Viewpoint

The IT Revolution is Over; Now the Work Begins

Binary code is already the underpinning that makes our society work. The revolution is over. Now, higher education has to figure out how to adapt.

The dominant culture for which we educate our young has more differences than similarities compared to 100 years ago, yet the system by which we educate has changed hardly at all. The discoveries we have made about ourselves because of ITC (information technology and communications) in the past 60 years help us see how achingly disparate our foundational beliefs and practices in education are from human and social and cultural reality. Consider our changed perceptions of the nature of language, of scientific inquiry, the more social-than-we-thought nature of learning, globalization, digital control of nearly everything, and the way the brain functions (for example, letting children discover music and enjoy it will make them better mathematicians later in life). So much of what we are learning because of our digital augmentation of everything shows us that we have been off-the-mark in terms of such basic practices as how best to learn to write or how best to solve unstructured problems.

Traditional universities and colleges are structurally unable to confront these changes because no office or aspect of university culture or organization has the authority, risk-taking nature, or sweep of knowledge sufficient to drive the change. Granted, many campuses are making heroic efforts to change, especially in the last ten years when it became clear that cloistered knowledge-building was no longer desirable or even possible. The advent of Web 2.0 apps in 2004 was the coup-de-grace. Now we see institutions starting new pilot campuses from scratch and operating in ways that seem to better fit the culture we are part of.

To Compete, Campuses Need a “Learning Ecology Strategist”

Forget the ivory tower, the cathedral or even the bazaar, or even that campuses are islands of knowledge and learning. Knowledge and information resources are everywhere. Learning tools are more widespread in the culture than on campus. Corporate work patterns are rapidly changing. For-profit universities are quickly adopting new learning technologies while traditional colleges and universities have been dragging their feet.

No, the U.S. higher education establishment is not going out of business, for a myriad of reasons, despite the blogal hyperbole. But, to successfully compete for students, a new leadership role should be considered: the learning ecology strategist.

When I was in the hiring process for a couple of different jobs, the job of academic computing director was described as “thought leader.” This was a time not long ago when technology staff were still leading innovation of one kind on campuses and therefore the idea of a “thought leader” in a technology unit made sense. Also, at that time ten years ago, the Web 2.0 tsunami had yet to hit. But, it later became clear that strategies, or thought leadership, based on technology implementation was hollow: Without changes in teaching and learning practices, the technology didn’t seem so smart after all. The real job was for academic leaders to re-think the entire academic process on campus. Another issue arose: Tech support staff ceased to grow in number even while the number of users grew by orders of magnitude. “Thought leadership” gave way to “keeping the systems running”--zero downtime.

It seems we have a cultural clash between higher education and the broader culture. The zeitgeist of the time is change that is faster, broader, and deeper than at any time in human history in the way we learn, how we create knowledge, how we work and generate wealth, how we communicate, in how we create our self-identity, how we perceive others, how we conduct research, and on and on. Fundamental changes are occurring at a rate that makes it hard to assimilate the changes.

Yes, higher education’s zeitgeist is as the permanent cultural authority in every knowledge domain, the keeper of consensus knowledge, the generator of new knowledge, and as the certifier of educational attainment. Higher education’s strength has been in resisting cultural fads while maintaining a robust and considered consensus-building process separate from those fads. But this particular aspect of higher education--disinterested research and analysis--that is separate from the personal development role higher education plays for younger students is experiencing a deep and disturbing disjuncture with the culture in which it lives.

Now the work begins. Who on campus can guide the institution toward not a better business model, because that’s not the only innovation needed, but philosophically, systematically, historically, culturally, anthropologically, technologically toward a presence and awareness and new design that fits this new age that was thrust on us so abruptly? Who now is the innovation leader? What kinds of innovation are needed now as the Web 2.0 tsunami gains momentum? And what kind of strategist knows enough about learning, assessment, technology, current cultural changes affecting higher education, faculty development, institutional strategic planning, and managing change to take on the job of “learning ecology strategist”?

 [Photo by Trent Batson]

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