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Education as an Information-Age Business

Jiří Zlatuška, Faculty of Informatics, Masaryk University, Brno


The impact of the information revolution transforms the society and business functioning. These changes pop up most conspicuously within the business world but the general scope of the transformation of the industry-based society into an information-based one does not stop there. We show that these changes are not confined to just businesses using information and knowledge to function better, but also to university-type institution for which information cultivation and knowledge generation is their principal mission and we identify some common patterns of change shared by both business and educational institutions.


The Information Society is being brought about by the widespread use of computers and telecommunications causing fundamental change in the character of our society. This not only means that computers and telecommunication devices are becoming ubiquitous appliances used in nearly any area of human activity, but on a more fundamental scale the increasingly important role of information as the main driving force of the post-industrial stage of the developed nations induces profound change in the character and organization of social and economic life. The net effect of these changes is indeed revolutionary in that it brings changes whose character is profound, pervasive, and permanent.

The nature of the change has a variety of facets, which result from various roles in which the use of information shifts the emphasis from producing and manipulating material goods to manipulating knowledge, from processing the "hard" to processing the "soft". This concerns a range of issues from manipulating bits and digital information with all the consequences on human communication, perception, and understanding [Negroponte], economic activities, organizing and conducting business, and changes induced by networking [Tapscott], the role and impact of new technological changes [Dertouzos], to the overall pattern of changes which accompany the the end of the industrial age [Toffler] and the increased role of services on the expense of traditional manufacturing [CSTB].

The impact of the Information Age on education is usually connected with the use of information and communication technologies, changes in the way of accessing, collecting and catalogizing information, differing patterns of communication between teachers and students, the use of computers as a tool for both classroom and home use. Although most visible and important, this direct instrumental and fine-grain influence of IT on education is not the only one. There is also a large-grain agenda of change which is not confined to just the teaching and learning process itself. It manifests itself in the change of the structure of the educational institutions, the change of the curricula and the overall shift of the role of the students and the interaction between students and teachers in the course of building the curriculum. Within the business world, subcontracting arrangements and utilization of superstructures fitting the globalized economy have already become a matter of life. Similar approaches are only beginning to emerge within the educational sector, both higher and lower-level one (see [Hill] for a coherent outline of the use of the contracting paradigm applied to public education).

The pattern of changes

The influence of the information revolution on businesses and industrial enterprises has manifested itself sufficiently clearly over past several decades. None of these changes is limited to just "efficiency" of production, but rather to very far-reaching changes in the organization and structure of functioning resulting in a real change of the "quality" as well. New organizations and new organizational forms co-exist with the old ones. The changes do not constitute any complete replacement. They rather make the new forms coexist and compete with those inherited from the past. Various observers came with slightly differing points of emphasis when identifying the principal features of the change.

Alvin Toffler argues for the "third wave" constituting a development superseding the old "second wave" society of the industrial age [Toffler]. The economies of scale, mass production, standardization, synchronization, concentration and centralization are the key features growing through the fabric which the society is contained in. The third wave society introduces a "practopian" future favoring individual difference, de-massification, variety of possible lifestyles, working and production patterns, and the value of individual skills and innovations. Toffler's third wave comes with the "prosumer" (merging production with consumption), with the change in the organizational structure from information-monopolizing hierarchies to information-spreading matrixes or to a host of other "flexible" organizational forms suiting individual business needs, and with the diminishing role of marketing and mediating agents. These changes are enabled by modern information technology, but they in no means are constrained by it -- this is in fact one of the reasons Toffler would not say "computer" or "information" revolution, but rather the "third wave" as a concept with much wider applicability.

Don Tapscott comes with a concept linked very tightly to the digital nature of information processing and computer-based communication [Tapscott], and draws very close analogies between IT based on digital technology, both hardware and software, and the business, social, and political transformation. Among the themes Tapscott comes with, one can find "digitization", "virtualization", "molecularization", "internetworking", "convergence", or "prosumption", which relate very closely to majority of concepts introduced by Toffler.

A related set of problems has been tackled by Stan Davis [Davis] who studied the changing role of time, space, and mass, and introduced the term "mass customization" assuming a market where customer's individualized needs are satisfied with mass-produced goods, and the customizing occurs at instantaneous speed in the matching-up process. This relates Tapscott's "real-time economy" and Tofflers "just-in-time" or "on-demand" production with prosumer controlling the features of the resulting product.

The economy and means of production changes bring about changes in organizational structure. This concerns the team-based organization [Mankin], the matrix structure [Toffler], the internetworked enterprise [Tapscott], or Quinn's infinitely flat, spider's web, or starburst, or inverted organizations and the focus on the functional "core competencies" of network organizations [Quinn]. The resulting "virtual organization" [Powell] allows for flexible outsourcing of activities, encourages the "molecularization" [Tapscott] or "cottage industries" [Toffler]. During early nineties, several techniques enabling organizational change and thus allowing existing institutions to accommodate their organizational structure to their changing environment have been introduced, even though their rate of success is rather debatable [Druckman]. Although the use information and communication technology is clearly a catalyst and a mediator of the change, some of the impacts are still not well enough understood, such as the "productivity paradox" (see [Harris] for more discussion on this).

The Information Society Impact on Education

The lessons which can be drawn for the education in the Information Society include the consequences of the use of computer networks, the use of instructional technology in the classroom or lecture hall, the need for increased overall standards of education for the information work-force, and the new forms of educational activities enabled by new communication technologies such as distance education and lifelong education.

As it is the case of the changes in economy, production and lifestyles caused by the Information Age, the pattern of changes to the educational activities as well as the structure and shape of the educational institutions can be traced down to the underlying fabric of the new time. In the following sections we are going to compare some of the topics introduced within the context of economic activities or business organizations to those occurring in the educational context. We aim to demonstrate that the occurring changes are not coincidental or just some technology hype but rather a logical counterparts to the rest of the social shifts.

Customization of educational programs

One of the fundamental differences between the "second-wave" and "third-wave" education consists in the de-massification of the character of educational activities. The uniformly educated factory work-force is no longer needed, and the value of educational programs increases when they offer individualized study programs allowing the graduates to acquire the individually most advantageous mix of skills and knowledge.

The role of knowledge and information in the digital economy makes a bright idea the biggest asset, and the potential to combine knowledge, inventing new solutions, and to come with something really original, increases in correlation with diversity of educational opportunities in the population.

Uniform curriculum is clearly a "must-not" for any educational institution which aims for succeeding in the environment of schools educating for the Information Society. The more the students can participate in building the particular educational mix they go through, by "prosuming" within, e.g., a credit or a block-based system with sufficient choice of optional courses to be taken, the better-suited the transfer of knowledge between the school and the student will work.


The teachers ship the ideas from the point of their origin to the students. This transportation processes can be removed in many cases by either connecting the student with the lecturer physically located elsewhere via the computer network with sufficient bandwidth. Universities should be able to concentrate on their "core competencies" and to network with other similar institutions to contract teachers from elsewhere. Computer networks allow to change the meaning of activities happening at the same time or same place. This makes building of a "starburst" association or network organization possible.

Clearly, a student can share classes and teachers among several institutions in this way, and use information technologies in order to allow for custom-building of a "virtual educational institution" which fits his or her study profile -- a kind of dynamically ad-hoc formed network suiting the particular task. Possible overlap of structures of this kind allows to create a very diverse field of educational opportunities. The number of configurations in such a system grows exponentially with the number of nodes and possible linkages. The commodity, a university course, may be fully standardized, but the result, the educational profile of the graduate, can be made very diverse by customizing the services which surround it -- that is the way how these courses make up an instance of a possible curriculum.


Convergence of key economic sectors as well as convergence of varying technologies has its natural analogy in the convergence of study opportunities for borderline or interdisciplinary disciplines. Allowing usual barriers for combining study disciplines or specializations to break down brings originality into the system as it is the case with innovative combining of differing technologies. On the technical level this is becomming possible because of the common digital nature of the seemingly different technologies. On the organizational and educational level, similar common grounds are to be identified and used.

Many of the professions of the future do not exist today. This is not a problem for genuine education as opposed to mere training for a particular profession. If the education of today should prepare for the challenges that are yet to come, it should not confine itself into the borderlines which result from imitating the current situation. Combining and blending separate disciplines of today within the educational programs may lead to graduates better equipped to face the future.


The ability of using ad-hoc formed networks allows to form a "virtual" university-like institutions. It is likely that with the increased capacity and potential of the information networks, there will be growing number of students using electronic resources in order to pursue their education. There may be consequences of varying sorts for the currently existing institutions. Those which will not adapt to the changed world may face a loss of students because of the mismatch between the environment and the obsolete educational structure (note that the speed of change within the environment makes it harder and harder to react in a flexible way, due to the resistance of professional bureaucracies such as university-type institutions [Druckman]). Competitive universities should be able to develop courses and other educational activities which can be offered to those interested from other institutions.


Information and communication technologies makes the difference in time and space disappear (or mostly disappear). Distance learning opportunities constitute a very natural application of this concept. As with the other forms of network organization usage, the net "knowledge" capacity of the resulting system is roughly equivalent to the exponential in terms of the number of participating nodes. This makes the resulting architecture of "knowledge pointers" to emerge, allowing a distance education institution to enter a reconfigurable network of distance learning opportunities, and one that is potentially global as well.

The Age of Information coincides with the Era of Globalization not just by coincidence - it is indeed the digital paradigm which makes both of them work.

Organizational changes

As already noted, the use information technologies does not automatically bring benefits only [Harris]. In order to allow for this, one needs to ensure that the internal organizational structure is capable of absorbing the new technology and to adapt with reasonable speed. Traditional universities are known to combine high level of horizontal specialization based on professional standards, yet overimposed by a hierarchical structure based on authority and stability.

This combination of mainly professional standards and overimposed hierarchy makes it very difficult to react with reasonable speed to changes within such an institution. This can be seen as the main obstacle to adaptation. (The history of the attempts to provoke changes within Czech universities during the past seven years is conspicuous for failure to do so within existing institutions because of the high level of natural institutional resistance.)

It is very likely that in order to accommodate the changes discussed above in any more substantial scale, it would require to change the internal organizational structure of universities to matrix or team-based structure without the traditional hierarchical structure on top of the professional one. It seems unlikely that existing universities will achieve this, and hence newly emerged institutions may have substantial advantage if they choose not to simulate the existing ones.

There are also other reasons for changing the way how universities work on the organizational level, most notably those following from the fact that the cost of university education keeps rising, and it becomes more and more difficult to ensure that sufficient proportion of population can enter higher education. The recommendations in recent report [CNIHE] also suggest the importance of implementing major structural changes in the governance systems of higher education institutions, and the need for developing sharing arrangements among them.


Within the world based on products of digital substance, there is a mode of production based on the network paradigm which allows new products to be based on combining parts and tokens which already exist somewhere on the net. The Network Computer paradigm allows to conceptually globalize the notion of the desktop. The interfaces become more manageable, and the flexibility of the bit-based or information-processing-based products makes it easier to interface with each other even without the kind of strict standardization which had to be introduced within the world of industrial production.

There is a great potential for introducing a matrix structure spanning across many individual higher-learning institutions. The Internet is not just an environment for information access and information sharing, but also a new paradigm for building network-based products, including educational ones. Successful educational programs should not focus on selling proprietary "desktop-based" second-rate programs and on locking their students into a particular local set-up just because it fits other proprietary resources of a particular university, but instead they should make use of the possibilities of effective combining of top-quality educational opportunities across the various institutions in the "network-computer" style. Credit-based educational programs and flexible credit-transfer environment shared by the higher learning institutions constitute a very basic requirement on effectively working system, allowing to use convertible educational currency units across the boundaries of individual universities.

The recommendations for sharing arrangements from [CNIHE] are based on economic considerations and consequences of greater mission differentiation between higher-education institutions. Such a superstructure based on sharing instruction, human resources, services, infrastructure, or libraries, would indeed bring universities closer to the "organization without boundaries" paradigm [Mankin] enabled by the information technology and communications. It would be a paradox if the very institutions which are based on knowledge would not use knowledge-based forms of inter- and intra- organizational setup.


In this paper we tried to exemplify the natural correspondence between changes emerging in the university-type education reacting to the Information-Society inspired changes, and to show that the overall pattern of changes can be seen very similar in education as it is observed in the business or economic area.

If universities and other higher education institutions are to fulfill successfully the growing demand for educated population generated by the information revolution, it is only natural that they have to keep pace with the changes which they themselves help to catalyze. Such a transformation will not be easy, especially given the natural resistance to change generated by self-governing structure based on academic autonomy within these institutions. After all, the university tradition dates back for more than a millennium, which none of the information-based infants can match. But it is the nature of the information revolution that many of the traditional viewpoints are being shaken upward-down, and the storm of change (bringing the better, hopefully) will not stop at the university gates.


[CNIHE] Commission on National Investment on Higher Education: Breaking the Social Contract. The Fiscal Crisis in Higher Education. Council for Aid to Education, RAND Corporation, Santa Monica, CA, June 1997. (electronic version)

[CSTB] Computer Science and Telecommunications Board: Information Technology in the Service Society. A twenty-First Century Lever, National Academy Press, Washington, 1994.

[Davis] Stan Davis: Future Perfect. Tenth Anniversary Edition. Addison-Wesley, Reading, MA, 1996.

[Dertouzos] Michael Dertouzos: What Will Be, HarperEdge, New York, 1997.

[Druckman] Daniel Druckman, Jerome E. Singer, and Harold Van Cott, eds.: Enhancing Organizational Performance, National Academy Press, Washington, 1997.

[Harris] Douglas E. Harris, ed.: Organizational Linkages. Understanding the Productivity Paradox, National Academy Press, Washington, 1994.

[Hill] Paul T. Hill, Lawrence T. Pierce, and James W. Guthrie: Reinventing Public Education. How Contracting Can Transform America's Schools. A RAND Research Study. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1997.

[Mankin] Don Mankin, Suzan G. Cohen, Tora K. Bikson: Teams and Technology. Fulfilling the Promise of New Organization, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA, 1996.

[Negroponte] Nicolas Negroponte: Being Digital, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1995.

[Powell] W. W. Powell: Neither market nor hierarchy: Network forms of organizations. In: B. M. Starr and C. C. Cummings, eds.: Research in Organization Behavior, Vol. 12, JAI Press, Greenwich, CT, 1990.

[Quinn] Intelligent Enterprise, A Knowledge and Service Based Paradigm for Industry, The Free Press, New York, 1992.

[Tapscott] Don Tapscott: The Digital Economy, Promise and Peril in the Age of Networked Intelligence, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1996.

[Toffler] Alvin Toffler: The Third Wave, William Morrow and Co., 1980.

Jiří Zlatuška, 1957, Professor of Computer Science and Dean of the Faculty of Informatics of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, Fakulta informatiky MU, Botanická 68a, 602 00 Brno.