This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 21 Number 4 1998. The copyright is by EDUCAUSE. See for additional copyright information.

The Challenge of the NLII
by Carole Barone

With the realization that the 21st century brings with it a set of social issues related to education, the mission of higher education is expanding to provide access irrespective of life circumstances, e.g., age, employment status, geography, culture, ethnicity, family responsibilities. Access takes a number of forms, from physical access to the course material, via the Internet or a learning device, to intellectual access in a neutral, non-judgmental context. Faculty increasingly are turning to information technology to enable the development of a pedagogy that nurtures the learning process among this diverse student body, whether in a residential campus setting or distributed to off-campus sites.

Individuals have pedagogical preferences

Like learning, teaching is highly individualized. Background and frame of reference influence what a teacher or learner does with the teaching tools. Once over the steep and frustrating learning curve, faculty members mold the technology to suit their individual pedagogical preferences and styles. As a consequence, the spread of courseware developed by faculty on our campuses has been far from viral.

Independent personalities who enjoy critical thinking gravitate to the professoriate. Had the fiscal resources of the higher education sector remained bountiful, and had the social issues associated with access, diversity, and educational currency not arisen, faculty could have continued, in the tradition of academic independence, to preserve the values associated with the traditional classroom lecture modality or to immerse themselves in the development of online courseware bearing their individual pedagogical signatures.

NLII promotes systemic change

The National Learning Infrastructure Initiative, an EDUCAUSE program (see, stems from the conviction that information technology could bring about systemic change in higher education by transforming teaching and learning. The NLII's Instructional Management System (IMS) project was conceived to build a framework of specifications, standards, and definitions around which products would be developed. Such products would enable faculty to execute efficient searches on the Internet for relevant courseware and quickly and easily to create, obtain, and tailor course modules to suit their individual curricular tastes and modes of expression. The IMS holds much promise as the key element of technical infrastructure required to transition gracefully to modalities for teaching and learning that address the issues of quality, access, and affordability.

The roles of faculty members and students will change in this new learning environment, as will the interchanges among faculty, students, administrators, vendors, and publishers. Familiar business models will no longer apply in the new form of commerce fostered by the Internet. Campus support services will consist largely of teams of faculty members, professionals with formal training in curriculum design and development, and information technologists in a collaboration that respects and values the critical scrutiny, special insights, and expertise that each contributes to the effort. The more fully engaged student, owing to the active learning facilitated by information technology, will bring a new assertiveness to the faculty/student relationship. Faculty members will move from a position of power and control to one requiring flexibility and spontaneity.

Consensus is critical

The classroom lecture and its concomitant social relationships are based on "technologies" that prevailed for centuries. At the point when it appears that information technology does indeed hold a meaningful and viable solution to some pressing social issues, its very power to alter social and business relations produces unease and skepticism among those who cherish the values associated with traditional pedagogical forms. It also contributes to the growing polarization between information technology organizations and the faculty on our campuses. The mission of the NLII encompasses projects that test the assumptions and expectations surrounding the transformational power of technology. The challenge of proponents and skeptics alike is to frame the issues to encourage, and indeed enable, dialog to occur in an environment in which consensus can develop.

Social implications are a challenge

There is a lot riding on the pedagogical outcomes of the NLII. Some among us view such transformation as essential to the future viability of higher education. However, the tool is not going to be the solution unless we address its social, economic, and policy implications in concert with the introduction of technology. The IMS, for example, would not be the first important feat of engineering to be ignored by a public that could not make it fit into its social and cultural value system.

The NLII recognizes that its broad mission is to address all of the contextual elements that must transition for information technology to have the profound positive effect envisioned by its founders. This is the challenge of the National Learning Infrastructure Initiative.

Carole Barone ([email protected]) is a vice president of EDUCAUSE. the table of contents

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