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Digital Transformation: A Focus on Creativity, Not Tools

A Q&A with Ellen Wagner

A veteran education technologist, and a prominent researcher and consultant in education and emerging technologies, Ellen Wagner thinks deeply about what we are really saying when we talk about, and often attach labels to, our current initiatives, movements, or hopes at the intersection of education and technology.

With present projects and affiliations in professional associations including IEEE/ICICLE, and academic and research roles at higher education institutions including George Mason University and the University of Central Florida, along with an impressive resume in technology strategy and development both within industry and in academia, Wagner asks us to look beyond our words to understand the impact of our thinking and what we may be planning. Here, she examines a point that is too often missing from discussions of "digital transformation".

"Recognizing the power that technology has to change workplaces, marketplaces, civic engagement, and social discourse, futurists are focusing on the potential impact that 'digital transformation' will have on the future of life as we know it." — Ellen Wagner

Mary Grush: There's a lot of talk about "digital transformation" these days, and it seems like there's some pressure on our higher education institutions to become a part of it. But is it really well understood? What's the basis of this term?

Ellen Wagner: By definition, technology features tools that extend human capabilities. Where early examples of technology included innovations such as crop rotation, metallurgy, food preservation, and the use of botanicals for medicinal use, many of the technologies that come to mind in the current era are those that make use of electronics that extend human cognitive, communication, and computational abilities — from mobile telephones and personal computers, to supercomputers and big datasets, to digital devices that monitor and track a person's physical characteristics.

Recognizing the power that technology has to change workplaces, marketplaces, civic engagement, and social discourse, futurists are focusing on the potential impact that "digital transformation" will have on the future of life as we know it.

Grush: That sounds simple enough. But before we jump on this attractive-sounding bandwagon, are we likely missing some of the implications?

Wagner: Very likely. It's accepted that digital transformation uses emerging technologies as the lynchpins upon which essential modifications will need to be introduced and constructed, to adapt to the changes that the new technologies will introduce into workflows. But along with these technological changes come significant behavioral adaptations — and the fact that people will need to learn new facts, adjust to new procedures, be open to new ways to solve problems, acquaint themselves with new tools to operate, and give up old procedures they must now forget.

What is ironic in so many digital transformation conversations is that it seems easier to focus on the tools of change, not necessarily on the changes that the tools are going to bring to the environments into which they are introduced. Technology tools are concrete, operational, shiny and bright, exciting, and new. It is easier to talk about them than it is to talk about the things people need to do to adapt to working with the new tools. And what's odd is the lack of anticipation about the potential of digital transformation to open up true innovation and creativity. That's the real prize, and it seems like this point is often missed.

Grush: Considering that big picture, what are some of the implications for higher education?

Wagner: The notion of digital transformation is currently met with a degree of blind sightedness in higher education settings. I hope that doesn't seem harsh. But since technology has demonstrated its ability to extend human cognitive capability, the popular reaction in higher education is an inescapable desire to extend everyone's cognitive capabilities. The siren call for more personalized learning, more immersive learning experiences, and more access to artificial intelligence for students of all economic backgrounds continues to sound.

Grush: But hasn't that been of some value in education?

Wagner: Of course. Both in education and in broader fields, digitalization has expanded access to information and reduced costs for providing resources to global audiences of all economic levels, bringing opportunities for equity, social justice, and access to education to previously marginalized populations.

But at the same time, we recognize some of the intrusiveness of the technologies' reach, the risks to privacy, and "digital redlining". The biases found in some past data collection methods can be identified when predictions built on historical models are forecast into the future — this underscores the importance of continual formative evaluation to eliminate those biases at their roots.

Grush: I'd guess sorting out all of that is not a bad role for higher education organizations...

Wagner: That's right.

Grush: Where in higher education are we seeing relevant research?

Wagner: Of course, in my role as a researcher at the Mixed Emerging Technology Integration Lab (the METIL lab) at the University of Central Florida's Institute for Simulation and Training, I've begun work on three new projects that incorporate simulation, mobile, and artificial intelligence. We don't just learn about the tools; we study their impact and how they can extend creativity.

For another example of related research, take a look at ShapingEdu and the Humersive Learning Project at Arizona State University. There, the researchers look specifically at immersive learning and how to humanize it while fostering innovation.

And of course, there are teaching and learning centers on other campuses that have moved from supporting student learning in a remedial way to being more interactive — labs, sandboxes, maker centers for students, faculty, and staff — covering all varieties of new and emerging technologies. Many of these look beyond the technologies for ways to help their constituents become true innovators.

Grush: What do the rest of us need to think about?

Wagner: I'll say it again: One of the most important things that educators need to be conscious of where digital transformation is concerned is not to focus simply on the technologies and the tools, even though it is almost impossible not to start there. Instead, education researchers should take the responsibility to focus on the use of technology tools to extend human creativity.

Technology tools need to be a means to the end of learning more about extending human creativity.

This means that technology tools need to be a means to the end of learning more about extending human creativity. One of the really exciting opportunities is to think beyond just focusing on scale. We need to get smart enough to be able not to simply copy other people's innovations. And yes, it's good to know that we can be providing consistent, reliable learning experiences, so that there are common expectations for common skills. But we can do that and try to shine the lights on innovation. In addition to looking forward to commonalities, we need to help people build their unique, special skills and abilities that motivate them to go further and learn more, to be able to solve problems and think differently, to address the kinds of opportunities that they may have never encountered before.

Grush: What's one easy thing people can do to get themselves closer to this type of thinking?

Wagner: I'm not sure how easy this is for most people, but we all simply need to be more comfortable with ambiguities. That doesn't come from looking up answers in a syllabus or some other form of prescriptive information. It comes from being open to solving real-world problems together — problems that demand working on new ground and using our new tools creatively.

[Editor's note: Ellen Wagner can be reached at [email protected].]

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