Catching up to technology transformation

John Haeger

By John D. Haeger, President

Following the awards trail in recent months leads to an inevitable conclusion: plenty of high-profile organizations are willing to recognize and fund technology innovations in higher education.

But are we truly on the verge of a breakthrough?

Intellectually, most of us understand that change is inevitable, even though long-held traditional views of how to deliver a college education have locked us into the same fundamental model for centuries.

Yet one constant in education, it seems, is the theme of change. We’re always seeking a better way, always looking for ways to measure performance and improve it.

Technology has been no stranger to this ongoing narrative. In fact, we can now measure in decades the amount of time that has been spent on proclaiming the virtues of technology as an educational tool, if not always completely understanding how it might be used.

From the time classrooms first introduced computers to instructors and students, we’ve pinned our hopes on that watershed moment when technology transforms the way we teach and opens new opportunities for a wide range of students and potential students.

That moment didn’t occur just by installing a bank of PCs along the wall, as if their very presence would somehow inspire great teaching or engage the minds of students. Over the years, it often seemed that education struggled to unleash the potential that technology delivered in streams, then torrents.

But we’ve come a long way from the neglected computer in the corner. From the expansion and democratization of online learning to the fine-tuning of software that aggregates and analyzes student performance data, we have been making progress in line with technology’s potential.

Today I believe there is more evidence than ever that the breakthrough has finally occurred. Now it’s time for faculty and administrators to catch up—not only to the technology, although plenty of people with a Ph.D. still cling to the claim of “I’m not one of those techie people.”

We need to catch up with, and get ahead of, a whole new way of thinking about our delivery model.

Without question, the technology tools already being implemented around the country require some serious retooling of assumptions about credit hours, faculty workloads and contact time, not to mention our understanding of learning styles and retention strategies.

Discourse about these concepts arouses plenty of emotion. Boldness encounters caution. Fluidity cascades against intractability. Such are the stakes when fundamental values come into question.

But this shouldn’t surprise any of us. Essentially, we’ve called for a revolution, and it seems that financial realities and educational advances have coalesced to thrust one upon us.

I would hope that higher education is bold enough to embrace the transition because one institution at a time, we’re about to find out.

Editor’s note: The above blog first appeared in the Huffington Post on Oct. 12, 2012