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Interpolating the Future

By Robert C. Heterick, Jr. and Carol A. Twigg
Educom Review, Vol. 32, No. 1, January/February 1997

Everyone seems to be talking about the virtual university these days. That it will eventually come to exist is generally agreed on by most folks.

The question on the minds of many is, what should their institutions do as a consequence and how should they go about creating their version of the virtual university?

Our thesis is simple. In times of major upheaval, we must learn to interpolate rather than extrapolate. Extrapolation looks at the past and assumes, in the words of the systems theorist Jerry Weinberg, that the future will be like the past, because in the past, the future was like the past. In most situations confronted by our organizations, this is a reasonable approach. However, when a revolution is brewing, such a focus on the past can be very misleading. Fueled by spectacular advances in computing and telecommunications, the virtual university appears to be one of those revolutions.

A better approach is to create a scenario of what you believe the operating climate for your organization is likely to be in the future and attempt to set a course based upon interpolating between where you are now and that future scenario. Such an interpolation will suggest courses of action that look very different than those derived from extrapolation. Let's consider a few examples of this distinction.

Ten years from now, there will be more than 25 million people registered for post-secondary learning experiences in the United States alone. The vast majority of them will not be pursuing a degree program; instead, they will be seeking to update their skills and knowledge base primarily in response to changes in the economy. The percentage of the population seeking the "undergraduate experience" will have decreased over the preceding decade, and the number of degree-granting, residential colleges will have stabilized at a number and size relatively consistent with the number of 18- to 22-year-olds. The non-traditional student will have become the norm and will represent the dog rather than the tail.

Extrapolation would suggest extending our campuses in time (like creating weekend colleges or life-long relationships with our alumni) and space (like building virtual catalogs out of existing degree programs and technology-mediated courses or establishing satellite student service centers). Interpolation suggests that new services (like online examinations to assess various kinds of student learning and credit "banks" that serve as transcript centers for the accumulated - and disaggregated - learning experiences of non-traditional students) will emerge to serve the dominant student population. Interpolation focuses us on those areas where we have competitive advantage, breaking down arbitrary geographical and political boundaries, retailing and/or wholesaling net-based learning modules in partnership with private industry.

Much of this change will be attributable to the nearly complete transition from an infrastructure based on analog technology to one rooted in silicon, based on the microprocessor, fiber optics and end-to-end digital networks. The ubiquity of networked information appliances coupled with broadband communications channels reaching nearly every home and business in the country will have made interaction with rich multimedia commonplace and ordinary.

Moore's Law - microprocessors will double in power and halve in cost every 18 months - will continue to hold true through the next decade. The entry level information appliance a decade from now will be 20 to 100 times more powerful than our current desktop personal computers, will cost about $500, and will connect to a network populated with hundreds of millions of other computational devices used daily by nearly a billion people around the world.

Extrapolation might suggest creating the virtual university by building on the successes of faculty-delivered, analog-TV-based distance education supplemented by computer-based conferencing and e-mail. Interpolation will convince us that network-delivered, computer-mediated, learning experiences will dominate post-secondary learning in the decades ahead. An interpolation view would have our institutions linking their on-campus digital infrastructure to the commercial Internet, creating new learning partnerships with strategic industry partners, and at least in the early stages, creating a market presence and market share in areas of natural competitive advantage.

Will most of the action in this domain come from new, private enterprises that will move aggressively to fill the void left as a consequence of higher education's choice not to, or inability to, redefine itself? Will higher education content itself with doing pretty much as it always has and restrict itself to the niche of residential instruction? Or will it seize the initiative and lead the way to the virtual university?

While interpolation runs some risk of overestimating the rate at which the future will arrive, it is a strategy that will bridge the chasm. Extrapolation will be a failed strategy because, in the words of an old Chinese proverb, it is impossible to cross a chasm with a thousand small steps. Tinkering at the margins is a strategy focusing on the past that is guaranteed to miss the sea change that is about to wash over higher education. 

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