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Academic IT for Students: A New Growth Area?

The center of technology activity in academia has moved from the computer center to the faculty, and, now, after more than 30 years since the microcomputer took technology outside the computer center, it is moving to the students themselves. No, not texting and Twittering but students using learning management tools whose primary clients are students. What impact will this market shift have?

There are roughly 4,000 institutions of higher learning in the United States, and many more around the world. But there are millions of students. Students are a bigger market than institutions. Examples of this new market focus are Schools on Facebook, Sweat Monkey, TaskStream, and ConnectYard. These are only examples; there are many others.

For many years, futurists have warned that students would come to college and somehow force change in how colleges and universities use technology because they were “digital natives.” But, in the event, this scenario did not and does not play out. Knowing how to text and Tweet does not a reflective thinker make. Technology has never been the silver bullet and never will be; ideas do not leap from machines. The gap between novices and experts in a knowledge domain has remained as large as always regardless of technology know-how.

But this new development--selling learning management software that either students buy directly or which institutions acquire for the primary use of students--adds an important twist to the “digital native” theory: The applications are designed to augment student access to opportunities for learning without intervention of teachers. However, the learning opportunities, importantly, are associated with classes and accredited learning. Finally, we are seeing the emergence of software applications that help students do well in a course but are not assigned by the faculty.

One example that I wrote about a year ago was then known as “Inigral,” but is now known as Schools on Facebook. It is a Facebook spinoff that connects students socially to other members of a course even before the course meets. The application interfaces with the student information system on campus to create social groups that map onto classes. We’ve long had software for student groups outside of class to meet online, but Schools on Facebook and other similar applications are now changing the nature of class communications with academic conversations among classmates that are not funneled through the teacher.

Another example is TaskStream, one of the leading electronic portfolio suppliers in education, which has begun selling electronic portfolio accounts to individuals. According to Webster Thompson, CEO of TaskStream, “We have a huge independent subscriber base” (e-mail communication). I’ve written previously about FolioSpaces, a company in Australia that provides instances of Mahara to individuals, and, for years, other electronic portfolio companies have also been addressing the issue of how individuals can have and keep electronic portfolios throughout life. Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and California as well as countries in the U.K. and Europe are in some stage of providing electronic portfolios for all citizens.

An interesting example of this new breed of software is SweatMonkey, due to deliver a robust and completely new version in a couple of months, which helps students identify service learning opportunities to satisfy service learning requirements. When I saw the beta version a short while ago, I thought to myself, “Now this is a version of a learning management system where the student is the subject and not the object.” When students start having access to their own learning management systems on campuses, as they are now doing, think of the acceleration in changes we will see in the relationship between student and teacher. It is one thing to be a passive learner in a classroom where any failure to learn can be attributed to a failure to teach; it is another if students have tools to use to manage their own learning.

Finally, consider ConnectYard, an application that attempts to change social networking from an unrelated distraction for students to a reinforcement of class communication. ConnectYard claims to expand social networking “beyond ‘friends’ to facilitate study buddy, cohort, and mentor opportunities…” [] The underlying nature of this new class of software exists in the effort to combine the power of social networking (that is, of social learning) with the academic infrastructure. And its critical nature is that faculty members are not on the spot to activate or support or train students to use these new student-oriented learning management systems.

If the period from 1980 to 2010 was characterized, as I believe it was, by technology as the innovation, the latest buzz, the new silver bullet, and claims about all that technology would do to “revolutionize” teaching and learning, then this decade is characterized by more realistic and incremental new uses by humans of technology that fits their lives and needs.

CIOs and computer support centers now, as often as not, actively resist adding any new technologies or changing what is in place. In a recent exchange on the EDUCAUSE CIO list, one thread of about ten posts focused on how to calculate the cost of change, as a counter-indication to trying to change anything in place on campus. Only one CIO spoke up and said that change is a fact of life and will, if anything, speed up.

We know, too, that faculty cannot be expected to lead campus change around technology, nor can they be expected to take big risks with introducing new technologies in their own classrooms (except for the inevitable early adopter types who, by their nature, need to be taking risks). Students, on the other hand, have incentives to use the new tools offered to them because they make their lives easier through managing their academic tasks or by offering more opportunities to link up with peers. It would seem that the move toward students developing their own learning management suite of tools is well underway. And I can hardly believe I’m saying that.

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