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CT2012 Recap | Feature

Charting the Tech-tonic Shifts in Education

At Campus Technology 2012 in Boston, the keynote speakers painted a picture of higher education undergoing a seismic shift--and offered a vision for the future.

This story appeared in the September 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology, with a video mashup of the CT 2012 keynotes.

A year ago, the Campus Technology 2011 conference was dominated by discussions of budget cuts and the "new normal" of decreased funding. At the 2012 conference, held in Boston this July, the talk was still about costs, but this time the focus fell on the soaring price of a college education and how institutions of higher learning are facing a seismic shift as a result. And, to judge by many of the discussions at the conference, technology will be integral to that upheaval.

Indeed, it was fitting that one of the keynote speakers was George Siemens, associate director of the Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute at Canada's Athabasca University. In 2008, Siemens launched the first MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) for approximately 3,500 students, a model that has been adopted and exponentially expanded by organizations such as Udacity, edX, and Coursera.

"Today, what's under the microscope is the actual system of education itself," Siemens told the attendees. "How many people want to graduate with $100,000 to $200,000 worth of student debt? At what point do you hit that threshold where getting a degree is now more expensive than the benefit of having a degree?"

It was a message hammered home by the closing keynote speaker, Joel Smith, vice provost and CIO of Carnegie Mellon University (PA). "If you want to look at a bubble, if you want to look at a crisis coming," he said, look no further than the increase in college tuition and fees: Since 1985, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, costs have risen nearly 600 percent, far outstripping the rise in healthcare costs. "We have a serious problem with cost containment," he noted drily.

While cost is undeniably a major component of the tremors rumbling through higher education, it is by no means the only one. For two decades now, traditional institutions have been waging a costly arms race to woo "traditional" students, who now represent less than 20 percent of the learner population.

As Mark Milliron, chancellor of Western Governors University (WGU) Texas, noted in his keynote speech, "The modal student in this country is a working learner--they are working while they are going to school. Our systems in general are not tuned to the learn-and-earn journey."

As a result, many institutions of higher education are failing to serve the majority of students, especially those from poor backgrounds. "What really breaks your heart are the millions of striving students from low-income backgrounds who are experiencing significant failures in higher education," he continued. "The bottom two income quartiles are only about 12 percent likely to finish."

In Milliron's view, the only way forward is for campus administrators to shift the focus away from the needs of their institutions to the needs of students themselves. "You should be willing to look at all of your policies, all of your programs, all of your practices, all of your uses of technology, and be willing to ask two burning questions," he said. "One, do they improve or expand learning? The second question is: How do you know? I'm going to argue that most of our data initiatives in higher education are radically off target. Most of our data initiatives are about serving administrators, legislators, and trustees, and we're wasting thousands of hours and billions of dollars cycling data that is not being used for the purpose it should be used for--which is really improving learning."

As the chancellor of an online university, Milliron recognized that technology has a key role to play. But like everything else, he stressed, it should be analyzed for how it contributes to learning. "One of the most heartening things to see in the world of online learning is this notion of tuning the blend. It's not about whether it's online or on-ground--that's a false argument, because what we see now is that more and more of it is this deep blend."

Turning the Ship
Given that WGU was only established in 1997 (and WGU Texas in 2011), keeping a laser focus on student learning may be easier than at long-established colleges, which bring a lot more institutional baggage to the table--and often a research component, too.

But change they must, asserted Siemens. In his view, the value of universities has historically come from the integration of many services for end users. Today, however, we are rapidly moving toward a system that is open, accessible, distributed, scalable, social, networked, and self-organized.

"Over the last decade minimum, the education system has been fragmenting on many fronts," noted Siemens. "The challenge is not necessarily to create a completely new rigid model, but rather to create an integrated whole that is reflective of distributed or networked attributes."

For institutions that stand still in the face of these changes, the threat is existential. "The top tier and elite universities will likely continue to have physical campuses; community colleges will be positioned quite well going forward, too," Siemens posited. "The mid-tier levels, on the other, are the ones that are going to suffer to the greatest degree."

Breaking Through Barriers
Identifying the threats to higher education is one thing. Identifying the solutions is quite another, particularly within the entrenched bureaucracies and cultures common at many colleges and universities. It is this challenge that intrigues Smith at Carnegie Mellon.

"I am a plumber," he said, contrasting his approach with the strategic viewpoints of the other keynotes. "I worry about what we need to do tomorrow to get to what they are talking about." He argued that realizing technology's potential in transforming education will require rethinking the nature of traditional relationships in a very complex and rapidly changing campus environment. For Smith, that means collaboration--deep collaboration.

"We seek to be collaborative in higher education, but there are some real barriers," Smith said. "We are structured into academic and administrative silos, and we've all experienced the roadblocks that hierarchical administrative structures and bureaucracy introduce," he added.

If higher education can get past these hurdles, collaboration opens the way to better learning and lower costs, he believes. And, in many ways, Smith has been there and done that. As part of the team that collaborated on the launch of the Carnegie Mellon Open Learning Initiative (OLI), he knows from firsthand experience that you can bring together people with expertise in cognitive and learning sciences, content experts, design experts, software engineers, assessment experts, and students. "We had to find a way for all these people to work together," Smith said, "and it was not easy."

To help schools forge a more collaborative environment, he stressed again and again the need to formulate goals, establish decision-making processes, and clearly define responsibilities. Otherwise, he said, it's all too easy to go aground on the shoals of self-interest.

"Frankly, I think that what we do in dealing with human learning is far more complex than trying to find the Higgs boson," he said in reference to the united efforts of thousands of scientists involved with the Large Hadron Collider experiments. "I think this is the only way that we're ultimately going to bend that [cost] curve--that we are willing to reuse what each other has done. Deep collaboration is likely a key catalyst to transformational change in higher education."

Tech Trends in Class

To get a better sense of student perceptions of technology in the classroom, CDW-G surveyed faculty, students, and IT pros this spring and shared the results at CT 2012.

  • Only 23 percent of students surveyed said they are very satisfied with the way faculty members spend class time.
  • 69 percent of students in the survey said they would like to incorporate even more technology into their classes as a learning tool.
  • 76 percent of IT professionals surveyed said faculty requests for classroom technology are up in the last two years.
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