IT and the year 2020: 13 questions we are still asking

I recently came across an article(1) by Robert C. Heterick, Jr. and John Gehl written in the nineties and published in Educom Review, now known as EDUCAUSE Review, discussing what IT in education will look like in the year 2020. The article’s authors make some interesting statements and pretty astute observations. They refrained from the obvious discussions of that time period such as paper resources will no longer exist. They instead focused on the broad picture such as the larger impact of digitization efforts on society as a whole and adoptability of devices into the mass population. One key phrase that demonstrates this: “in the year 2020 the capability [“electronic data interchange”] will be global (geographically) and universal (unrestricted to transaction type).” Just six years away from 2020 as a society we have rapidly moved in that direction with the numerous platforms and applications available; we are communicating in a very global way.

We have widely available functionalities that do not bind us to specific software applications. We can create presentations, videos, and images online and via our smart devices — most of which are free to use. (The “cost” of releasing personal data is a subject for another time.) The Open Source movement is definitely an indication of a desire to move away from proprietary, enterprise based-solutions. One area that will be interesting to watch is open video formats such as .ogv (Ogg Vorbis is a audio compression format that is free, open, and not patented; for more information visit the Xiph open source community at The release and adoption of HTML5 makes utilization of these open source options easier. Of course, MOOCs are another trend people are watching very closely. Additionally, the Futures Lab at Reynolds Journalism Institute presents quick video reports on up and coming web-based tools.

Heterick and Gehl reiterate Donald A. Norman’s concept that technology is easy to predict but the social impact is much harder. Certainly by today’s standards, high social impact is one of the only ways a new technology can survive. With the idea of social impact in mind, the authors pose thirteen questions all educators need to consider when trying to plan for the future. What is so interesting about these questions is that we are still asking them and still seeking answers. In today’s stretched economic environment and the recent recession, they seem more relevant and important to ask than ever before. Some are easier to discuss and perhaps find an answer. If we are ever able to answer these question, does that ensure higher education will survive? Maybe. I think what is more important is that we never stop asking these questions and ensure we are asking them before crisis hits rather than during or after.

  1. What will it mean to “register” a student?
  2. What will it mean to “be” a student?
  3. What will credentials and degrees signify?
  4. What will a course of study look like, and who will design it?
  5. Will there be any difference at all between distance learning and traditional education?
  6. Will the distinction between individual effort and collaborative effort be different in 2020 from what it is now?
  7. What will it mean to be “published”?
  8. What will the difference be between a faculty member and an author?
  9. What will the difference be between an author and a publisher?
  10. How will the costs of higher education be apportioned among the state, the federal government, philanthropy, and the student?
  11. What will be the role of the residential campus? What percentage of students in higher education will be seeking a first degree versus continuing education?
  12. Will the calendar of 50-minute classes, 16-week semesters, summer breaks, and so forth continue?
  13. Will the hierarchy of research, comprehensive, liberal arts, and two-year institutions make sense?

Within the structures of higher education and the student experience, a universal experience or one that is unrestricted to transaction type is still a challenge. Students often struggle with navigating the multiple requirement lists to obtain a degree. Transferring to another school can mean adding 1, 2, or more years. The implications of which are not only time but monetary. As educators we are talking about many things to enhance the student experience — effective teaching strategies, developing quality assessments, implementing  programs like writing across the curriculum. Certainly, the discussions about what it means to be a professor – published, tenured, etc. – is quite active. Many departments struggle with trying to recognize achievement within the new ways we are communicating, creating, and connecting. As I sit in numerous campus meetings, I am not sure we are any closer to being able to effectively answer those thirteen questions. I do know we can’t depend on any one person to find the answers; we have work together to determine what works within our own institutions.

1. Heterick, R., & Gehl, J. (1995). Information technology and the year 2020. Educom Review, 30(1), 22.

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