Weighing In

It IS about Technology: Integrating Higher Ed into Knowledge Culture

For more than twenty years, we educational technologists have talked about "integrating information technology into higher education." We have claimed, "It's not about the technology, it's about teaching and learning." And, we have assured faculty members, "They [the machines] are just tools." In all cases, the implication was that education would stay the same and information technology would benignly slip in and cause no ruckus at all.

This rhetoric no longer applies, if it ever did, and does a disservice to us as we work through the intricacies of this age.

To Be Human is to be a Technology User

We information technologists need to say now, after all, of course, of course, it is about the technology. How can any human endeavor not be about the technology? Technology -- from clothing to housing to farming tools -- is inseparable from humans. We have adapted as much to the technology as we have adapted the technology to us.

Higher education, in every facet of its business, has in fact evolved to take advantage of information technology, from managing parking gates, to the network that carries the business of the institution, to financial and ERP systems that manage the business operation, and to the library and inventory control and so on across the enterprise.

But at the very core of the enterprise, where the faculty meet students, we have a bit of a problem. Because at that interface, the book-drenched core beliefs about authority and knowledge and value meet the products of a culture -- our youth -- that has embraced an emerging dispersed authority- and knowledge-building marketplace. It is a 24/7 social marketplace of ideas.

It is at this interface, or interstices, that core cultural assumptions are being bent so the fault lines are altering. It is this cultural transmogrification, this social metamorphosis, that Web 2.0 refers to. Web 2.0 is not really a technological phenomenon but a cultural phenomenon. Web 2.0 occurred when both we and the technologies started acting socially.

Seen as a cultural and social moment, a moment of ruptured equilibrium, Web 2.0 takes on new meaning in the learning interface between teacher and learner. Part of that meaning is the issue of what is so different in a Web 2.0 world that the current higher education structure becomes incompatible?

One example to consider, and this may be just the tip of the iceberg, is the assumption that learners learn best in 15-week semesters or 10-week terms or whatever arbitrary segment of time is offered at different institutions. Behind this structure is the assumption that learning should be segmented at all. Why did we come to that conclusion? Why do we think it is best for first- and second-year students to start-and-stop with their learning every few months? A better model might be, and might have always been, for a learner's work to be structured around the time necessary to complete a learning project and not based on an arbitrary time limit.

We have technologies now that allow us to carry forward the evidence of work and the work itself from semester to semester. Though we can use the semester time frame as a way to define fees and revenue, there is no longer a reason to use the semester time frame as a way to define student work. Students already learn in many alternate ways on many differing but formalized learning paths. Higher education is expert in managing experiential or co-op learning, semesters abroad, internships, service learning, and so on. We know how to create structures based on the work itself and the natural work cycle, just as in real life, so altering how we structure a learning cycle is fully within our expertise.

Most convincing of the need to reconsider segmented learning is that higher education has already embraced learning outcomes assessment. We have in place mechanisms and expertise to track and evaluate learning outcomes. Seat time is being recognized as less and less relevant as a measure of learning. Let's start also to re-consider the very idea that segmented learning is still the default and somehow sacrosanct. It no longer makes sense.

About the Author

Trent Batson is the president and CEO of AAEEBL (http://www.aaeebl.org), serving on behalf of the global electronic portfolio community. He was a tenured English professor before moving to information technology administration in the mid-1980s. Batson has been among the leaders in the field of educational technology for 25 years, the last 10 as an electronic portfolio expert and leader. He has worked at 7 universities but is now full-time president and CEO of AAEEBL. Batson’s ePortfolio: http://trentbatsoneportfolio.wordpress.com/ E-mail: trentbatson@mac.com

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