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IT Trends | CT 2011 Coverage

Ad Hockery and the Potemkin Effect in Higher Ed IT

Those who track such things tell us that we're now in the fourth decade of the IT revolution in higher education. And yet a lot of institutions are still grappling with core managerial issues, according to one of the leading trend trackers. Kenneth C. "Casey" Green said he still sees a tremendous amount of "ad hockery" in higher-ed IT that produces hollow programs he calls "Potemkin Campuses."

"What concerns me is that, in response to demand--which is explosive--and in the absence of resources, we are trying to respond by offering courses with no infrastructure," Green said. "We see this in the survey data: Yes we're adding courses. Are you also adding folks to do academic advising? No. Support for students? No. It's a Potemkin Village. We're building the facade by offering the course [but without] the infrastructure to support our students and faculty. And that's a recipe for disasters for everybody."

Green offered that observation and many more during his closing keynote at the Campus Technology 2011 conference Thursday ("The Fourth Decade of the 'IT Revolution': Continuing Challenges and Opportunities"). Speaking to an auditorium of weary-but-enthusiastic attendees gathered at Boston's Seaport World Trade Center, Green drew on data gathered for the 2010 Managing Online Education survey of colleges and universities across the country. The survey focused on how higher ed is managing and administering online programs.

The survey was conducted by The Campus Computing Project and the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies (WCET). The Campus Computing Project, which Green launched in 1990, is the largest continuing study of e-learning and IT in American higher education. WCET is a collaborative community working to accelerate the adoption of effective practices and policies in technology-enhanced teaching and learning in higher education.

Green said that we're now about 10 years into a kind of second coming of online education, following the dotcom surge of the previous decade, which was driven more by "aspiration than expertise." But now, owing to high demand, online activity has simply gotten ahead of the managerial expertise and organizational structure needed to support it properly in most schools, and higher ed is struggling with a lot of core managerial issues.

"We're fumbling our way through this environment in terms of the organization," he said, "because it's an overlay of technology as an implementing resource on the academic programs."

There's still a lot we don't know--really know--about the impact of technology and online programs on our institutions of higher learning and our students, Green said. In general, we have yet to begin collecting the kind of data that "gets us past opinion and epiphany."

"It's time to bring real data to this conversation," he said, adding, "We all now live in Missouri, folks.... It's time for the 'show me' experience."

We do know, however, that there has been a lot of churn in online education, he said.

"The survey tells us that two-fifths of campuses that have online programs have reorganized in the [last] two years," he said. "Sixty percent expect to reorganize in the next two years, and many already did it and expect to do it again."

We also know that there is a managerial mismatch when it comes to online education in many schools. Participants in both the 2009 and 2010 surveys reported that the operating officers for online education in more than two-fifths of the institutions were the CIOs, operational executives responsible for the technology infrastructure, but with no academic expertise or responsibility for academic programs.

"We would argue in very strong voices [that you should not] differentiate between on-campus and online," Green said. "It's the learning environment that ultimately matters, the learning outcome that makes the difference. Three months or three years after the course, no one asks, which course did you take? What they want to know is, what do you know about a particular topic? So the question becomes, what environments foster student learning?"

Green also assured his audience that, despite his many criticisms of the state of online learning management, he is not "anti-faculty."

"The faculty need support," he said. "They're not ancillary to this conversation but central to it. And we need to communicate with presidents and provosts about the value of that support--about how critical it is, that it's part of the infrastructure--so we don't have Potemkin campuses."

Green also argued that there's a new role for IT leadership in higher education that's not about the technology, but about providing information that aids and informs.

"Technology is the easy part of what we do," he said. "Many of you will not believe that, but when you think about the problems you have with people and policy, the technology is comparatively easy. Explaining it to other folks; that's difficult."

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.

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