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Building for a Generation We'll Never See: Technology Change is Not Deja Vu

A Q&A with Bernard Luskin

education technology

Our institutional missions can be extended into the future and supported by the same vision and community values that originated them. But technology change, often spurred on by external markets, may come in waves of extreme and dramatic change, with steep learning curves for leadership and practitioners alike.

To get some perspective on technology change for higher education, CT spoke with Ventura County Community College District's chancellor, Bernard Luskin.

Mary Grush: You've had a good long career leading change in media and technology at many different organizations. When did your involvement in media and technology begin? What are some of your perspectives on the changes since, in the ways we work and learn?

Bernard Luskin: I've been involved in many things in my career. In terms of my beginnings with technology, I had the good fortune of being along for the ride — working on the inside — during the whole period from the beginning of the digital age to the present. I was part of a three-person team that put the first computer for instruction into a community college in the United States — this was back in 1963 at Orange Coast College. And as a young doctoral student in the early 1960s at UCLA writing my dissertation on computer assisted instruction, I saw the historic transition from the original ARPANET to a larger network that would link universities all across the country — this was, of course, an early precursor to the present Internet and all the instant communications since.

For me, looking from the early 1960s forward, I can say that what we are seeing in technology now is really not "deja vu all over again". Things are very different now, because the pace of technology change is so fast and the changes in technology are often very dramatic. Everything that's on the market — that "brand new" technology we get to implement and use — is actually already obsolete. By the time a technology gets into the market, the new ones that are evolving in the labs are far beyond where we are today. 

Grush: What's important for IT leaders at community colleges to keep in mind, given the pace of technology change?

Luskin: The most important thing is to be willing to catch up. Since the technology is moving forward at a pace that education practitioners are not controlling, you have to make it a priority for your institution to catch up. You have to embrace and support technology change — you can't afford to be timid.

Grush: What are some of the problems for institutions that need to explore these new technologies?

Luskin: The biggest obstacle is the lack of people in leadership roles with highly developed component skills along with the vision and energy to make things happen.

And, we have to be able to relate to and focus on the generations coming, instead of the generations past. 

But we will get there. I think we're going through a window now, in 2015-2020 — similar to what we did in 1960-1975 when the ARPANET converted to the university computers and finally led the way to the Internet. It's an important time right now.

Grush: Has the mission of community colleges changed, aside from technology considerations?

Luskin: I did say we are not having deja vu all over again in technology; that the changes in technology do tend to push us to a new point so that as technologists and education practitioners we have to be willing to change.

But in the community colleges in general, in their missions, and in a broader sense we are having deja vu all over again. Why do I say that? Consider this historical perspective: With the Truman Commission and the GI Bill after World War II came support for the idea that education was critically important, and community colleges received a real boost. By the 1970s, the number of community colleges exceeded 1,000 — there had been only about 250 "technical colleges" in the late 1940s. Now, there are more than 1,200 community colleges, with one in driving distance of nearly every American.

For me, the community college is a uniquely American invention that has changed the world. That spirit of invention is — deja vu — still with us today. And we are building on a solid foundation and extending what has gone on before us. Technology is just one piece of that.

Grush: What are some important areas in which community colleges used or pioneered technology early on?

Luskin: We can identify a series of significant milestones. Community colleges pioneered programs in distance education, online courses, and some online degrees.

In the 1970s, legislation establishing the ability to use public funds for non-classroom instruction signaled the real beginning of technology-supported distance education programs in community colleges (and later, the emergence of our colleges' online education programs).

Grush: What was this experience like for you?

Luskin: Back in 1976 I became president of Coastline Community College. We explored our non-classroom alternatives and began using phrases like "the college without walls". At the time we had about 50 percent of our programs offered through telecourses and about 50 percent in the classroom — and of course later on, we moved to true online offerings. But our original pioneering model was a huge success, and it was followed by institutions like Rio Salado College and many others.

Of course, today, virtually all colleges and universities have online courses or online course components, and for the most part, distance is dead! And as most people now realize, it's not about technology, it's about learning. Now, learning takes place any way you can make it happen. The classroom of the future is going to be very different than the classroom of the past.

Grush: In terms of technology change, what would you say is important to consider now?

Luskin: Today, social media has been born. A lot of the behaviors of people have changed.

In earlier years there was great skepticism regarding the use of technology in teaching and learning. But now, we've overcome most specific obstacles — and a lot of the resistance to the application of technology in general to teaching and learning. And that is also happening with social media.

Social media has become very common, and we are beginning to teach and learn in new ways. Education systems are beginning to adapt to the behavior of the current generation of learners — students who are very media savvy.

Grush: So are we in another phase of learning about very different technologies — very different from what we've had in the past?

Luskin: Yes, and current technology has outstripped anything that came before it. For most colleges and universities, the learning curves are very steep. We're in another learning cycle as we continue to negotiate new and emerging technologies.

We need to remember, even though we may struggle at first with new technologies, that we can't stop this type of progress. And it may be better that way: We're building for a generation we'll never see.

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