Educational Entrepreneurship in the Internet Revolution

(Talk delivered at Middlebury University, January 8, 1997)

Robert Beard

Bucknell University



Introduction: What Revolution?

Bill Gates is right about one thing: a genuine revolution is in progress, a revolution in the means by which we shop, pay taxes, bank, operate businesses, interact with government and each other, entertain ourselves, store, retrieve and publish information, teach and learn. A wide array of time-consuming practical and intellectual activities will be taken over by networked computers in the new millennium and this conversion will determine to a large extent the character of the next century. It will also determine our character to an important extent and therefore deserves our full attention.

Because this is not a political or military revolution but a revolution in social intercourse, it will be possible to ignore it for a few years, as we did the coming of the automobile, the telephone, and television. But the analogies with coming of the automobile, telephone, and television are rather thin. Those changes in the way we interact moved slowly and were more evolutionary than revolutionary. The electronic revolution is proceeding at an unprecedented tempo, much more like that of larger, genuine revolutions.

To guarantee that every one here this afternoon understands the nature of this revolution, let me begin by recounting a few of the basic facts of the history of the 'Internet' or the 'web'. It was only in 1981 that Bitnet and Usenet went on line to make e-mail between government, universities, and corporations a reality. For twelve years prior to that Arpanet connected government offices with a few departments at universities. Just as it began to grow in 1975, the same year Bill Gates founded Microsoft; it was taken over by the Defense Department. This forced those interested in a worldwide network to come up with a new idea. The new idea was Bitnet. Bitnet's popularity surprised its inventors, who had not foreseen the necessity of e-mail. So, the Internet as a worldwide network of computers began only about 20 years ago; its growth has been stunning.

Even more remarkable has been the growth of that part of the Internet known as the World Wide Web. The first web browser appeared less than four years ago, in 1993. As of September 27, 1996, 611,860 individuals, organizations, and businesses have established a web presence, a web site. According to the most recent Harris Poll (November 1996) 35 million people in the US alone are now using the Internet at least intermittently. Business revenues from the web grew 43% in the third quarter of last year to $138 million (down from 87% in prior quarters). You can now examine, purchase and finance automobiles on the Internet; you can purchase wines, and if I get my order in by 11 PM, I can have virtually any piece of hardware or software delivered to my home in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania by 10 am the following morning. You can shop in the supermarket on the Internet; you can take courses on the Internet for college credit; you can pay your taxes by the Internet; you can buy and sell stocks and maintain your portfolio on the Internet. Of course, you can send letters with color graphics, motion pictures and sound on the Internet and find libraries of books which may be searched for any word or phrase in seconds.

The latest versions of the web browsers are, in fact, Internet browsers for they are capable of accessing everything on the Internet: formatted e-mail, voice mail, FTP and gopher sites, Usenet’s, and telephonic communications including teleconferencing. Not only has communication become faster and simpler, we now have access to amounts of information greater than ever before at a moment in human history when we are already overwhelmed by information. On the other hand, for the first time in our history, we have the instrument for providing and managing all the information we need or want. All this has come about in approximately two decades and the integration has taken only three years.

Another reason that this change in human relations is revolutionary is that it leads to the replacement of many of the traditional means of communications: regular mail, the telephone, television, radio, and much hard-copy publishing will ultimately be replaced by Internet communications. The mail and telephone will be replaced because the Internet allows sound and motion pictures to be transmitted via telephone or TV cable, or by microwave. The latest version of Real Audio now brings digitized classical music directly from the server at KING FM in Seattle over 28,000 baud modems. The only problem preventing all AM and FM radios from connecting directly to the Internet in stereo is the bandwidth of current telephone lines, a problem which will shortly be resolved. Digitized TV is now available and PC cards for receiving digitized or analog TV signals are already in many personal computers.

Hard copy publishing is already too expensive; the cost of paper, ink, presses, labor has skyrocketed since the paperback book was invented to reduce publication costs and make ideas more widely accessible. The Internet reduces publication costs so dramatically that its cannot be ignored. Moreover, there are many other disadvantages of printing not associated with electronic publishing: the lag time between writing and publication, the deterioration of paper stock, and the vulnerability of printed material to destruction by fire and water and to theft. Finally, the disadvantage of the immutability of the printed word is removed by electronic publishing. Electronically printed materials are easily edited and up-dated even after publication. Editorial boards will become all the readers of the published document after it is published and perfecting it will be perpetual process, not a state to be reached by an often arbitrary deadline.

All of the paperwork at universities will eventually evaporate. Applications will be done electronically, fees paid on the spot. Our catalogs and class schedules will eventually only be on line since, again, the savings in publication and mailing costs is enormous and are better applied to financial aid. The traditional card catalog has already vanished and several universities currently offer reserved reading on line. The IBM Digital Library system provides the basis for digitizing entire libraries right now. Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York has begun the process of scanning in all its public domain books into electronic files. The University of Virginia, Tufts University, the institutions involved in the Gutenburg Project, and dozens more institutions are scanning various special collections for on-line access. At the same time Bill Gates is developing a book-sized computer that will give readers the portability and ‘feel’ of a traditional book. Storing hard copy is not only expensive and subject to the disadvantages just mentioned, it also limits the number of simultaneous readers. Electronically published material may be read by millions of readers throughout the world simultaneously. Radical change is already taking place and it will not wane.

The Internet Revolution and Universities

The Internet revolution brings two questions to bear on universities and those of us in academia. First, how will these changes affect the academy, its mission and conduct? Second, how should universities and colleges react to these changes? Some of the effects of the shift in publishing are obvious from previous remarks. However, I think that the Internet revolution offers a wide range of opportunities for I would like to call ‘educational entrepreneurs’.

Changes in the Academy

Educational institutions will be changed by networked computers in the way they administer themselves, the way they teach, and the way they conduct and publish research. Catalogs, course guides, course schedules will all be on line and linked to each other. Catalogs, course guides, course schedules, and syllabuses will all be on line and linked to each other. The distinction between them will eventually vanish. Opening the university catalog you will be able to bring up the course syllabus, the instructor's homepage with his qualifications, schedule and e-mail address. Much if not all of the materials for the course will be built into the electronic syllabus: the readings, animated graphics, videos and sound bites—eventually, entire videos, and interactive exercises in which students cause things to happen and see the possible results. Courses will be enormously richer as a result.

Opening the university catalog you will be able to bring up the course syllabus, the instructor's homepage with his schedule and e-mail address. Every bit of information necessary to evaluate and select courses will be available around the clock every day of the year. The admissions page will contain an on-line application that may be filled out in complete privacy. Applicants will type or read in their credit card number to cover the application fee, attach the essay they previously dictated, and instantaneously submit the application. Receipt of the application will be immediately acknowledged with a personal video note from the admissions office. No paper, postage, typing, envelop-stuffing or -opening, or filing will be involved. No typing, since we will soon be moving from the keyboard- and mouse-driven commands to spoken commands. Savings will be significant and, hopefully, credited to student aid.

Courses will be taught from interactive on-line syllabuses. These syllabuses will contain everything current syllabuses contain but much more. They will contain a complete set of lecture notes, illustrations, interactive exercises, and examples for the course. They will contain hyperlinks to information in government bureaus, museums, universities, libraries, corporations, and private web sites around the world. They will contain a link to all reserved reading, which will be electronically stored so that every enrollee may read the same article whenever it fits their schedule rather than whenever a copy is free. But it does not stop here.

Interactive on-line syllabuses will also contain self-administered exercises and quizzes, so that students may test their knowledge of the concepts of each segment of the course before taking the examination that counts. Concepts, including foreign language vocabulary, will be tested by electronic flashcards. These present the students with the concept to define or the definition to identify with a name. They may work (or play) with these exercises until they are confident of their mastery. My experience with electronic flashcards has been that they allow the instructor to double the number of concepts and expect increased accuracy. If that experience is typical, much of the current failure in understanding concepts has been a problem hearing them explained once and guessing which ones will be included on the test. Students who are confident that they have mastered the complete range of concepts for which they are responsible and who can rehearse them as much as they please when they please can probably master three times as many concepts as they do currently.

Even the tests that count toward the grade will slowly move to the Internet. Tests will be taken under security conditions and the results e-mailed to the instructor. Students will not have a single date for an examination, but a broader 3-5 day period over which they may take it. They can then schedule all their quizzes and examinations so that none fall on the same day and so that study time may be optimized for each quiz or test. Look out--grades will go up again.

On-line interactive syllabuses will contain color graphics and photographs, motion pictures, and sounds of various sorts. Background jazz, entire symphonies for music and culture courses, foreign language conversations, animal calls, bird songs for biology--all will be part and parcel of the syllabus. The syllabus will hold the course together. Students will use it 24-hours a day, 7 days a week; professors will project it onto a flat screen behind him or her in the classroom so that the maps and illustrations studied by students will be identical to those used in class. Lecture notes and examples will also be projected; the blackboard, or better ‘smartboard’, will be reserved for the occasional addendum that occurs to the instructor during the course of a lecture, and whatever is written on the smartboard will captured and added to the on-line syllabus automatically for use thereafter. Listen closely to what I am saying: there will be virtually no note-taking in class, no time spent writing examples or outlines on the board or while students copy them down. All the time currently spent copying to and from the blackboard and jotting down the lectures of the instructor will be returned to the original activity of academy--conversations between experts and novices, conversations designed to teach the novices how to use the largesse of information in free-flowing thought.

Once the initial investment in on-line syllabuses has been made, academicians should find that they have more time to devote to their research. Here, again, however, research will be conducted quite differently. Of course, we have been applying the computer to the conduct of research for decades now. However, the advances in the conduct of research has not been matched by changes in how we store, retrieve, and distribute the results of our research. We publish it pretty much the way we always have: submit books and articles to a publisher, an editor and a couple of reviewers decided if its worth publishing, two years later the finished product appears, at which point selected reviewers critiques it in print. There are a few problems with this method.

First of all current publication procedures suffer from all the disadvantages of hard-copy publishing that I have already mentioned. The delay in distribution has become a particularly frustrating problem. But as the tempo of discovery continues to hasten, the immutable permanency of the printed page falls further and further out of step with the changeability and fluidity of knowledge. We know that evidence changes and accrues at a fierce pace and that by the publication date the evidence supporting the substance of our work in all probability will be materially eroded. Moreover, once in print, the only way we can change the content of a printed document by writing a new one.

Rather than the immutable permanency of hard-copy publishing, electronic publishing allows perpetual perfection. Even after an electronic publication appears, it may be edited daily in the light of criticism received, further research, new evidence arising; it is completed only when the author is totally satisfied with it--if he or she ever is. Many scholars will write only one e-book in their careers, adjusting and perfecting it until retirement rather than writing 4 or 5 books with overlapping content. Others will write as many as there are radically different facets of their career or radical shifts in their goals.

Rather than an editor and two reviewers deciding what should be read by the discipline, each author will decide what to publish and all the other members of the discipline will do the refereeing and reviewing simultaneously. Authors will revise their work in light of a much broader range of criticism and immediately update and republish it. Reputations will be totally dependent upon contribution to the discipline while all social prejudices will be removed from the publication process. Quality will be maintained by reputation which, in turn, will rest far more on actual contributions and less on clubbiness or affiliation.

Another interesting note. The various sections of any given scholar's book will be hyperlinked to related articles and books by other scholars around the world who have written on related topics. By opening an e-book on topic A you will effectively enter the library of all the literature on topic A, a library with side doors to all other topics related to topic A. Traipsing to the library and calling on interlibrary loan to run down leads will be reduced to searches in rare documents initially and ultimately it will be eliminated altogether.

The Academic Response: Internet Entrepreneurs

An implication of the changes both in teaching and research is that the Internet is a great equalizer, providing equal access to all the resources, which it offers. Whether you teach and conduct your research at a small college or a major graduate institution will be less significant once control of publication is shifted to the hands of authors. It may be the case that great teacher-scholars will gravitate to the traditionally prestigious institutions. However, being at a particular university will certainly be less important in the future since reputations will be made in cyberspace rather than physical space, by contributions more than by social gregariousness. Knowledge centers will be dispersed because journals and publishing houses will not be able to focus attention on a few, traditionally prestigious institutions. Both Bill Mitchell (1995) and Bill Gates (1996) have pointed out, democracy and equality are rampant in cyberspace: there is no race, no age, no gender distinctions. (In cyberspace, nobody knows I’m a dog.)

The equality of the Internet makes affiliation less important, providing an immense opportunity for small colleges and universities located in beautiful, tranquil settings. Being physically in a department with the best minds of a discipline is unimportant so long as you are connected to their websites and can communicate with those minds almost instantaneously via discipline-oriented listservs and e-mail. The prestige of the great institutions will eventually erode as prestige is redistributed among individuals rather than institutions. As physical identity becomes less importance, so will physical location.

Individuals will succeed in the Internet to the extent they provide high quality, useful information. I think that that is as it should be and as it should be at a university. Our primary mission is to provide and organize knowledge and information through research and show our students how to do the same. However, keep in mind that the Internet is a worldwide web. Everyone on earth, not just those in academia, will have access to our publications and syllabuses. The kind of knowledge we pursue will have to be relevant to the wider world around us for the wider world will demand it of us. The ivory tower is scheduled for demolition. But if we take the job of supplying general information seriously, we can strengthen the position of universities in the society even more once we are down in it. Here is why I think so.

Our profession is in a position to make the strongest contribution to the Internet as it grows. What is known about the universe, we know it best of all--we teach it. It is therefore not only in our best interest to get that knowledge on the Internet as soon as possible, doing so will be relatively simple for us. Because we will be linked directly to the world at large, simply making available electronically information which we casually cast about in classrooms every day can have a major impact not only on our students, but on those who could not go to college, and graduates who subscribe to life-long learning. The very walls of the educational institution are scheduled for demolition and it could be a boon to universities.

Let me give you a specific example of what mean. I collected a chronology of Russian history over the 20 years I taught Russian history. It was in the form of a handout lying around the office. Since I no longer teach history, I decided to put it on line for the general information of my students and colleagues. They responded enthusiastically and several other historians around the world now use it in their classes. I recently learned that newspapers and TV networks are accessing the site for background information for current articles and programming. This page reaches a far wider audience than it did in my classroom and does far more good for that wider audience. The Ivory Tower was a barrier between my natural audience and me.

Another example. Current search engines on the Internet are of limited use. They require minor programming knowledge to filter out irrelevant and filter in the relevant targets. Search engines like Logos, Magellan, Web Crawler, and Yahoo are already beginning to break up the resources they link into broad categories. I do not think that broad categories are going to help in managing the enormous amount of information that is accumulating on the web. In order for them to work, you need specialist for each category to sort through all the available resources and separate the entertainment from the substance, the weak from the strong, the lay from the specialized sites. This is a job which only specialists or extremely knowledgeable people can do.

It would seem that much of the work of laying the information superhighway as well as erecting annotated junctions in it will fall to our profession. We should look to both tasks, providing information and managing it, as a golden opportunity for increasing our impact on society at large. Those individuals who succeed at this task will become more important to the world than is possible by teaching and conducting research alone. They will become a necessary part of daily life around the world, providing information and directions to information for the news media, businesses, government and other social organizations, and to individuals. The success of these endeavors will depend far less on the size and prestige of the institution and more on the entrepreneurship of individual faculty members. This makes the information revolution a bountiful opportunity for smaller institutions, where managing, evaluating, and interpreting materials in teaching has always been cultivated more than at larger institutions.


The radical changes in the way the educational enterprise conducts its business that I have delineated here today, of course, are only possibilities, at best, probabilities. The possibilities for educational revolution outlined above need to be discussed because they have never existed before. They are new possibilities. While we do not know if they will be realized, we do know that they now exist and they did not exist two decades ago.

There is a strong tendency for whatever is possible to occur. There is no driving reason for supersonic aircraft or space shuttles but because they are possible, they exist. I suppose drive-by shootings were bound to arise for the same reason. To the extent this is a case, we are compelled to discuss the changes I have outlined because if they do emerge from the rapidly growing technology, we should be in a position to capitalize on them rather than be dragged away from our mission by them.

The Internet has already become the most enormous encyclopedia the world has ever known. In fact, through the Internet, the world is becoming an encyclopedia of itself. I like to think of it as the nascent mind of the world for, despite all the commerce carried out on it, it is basically an intellectual phenomenon and intellectuals stand more to give to and gain from it. It is a human world if the mind is a human faculty. The telephone extends our ears; television our eyes. The computer extends our minds with knowledge, images, sounds, and emotions. It is the most human and self-expressive of all our inventions. Now it unites us in an enormous democratic family without race, color, gender, handicap, or physical disfiguration. Cyberspace is without location or physical direction; men and women of all nations express themselves freely on websites and communicate instantaneously with each other. The enormity of it all, and its popularity, inevitably calls for intellectual management. That is where we come in.

Small colleges in particular could benefit from the democracy and equality of the Internet. Without leaving the geographical location of our choice we not only can become the intellectual entrepreneurs of the future and at least some of us must. Academics can provide general and specific information about the world for the Internet and manage that information better than any other social class. We should be building the sites to provide and organize that information now, for it is the inventors who are remembered. The intellectual entrepreneurs of today will be the new authorities of the coming age, an age ruled by information rather than production, individuals rather than historical prestige. That age will see a major leveling of authority throughout the intellectual community which should result in an enrichment of the academic enterprise as well as the society of man.


References and Bibliography

CyberAtlas January 10, 1996 (visited), .

De Kerckhove, Derrick 1995. The skin of culture: investigating the new electronic reality. Toronto: Somerville House Publishers.

Dertouzos, Michael 1997. What Will Be. How the New World of Information will Change our Lives. New York: Harper.

Dyson, Esther 1997. Release 2.0: A Design for Living in the Digital Age. New York: Broadway Books.

Gates, Bill 1996. The Road Ahead. New York: Penguin Books.

Mitchell, William J. 1995. City of Bits: Space, Place and the Infobahn. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Noam, Eli 1995. "Electronics and the Dim Future of the University," Science, Vol. 270, 247-49.

Tapscott, Don 1997. Growing Up Digital : The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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