Over the past twenty years, the transformation of a relatively simple computer network used by a few researchers into a global Internet, involving hundreds
of millions of people and generating a new economic order, took government, business and education, by surprise. Given the well-established tendency for people to underestimate the extent and rate of technological change, it seems
reasonable to suggest that the extent to which the Internet created economic and social upheaval in the past ten years is likely to pale into insignificance by comparison with the changes occurring in the next decade. The next few
years will encompass the significant impact of broadband, wireless, smart cars, smart fridges, streaming media, voice recognition and the inevitable growth of new Internet applications. In the present context, change is the only
How might institutions of higher education respond to such a dynamic external environment? The need for institutions to not only do things differently, but to do different things was encapsulated by Dolence and Norris (1995), who
argued that to survive the transition from the Industrial to the Information Age, organisations would need to change from rigid, formula driven entities to organisations that were 'fast, flexible and fluid'- adjectives not typically used to describe the salient features of universities! Given the predilection of educational institutions in general, and universities in particular, to either wait
and see and do nothing for the moment, or to add something new to an already overcrowded program of activities, it could well be that institutions of higher education could become a threatened species. This is a somewhat surprising consideration, since universities are overflowing with clever, innovative students and staff, yet as organizations, universities are often considered to be primarily moribund. The traditional inertia of long established institutions is reflected in the well-known cliche, 'Trying to change a university is like trying to move a graveyard – it is extremely complex, and
you don’t get much internal support!'
If the Internet is changing everything, will the Internet also have the power to change universities? Maybe, maybe not. Organizations don't change automatically. Organizational development requires proactive human
intervention. It sometimes benefits from the implementation of explicit change management strategies. As Katz and Oblinger (2000) highlighted when reviewing the potential impact of e-business on higher education, 'The dominant issues facing the leaders of today's colleges and universities are what aspects to change and how fast
can they be changed?' (p.xvi). Further, as Schlender (2000) recently pointed out, the Internet has already 'reached a stage that isn't so much about vision and proprietary innovation as about execution and competition' (p. 90).
This emphasis on execution and competition is a particular challenge to the typically slowly evolving institutions of higher education, which need to find the means to 'e-volve' rather more rapidly in the Internet Age. Indeed, many
universities are still struggling to come to terms with the imminent challenges posed by competition for online students through the emergence of the global lifelong learning economy. Universities with a significant role in distance education, however, are different: they have always been, and will always be, in the vanguard of innovation and institutional change.