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21st Century Teaching and Learning Patterns: What Will We See?

By Judith V. Boettcher

We have been looking at the millennium date for so long that it's easy to forget that we need to plan for the future beyond 2000. As we approach the end of the last academic year in this century, it is a good time to explore what might be ahead. Here, Judith Boettcher makes a few predictions for teaching and learning in higher education.

The time period for predictions is an important decision. If the time span is too short, the predictions can hardly qualify as they are in progress already. If the time span is too long, the predictions can get to be so outrageous that they might be easily discounted. A time span of seven years can be a good compromise-long enough so that we can be playfully optimistic and possibly totally impractical, yet short enough that planning is possible. And seven years is close enough that we ourselves will be impacted one way or another by what actually happens.

The Higher Education Enterprise and the Big Picture: Seven Predictions:

William Gibson, a science fiction writer says, "The Future is here; it is just not evenly distributed." This quote aptly describes both where the teaching and learning enterprise is today and how it will progress. We know that many groups within higher education are embracing new technologies while others hold back, some quite vigorously.

This perception of unevenness helps us to keep in mind that higher education will not change in a lock step progression. The "uneven distribution" of the future will be emphasized as institutions that declare a new context for teaching and learning move forward with astonishing speed. A few institutions will constitute the leading edge, and others will be more conservative and shy away from the newer environments, tools, and processes.

With the help of a few data points, I can offer seven predictions of significant events and changes in teaching and learning that I think we will all see in the early part of the next century. These predictions both suggest and anticipate where higher education might be by the year 2007.

Prediction One: A "Career University" Sector Will be in Place.

This prediction highlights the explosive growth in the entire education market and the need to respond to the new requirements of the information age workforce. This workforce needs to constantly increase their knowledge base and upgrade their skills to support their multiple career changes.

A new career university sector will emerge, focusing on the non-traditional degree, certification, and career professional areas. The institutions in this new career university sector will design customized and flexible programs to meet the knowledge requirements, as well as the learning style needs, of career professionals. A closely related development will be a new set of national and global partnerships that extend institutions' specialties around the world.

The signs for these changes are already quite apparent. Over the last 10-15 years we have seen the development of Motorola University, National Technological University, Jones International, and the new set of virtual universities associated with existing institutions-including Penn State's World Campus, Western Governors University, and the Southern Regional Educational Board.

Another major shift will be manifested in the credibility of the for-profit companies. Jones International University just received accreditation from North Central in March of this year for their bachelor's and master's programs in business communications. The University of Phoenix is also well known for its wide range of accredited programs.

These new career university institutions will have expertise at teaching and reaching career professionals with flexible life-style and focused content-packaged programs, and the role of technology will be to support efforts to reach such learners. Tuition costs will not be kept low, however, as many companies that send their students to these programs will subsidize the time and the cost of these programs.

Whereas most major universities have branches of their expertise reaching out to career professionals, these branches will probably become institutions in their own right, with strong links to the originating institutions. The best institutions for working professionals will probably be focused institutions, extending the expertise of their current institutional image and supported by the research and knowledge creation of the research faculty. We can see the beginnings of this with programs like the Harvard, Wharton, and Penn State Executive programs; Duke University's Global MBA, and others.

Higher education institutions that wish to provide career professional programs will begin with a focus that extends their current strengths and images. If these programs are successful, they may spin off entire portions of the university into a non-profit foundation or a for-profit institution.

Prediction Two: Most higher education institutions, perhaps 60 percent, will have teaching and learning management software systems linked to their back office administrative systems.

This prediction highlights the fact that our current teaching and learning support systems are still very traditional-unimpacted by most of the efficiencies that have transformed other service industries. This prediction is a prediction of dramatic change. Tools and systems for support of teaching and learning processes will become part of the critical mission infrastructure on higher education campuses, and they will be tightly integrated with current back office administrative systems. Today's Web course management tools will evolve into full-fledged systems for the management of teaching and learning, paving the way for the unbundling of the design, development, and delivery components of teaching. These software systems will bring the first major modernization of the work associated with the management and delivery of teaching and learning.

The administrative part of the higher education institutional infrastructure of the future is well underway. Many institutions recruit, admit, and screen students from afar. Students can register, pay bills, check on grades, and receive course and programmatic consulting, all online. Comprehensive campus services available online will continue their rapid evolution. Lines on campus are being replaced by queues on the phone or on the Web. Library resources and other learning content resources are being accessed online from students' homes and from wherever students are. Student consulting and faculty office hours are being replaced by asynchronous e-mail, synchronous chat, telephone, and video conferencing.

The new systems will directly impact the teaching and learning processes. The current teaching and learning tools-Web course management tools, student tracking and collaboration tools-will be enhanced, reducing the amount of time and skill needed to teach and manage learning online. These tools already have templates for different types of courses, collaboration tools for supporting different types of faculty and student interaction, and assessment applications for testing, tracking, and managing student learning.

These systems will help faculty, but also change faculty control. These systems will reduce the amount of preparation time for faculty, as the systems will "hold" content in more organized, accessible ways. Courses will be packaged and "owned" more easily, and they will be delivered in different ways.

Prediction Three: New career universities will focus on certifications, modular degrees, and skill sets.

This prediction highlights a shift of emphasis for many career professionals from a need for academic degrees to a focus on updating, certification, and skill sets. Web mastering, international communications, and the online MBA are all examples of these content areas. The degrees in such areas will be offered in flexible ways, including a modular degree approach, and be convenient, customized, and continuous.

The focus of the career universities will be on service to the career professionals. We already are seeing tremendous growth in degree and non degree opportunities with major components that are self-paced, such as self-testing that can be done anywhere and any time. These programs are often complemented by highly concentrated and "chunked" residential experiences that can be completed with just one or two weeks away from work. There will be semesters of varying lengths, and courses of all types and sizes, from self paced to cohort, from one credit to five. All will courses will shift to competency-based outcomes, and grading in the career universities will disappear.

Another strategy that institutions will develop is to "modularize" their degree programs. One expanding pharmacy program has already done this, enabling students to start a nine-semester program at any semester. Many of these programs have intensive launching or conference-like activities to help everyone get to know each other, and then use asynchronous communications for most of the program delivery. Interaction with expert faculty will become an expensive feature of these programs, however-both in terms of time and money.


The emphasis of another category of programs will be on updating and upgrading knowledge in a specific field, such as business, medicine, law, nursing, pharmacy, engineering, and education. The programs of the National Technological University are a prime example. Program content in the future will focus on updating of knowledge and skills, building perspectives, contextual problem solving, case studies, and networking.

Subscription alumni programs may proliferate. Institutions will design new ways of creating loyalty to their particular programs. Institutions may well offer subscriptions to an integrated set of learning opportunities. The subscription would include choices of a number of learning programs combined with access to large databases of content, special alerts, and networking with fellow students. Other institutions with strong ethical and value traditions may offer continued growth in non-work related programs and offerings.

Prediction Four: The link between courses and content for courses will be broken.

This includes a number of related predictions, all having to do with the ability of the Web and the Internet to package and offer content resources in varying sizes and depths in unlimited combinations. The major prediction is that the course as a unit of design and development will be weakened. Rather than course databases, there will be discipline databases of knowledge clusters focused on developing competencies. These knowledge clusters will have a set of core concepts and principles linked to both knowledge and problems for applying these principles.

Publishers are quickly moving now to build large databases of content on the Web, suitable as "adoptable" content in conjunction with regular textbooks. These databases of content will become a larger percentage of a course. Rather than a faculty member "re-developing" 40 to 60 percent of a course every semester, the faculty would only redevelop perhaps 30 to 40. The "adoptable" portion of a course will increase from an average of 30 to 60 percent, or more.

These databases of content could also become attractive portals for discipline knowledge. The trend for expert synchronous and asynchronous events is just getting underway. Each of the portals might become a Web channel for the learning and knowledge in those fields. These databases will be the same used by practicing professionals. As an example, we already have the Harvard Case Studies that are used by undergraduates, graduates, and learning professionals.

In some cases, publishers may spin off life-long learning businesses using their rich sources of content. Faculty now work for publishers as writers and editors; they may become faculty and discipline tutors. One company, CBT Systems, is doing something similar to this today. They offer self-paced high-end professional updating and certification tutorials and courses that come "packaged" with a mentor.

Prediction Five: Faculty work and roles will make a dramatic shift toward specialization.

Higher education teaching and learning today is in many respects a cottage industry. We have one person, the faculty member, doing a whole course, from soup to nuts. From the design and development of the course through the delivery of the course, the one, the only faculty member, does it all. And this same process of creating and building the course is done every semester, because every time we teach a course it is somewhat different than the last time we offered it. This is the model of the master craftsman.

With the proliferation of the new technologies for teaching and learning, teaching is becoming a more "technology-intensive" part of the faculty member's responsibilities. The demands on the role of the faculty will be increasing until specialization must be acknowledged and supported. Not every faculty member will do everything. Some faculty will focus on design and development of programs. Others will focus on the delivery portion or managing a number of tutors who manage the actual interaction with the students.

Some faculty who delight in the combination of development and delivery may well become teaching and learning "personalities" who specialize in the development of resources to be used by many others. These faculty personalities may stay at universities, or they may become stars of the for-profit content publishers or for-profit institutions. Again, some faculty may keep doing what they are now doing for some time to come; but the up-and-coming new cadre of faculty will be expected to have a command of how to teach online.

The changing roles and responsibilities of the faculty also mean that we will have to develop new policies about who-owns-what in the area of courses. Do faculty own the courses? Do the institutions own the courses? The best policies will acknowledge that courses are probably best jointly owned in today's environment. Much work remains to be done here.

Prediction Six: Students will be savvy consumers of educational services.

Over the coming years, students will become a formidable customer group. The expectations of students in the new career universities will be high. Students will expect efficient learning resources and access to quick-and-easy support for their learning needs. Courses-if there are courses-will need to be well designed, offering effective learning experiences with predictable outcomes in less time.

Many of these expectations will mirror the types of services that career professionals offer in their professions. They will be looking for similar types of services, customization, and responsiveness.

New services that focus as guides and channels for career education programs will emerge. Students will pick up and piece together certifications, skill sets, and knowledge sets.

Universities will want to design programs that support the career learner in achieving more than one goal while attending educational programs. Programs that support multiple career goals, including networking with other professionals, will be attractive. These programs may also combine vacation and other types of enjoyable networking experiences.

The majority of learning has always occurred outside the classroom; this will increase. This means that students will be learning more online, and therefore more at home, at hotels, in transit (cars, planes, and so forth) and conference facilities. Learning is moving off campus: to the home, the workplace, the field, or wherever the learner is.

Prediction Seven: The tools for teaching and learning will become as portable and ubiquitous as paper and books are today.

This highlights the need for constant monitoring and planning in the use of the technologies for teaching and learning. The decade of the 90s was the decade of the Web. The decade of the "aughts" will be the decade of mobile, portable, and wireless technologies that support teaching and learning anywhere and anytime.

The barriers for effective, one might say comfortable, virtual learning are coming down. Access to computing and to the Web will be virtually universal in another five years. But the basic economic model, that some will have more, will still be true. The good news is that basic computing power will be in the hands of all; the bad news is that it will be greater, more convenient, and more customizable for some than for others.

Further, I believe that the cost of access to content and information will grow to be an even more formidable challenge than issues of bandwidth and hardware. We will see a shift from the low cost of simple free Web access to the higher costs of accessing well-structured, easily-researched content. The digital library of today is not free; the digital library of the future will probably not be free either. Just as we have subscriptions to many sources of content, e.g., magazines, cable, newspapers, we will have subscriptions to many varied databases of content.

We have already seen multiple generations of software agents come and go. Maybe by the year 2007 we will have become accustomed to personal robots-in the form of personal digital assistants-who can help us remember our preferences, who we interact with frequently. They could anticipate the articles that we want to read, help to formulate the questions we might have, and provide guides, hints, and insights. The new mapping systems becoming available in cars provide just one specific example of specific personal assistants. These mapping systems are our own personal navigators; in the future more sophisticated applications will certainly be by our sides and at our service.

Moving On

Many of the predictions stated above are extrapolations of current trends. But, we know that we will also be surprised by new developments. The Web surprised us all! And what marvelous, fearful, and satisfying patterns of teaching and learning are emerging from that surprise! What other marvels are out there? Let's keep our eyes open.  

Copyright (c)1999 Syllabus Press Inc.


Revised June 4, 2006
Copyright Judith V. Boettcher, 1997-2010