Tuesday, June 28, 2011


Accelerating Change, Demand, Access, and Challenge  tlt.gs/accelchange

The demand for higher education is increasing – for more of it, and for more kinds of it.  More colleges and universities are breaking ground for new buildings than are closing.  New technology applications, that appear to have great educational potential, arrive from industry at an accelerating pace.  While distance education isn’t catching on nearly as fast, widely, or cost-effectively as the zealots claimed and the technophobes feared, the majority of faculty, students, and administrators are rapidly embracing fundamental technology tools for communication and information management.  An unprecedented foundation for educational change is being laid, but with no clear picture of the edifice that will arise from it. 

Meanwhile, the “digital divide” is widening.  Children of the poor have dramatically less access to computers and new information resources in their schools or colleges than the wealthy – just when more careers require information technology skills.  Dozens [hundreds?  thousands?] of colleges are now requiring or providing computers for all students, faculty, and staff;  and these institutions are exploring the educational potential of “ubiquitous computing.”  However, on many other college and university campuses, the information technology resources available to faculty and students vary markedly between departments or divisions (with schools of education often among those with the smallest budgets per student for these tools).  Many undergraduates who cannot afford their own computers have family and job obligations that make it inconvenient to use publicly available labs.  Even with borrowing computers from friends and getting permission to use computers in the workplace for educational purposes, students who may need it most have less frequent, less comfortable access.

The economics of higher education are shifting in unpredictable ways.  The clear old line between students’ paying tuition for courses and paying fees for course-related learning materials (books, etc.) is rapidly blurring.  More faculty members are assigning instructional materials that students can find on the Web, more students resist buying required textbooks, and more students are comfortable going to the Web instead of to the library for reserved readings.  Consequently, new financial relationships are developing among students, faculty, publishers, bookstores, libraries, and colleges.  The publishers and bookstore managers are especially eager to understand or create viable new business models.  Some of these might give a more significant role to faculty members who develop course-related “online” materials and find new ways of collecting fees from students or their colleges/universities.

The demand is increasing for college-level degrees and education aimed at other forms of certification.  So is the demand for college-level education where no certification is provided (additional courses taken by people who already have college degrees and are NOT seeking another).  People have greater need to learn in preparation to change jobs or apply new skills within a changing profession.  As people live longer, many find that learning is a satisfying retirement activity.  The demand for and acceptance of “anywhere, anytime, anyone” instruction is increasing – note especially books “for dummies,” spiritual/psychological self-help books and audiotapes, do-it-yourself videocassettes, etc.. 

“Anywhere, anytime, anyone” isn’t a new goal or capability.  Having SOME valuable sources of information and learning available anywhere, anytime is a description of the way books have been used for centuries.  One of the best examples is the familiar desire to have an encyclopedia and other useful reference books readily available at home – or at a nearby public library.  The new power of the Web and related media makes it desirable and possible to have access to far more information and some forms of instruction at home, or anywhere else, convenient.  That is NOT the same as access to education – especially the kind of education that takes greatest advantage of the unique qualities of face-to-face and distant but “synchronous” human communications.

Top-ranking academic administrators and governing boards no longer ask “Should we invest in academic uses of information technology?”  Most of them believe that competition for students, faculty, and grants is now based in part on their institution’s apparent ability to use technology in support of teaching, learning, and research;  and that they cannot afford to lose in this competition.  They also hear the increasing demands from students and industry for better preparation in the use of technology – for defining and helping learners’ achieve “information literacy.”  Unfortunately, most academic leaders are not deeply confident of the results of major technology investments. 

These leaders cannot find compelling data, rely on experience from their own careers, or depend on trusted professionals to remove all doubts about the educational benefits of technology investments.  The growing mountain of disorganized anecdotal evidence and collective judgment of individual faculty members committed to their own new instructional uses of technology isn’t quite enough.  No one can be certain about how new technology applications will fit best with traditional educational practices, nor even how some educational goals might need to change.  Board chairs, presidents, chief academic officers and others are often quite uncomfortable making major resource allocation decisions in support of educational uses of information technology. 

Well-structured studies of the educational impacts associated with technology investments can reassure everyone that the intended educational results are being achieved – or not. Continuing evaluation and assessment programs can, at least, provide feedback to enable mid-course corrections.

- from Observations Section of "A New Vision Worth Working Toward: Connected Education and Collaborative Change," Steven W. Gilbert, 2000-2006, First version published via AAHESGIT listserv January, 2000; PDF of full article

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