --> Advanced Micro and Macro Economics --> Policies and Problems in Micro and Macro Economics, ad infinitum). The sequencing of the material is out of the hands of the learner, although there is frequent review, as well as the provision of remedial loops, via the more applied courses. Performance standards required are made quite explicit with 'feedback' as to the achievement of these standards deemed an important part of the teaching/learning process.

Implicit in the behaviourist perspective is that the correspondences between these teaching/learning processes and the requirements of one form of ICT can be shown to be quite lucid. The process of behaviourist teaching/learning is linear and serial, follows a strict if-then logic, and can be simulated dynamically. For large groups of students (between 250 and 500 per class) the data manipulating capacity of ICT makes it easy to facilitate the management of students through the manipulation and storage of PowerPoint presentations, large numbers of workshop questions, test types and questions and marking exams. Reinforcement messages, as well as feedback, can also be pre-programmed. In this sense the raison d'etre of academia itself is satisfied, ie., the efficiency of information distribution and credential allocation is maximised.

Carlson and Falk [1989] argue that there is sufficient evidence to show that learning can be efficiently accomplished by use of "behaviourist" characteristics. A structured, deductive approach to the design of multimedia applications can lead, as intended, to rapid acquisition of basic concepts, skills, and factual information within a clear framework. However, the effectiveness for higher order learning tasks or for socially collaborative learning is more problematic, to say the least.


Constructivist theories offer a radically different explanation of learning as a qualitative process of improvement in the range and nature of the activities about which teachers/learners collaborate. The information push notions embedded in behaviourism where the instructor becomes the transmitter of facts and principles is transformed into facilitating, negotiating and sharing understandings [Van Oers 1990; Vygotsky 1978]. The learner is encouraged to re-invent knowledge and discover its properties through cooperative analysis, interaction, collaboration and communication with others. This is more likely to be found at upper levels of course material, which by its very nature becomes more critical, analytical or problematic.

From the constructivist perspective knowledge is not objectively given but something that is socially constructed and contextually and historically mutable [Atkins 1993: 259]. The point is not to search for the correct answer, but to become aware of the difficulties of there being a universally correct answer. In other words, apriori suppositions are viewed with more suspicion or, at the very least, explicitly put forward as an issue of bias. Creativity, analytical ability and imagination in identifying the questions rather than discovering the correct answers is the priority.

The learner is given more freedom, or even required, to personally engage the material; to bring experiential understanding to the fore to be tested with other teacher/learners. Comparing and contrasting situations, events or responses to problems is developed dialectically. Analysis, synthesis, holistic summaries and identifying the many paths to problem solving is invited and explored. During the term of a course the teacher/learners spend time together building up their collaborative hypotheses, explanations, definitions, categories, rules, etc, through study of examples and reflection on their own (surrogate) experiences. As is evident, the approach is more open ended, less oriented to discrete problem solving and information absorbing than the behaviourist. Because of this, the level of discomfort may dramatically increase for teachers/learners as compared to the comfort zones of the linear, discrete completion of tasks represented by the behaviourist approach; and therefore, very different instructional design and teaching/learning philosophy must be developed.

While the behaviourist is focusing on testing, comparative measurement in assignment results, answering questions and providing information, the only test of learning within the constructivist domain may be the recognition of some qualitative, but quantitatively unmeasurable change in personal and socially agreed upon understanding [Cunningham 1991].

ICT is particularly adaptable to this type of constructivist approach [Ekeblad 1998]. In fact, for higher levels of learning it is most appropriate. The artefacts of ICT, particularly computer mediated learning, incorporates new and exciting dimensions into teaching/learning beyond first year, in the form of hypertext and discussion fora. If therefore, the computer is viewed as more than a tool and rather, a part of the collaborative, creative, imaginative process, constructivism is able to go beyond human interaction and become part of a teacher/learner/technology interaction.

Conclusion and summary

The points to be contested herein are the direction of the institutions vis-a-vis credentialism and knowledge enhancement; increasing quantitatively measurable productivity or quality enhancement, and the more theoretical one of behaviourism vs. constructivism. One tentative conclusion is that the thorny questions involved in teaching/learning theory are presently not as crucial as the direction of the institutional structure. In context, both behaviourism and constructivism are seen to have usability in enhancing the production of quality knowledge, given institutional constraints placed upon academic staff. In fact, the struggle by and amongst academic staff between the Scylla of declining resources and Charybdis of teaching/learning creatively without sufficient time, proper resources, or assistance with staff development moves the issue of teaching/learning methodology and philosophy to a second level of priorities on most tertiary campuses [Twigg 1994].

Both behaviourism and constructivism use devices to arouse, attract and focus attention. Both force learner engagement through interactive decision making points in the material and give importance to intrinsic feedback. And both value meaningful learning and the provision of realistic contexts by academic staff achieving what is possible for the students. ICT can be designed to transmit knowledge in the form of facts, rules and tests which allow no negotiation of meaning on the part of the learner or it can engage the teacher/learner in collaborative, shared responsibility for creative, imaginative, adaptive knowledge.

The historic debate between behaviourist and constructivist approaches to learning is ill served in the present climate of institutional change where the nature of the underlying technology offers the possibility of tertiary education being transformed from a knowledge based sector, to a set of credential disseminating institutions where quantifiable output indices overshadow a declining knowledge base. While continuing the fight for quality education under constraint, the educational debate amongst academics might be downplayed until the struggle against entrepreneurial credentialism has been won.


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Please cite as: Thompson, H. (2000). Information and communication technologies: The socio-economic transformation of tertiary education. In A. Herrmann and M.M. Kulski (Eds), Flexible Futures in Tertiary Teaching. Proceedings of the 9th Annual Teaching Learning Forum, 2-4 February 2000. Perth: Curtin University of Technology. http://lsn.curtin.edu.au/tlf/tlf2000/thompson.html

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