The Impact of Information Technology on Education in the 21st Century

© 2001--Loretta F. Kasper, Ph.D.

What will education, especially higher education, be like in the 21st century? How will information technology impact the delivery of instruction in the next millennium?

The student population in higher education is changing. The dynamic state of technological development has made perpetual (or lifelong) learning a necessity. For this reason, more and more adults are returning to school to learn new skills or expand the skills they already have. This, according to John Chambers of CISCO Systems, will make "education the next big killer application over the Internet" (Friedman, 1999). Rodney L. Everhart, President of SCI Education Solutions and former President of LEXIS-NEXIS Information Services, agrees. He predicts that within the next 10 years, "the number of learning hours will double due to the growing number of adult learners" (Morrison, 1999).

According to a recent article in The New York Times, the increasing number of adults returning to school is the result of "demands on companies, in an intensely competitive global economy, to keep improving productivity." Everhart believes that this dramatic increase in the student population may force most educational institutions to deliver at least half of all instruction online. Offering traditional on-campus courses to a burgeoning student population would require doubling the number of campuses, classrooms, and professors. This would lead to excessive costs and a critical shortage of instructional personnel. Further Chambers insists that properly designed and implemented online courses "provide faster learning, at lower costs, with more accountability, thereby enabling both companies and schools to keep up with [rapid] changes in the global economy." Both Everhart and Chambers agree that educational institutions cannot ignore the move to online instruction if they hope to attract and keep students in the future.

However, in contrast to Chambers and Everhart, who both champion a widespread adoption of online course formats, Greg Bothun, a professor of Physics at the University of Oregon, disagrees (Bothun, 1999). He cautions that educational institutions must resist the temptation to "become more entrepreneurial in their approach to education;" they must not succumb to issues of cost and gain. Bothun advises that in our zeal to adopt new online methods of instruction, we must remember that information and knowledge are not the same thing. Although Bothun agrees that the use of information technology in instruction does provide the context for inquiry-based and collaborative learning, he states that IT is only a tool. How we use IT in instruction will determine whether the result is improved learning that actively engages students in knowledge construction and builds the skills critical for their success in both academic and workforce environments, or a "course-in-the-box" approach whose primary goal is to deliver course material to large information-oriented classes.

Meeting the needs of a changing student population will require not only greater flexibility in the delivery format, but also greater attention to the design of courses. In particular the design of web-based courses must adhere to sound pedagogical principles. Issues such as sustainable content management, sound pedagogical strategies, and learner support should be foremost in the mind of designers of online courses. It is important to remember that information and knowledge are not the same thing. Although made possible by the hypermedia capabilities of the Internet, the use of more bandwidth intensive media does not necessarily promote a high level of instructional efficacy. Rather, strong, relevant content that is text-based appears to promote the highest instructional efficacy.

Media is useful in so far as it helps to enhance understanding of material, clarify concepts studied, and consolidate knowledge. Designers of web-based courses must remember that fancy media--complex graphics and animation--are no substitute for solid, concise content. Information technologies must be used that engage the learner with the media, and this engagement must occur in terms of stated learning objectives. Media should be used that allow the learner to interact with or self-discover underlying principles, models, and causal relationships that exist in the subject area under study.

Everhart predicts that in the future all classrooms will have multimedia delivery access available to allow students and instructors access to the Internet. This access will make it possible for the virtual and physical classrooms to mesh to create an alternative course format of "connected learning" that will combine the best of both worlds. The changing modes of instructional delivery will demand that courses be designed to provide for greater student-student and student-teacher interactivity. As more and more courses move from the physical F2F classroom to the "connected" or virtual classroom, students will need to assume more responsibility for their own learning. They will need to become independent learners, able to think and figure things out for themselves.

Information technologies make it possible to tailor the content and delivery of instruction to the needs of individual students. The result is that individual differences in learning styles and preferences can be better accommodated. In the future, students will be able to choose the instructional format appropriate to their level of knowledge. They will have the option of taking F2F, mixed, or online courses based upon their level of knowledge in a given subject area. The traditional 12-15 week semester will likely become a thing of the past as colleges adjust their schedules to better fit those of a changing student population.

The technologies that will play a role in the classrooms of the future are many and varied. The Internet will not replace "traditional media," i.e., television, radio, film, and print. Rather Internet technologies will enhance and expand information gathered through other media. Moreover, in the future we will likely see the integration of each of these media in new and more powerful applications. Everhart predicts that as Internet 2 becomes more widely available, its greater bandwidth will facilitate videoconferencing and reduce its costs. However, he believes that since technologies like real time videoconferencing require instructors and students to be in a specific place at a specific time, they do not provide the flexibility that many students will demand.

For this reason, asynchronous technologies will likely form the backbone of many connected and virtual classrooms. Tools that allow for extended threaded discussion will be used more extensively to promote a high level of student-student and student-teacher interactivity. Collaborative learning, promoting the principles of constructivist theory will likely predominate in the higher education classroom of the future. Students will work together to construct knowledge. As the power of the Internet as an informational (re)source becomes more widely available, students will use its vast information databases to acquire and expand knowledge. In the process, students will develop skills critical to lifelong learning--they will become knowledge gatherers, knowledge receivers, and knowledge transmitters.

Because effective use of the Internet as a source of information requires strong critical literacy skills, instructors in all disciplines will need to incorporate activities that target these skills. In this way, students will learn how to determine the validity and reliability of information they find on the Internet. Developing strong critical literacy skills will also help students evaluate information received through other media.

Reading hypertext, for example, helps students develop critical literacy and critical thinking skills. Internet hypertext has already made print a more valuable informational source. Hyperlinks provide students with immediate access to a variety of primary sources of information. Access to primary sources means that students do not need to rely on someone else's interpretation of the information. Having access to that information in its original form enables students to form their own interpretations and draw their own conclusions. As students read hypertext and follow each new link, they are taken to new and different texts. These texts may provide them with additional information and even more links to other new primary sources of information. While it is true that students need to be careful not to drown in this sea of information, it is also true that the variety of information available on the Internet exposes them to a multitude of perspectives, which they may then interpret and evaluate from their own point of view.

The Internet also offers an instructional environment in which assessment may be easily integrated into the learning process. Interactive "quizzes" can be designed that provide students' immediate feedback on the progress of their learning while they are engaged in the very process of that learning. Through Internet technology, the feedback generated by students' response choices can be designed to provide insight into not only how much the learner knows, but also the way in which s/he is conceptualizing the material. This makes assessment a much more powerful tool that can be used to improve, not just to evaluate the progress of learning.

Finally, to assure that Internet technology is used to its best educational advantage, teachers must be trained in the most effective ways to use it. They must learn how to transfer their courses to an online environment, in the process remaining faithful to sound pedagogy and well thought out curricular goals. To do this teachers must be trained to use information technology. They must learn how to design activities for a web-based environment. They should learn how to construct educationally useful web pages. They should learn how to use hypermedia to promote educational goals. Like their students, the teachers of the 21st century will need to become lifelong learners to keep up with developing technology and its expanding uses in instruction.


Bothun, G. (1999). Cyberprof: The university in the next millennium. Educom Review, 34(5). [Online]. [Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 1, 1999].

Friedman, T. L. (17 November 1999). Next, it's E-ducation. New York Times (Op-Ed). [Online]. [Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 17, 1999].

Morrison, J. L. (1999). Higher education in 2010: An interview with Rodney L. Everhart. Technology Source, (November/December). [Online]. [Retrieved from the World Wide Web on November 2, 1999].

Comprehension Questions

Directions: Based on what you have read in the article, write an answer to each of the following questions.  Be sure to use your own words in your answers.

  1. Why are more adults returning to school to learn new skills?


  1. Explain what John Chambers means when he calls education “the next big killer application over the Internet.”


  1. What will be the result of the dramatic increase in the student population?


  1. What would happen if schools decided to keep doing things in a traditional way?


  1. According to Chambers, what benefits can well-designed online courses offer schools?


  1. Chambers and Everhart both believe that it is necessary for schools to institute online courses. Explain why.


  1. What potential danger does Greg Bothun see in online education?


  1. Compare Bothun’s view of online education to the views of Chambers and Everhart.


  1. Explain the statement, “In particular, the design of web-based courses must adhere to sound pedagogical principles.” What are the sound pedagogical principles that must be adhered to?


  1. What types of materials and teaching methods seem to produce the best learning?


  1. According to Everhart, what will the classrooms of the 21st century probably look like?


  1. The article says that, “Information technologies make it possible to tailor the content and delivery of instruction to the needs of individual students.”  Why is this so important?  How does it help the teachers teach and the students learn?


  1. Why will asynchronous technologies play such an important role in the 21st century classroom?


  1. Based on what you have read in the article, explain the principles of the constructivist theory of education.


  1. Explain the term “critical literacy” as it is defined in the article.


  1. What is the advantage of having easy access to a wide range of “primary sources of information”?


  1. How does the Internet make skills assessment more efficient and more reliable?


  1. How must teachers change as a result of information technology and its impact on education?



Essay Topic


Research recent developments in online or distance education. Search the Internet to find information on colleges and the online courses they offer. Choose 2 different online courses and evaluate them, comparing and contrasting how well you think they fit the goals described in this article.


Posted to the Web on March 21, 2001