Higher Education

File Under "what we should already know about technology"

In the Chronicle yesterday a report from the EDUCAUSE conference, "Technology Is Underutilized in Higher Education." Robert Mendenhall, the president of the Western Governors University and member of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education, offered the following response to the question of whether technology reduced costs or drove up tuition:

“I think technology has created the greatest productivity
improvement in history over the past 20 years across every segment of
our society — except in education… The
way technology improved productivity in every other industry is that we
changed the way we did things — we changed the business process, he
said. “We still do education the way we did it 500 years ago,” he said.
“Where technology has the potential, it’s not being realized today.” He
said that technology should be used more often to deliver information
to students, freeing instructors to lead discussions, answer questions,
and interact closely with students.

Obviously, by far, the largest area of expense at any college is faculty salaries. That’s not because we get paid so much. It just means that teaching and learning are the fundamental activities of a college. So when you start talking about technology reducing costs, those cost reductions, if they are to be significant must be coming from faculty, and if not faculty then staff (though it seems to me that technology increases often require more support staff, at least in the area of technical support). So faculty sometimes end up eying computers the way that weavers eyed the mechanical loom.

Not surprisingly, I don’t quite see it that way…

The problem is that we are dealing with multiple forces here. We aren’t doing education the way we did in 1507 or 1907 for that matter. Maybe, technologically speaking, most classes are still lectures, chalkboards, and textbooks. However, we are now talking about providing a college education to an increasingly larger and less prepared student body. Unfortunately, this larger, under-prepared student body is also more limited by financial constraints. They require greater support–both in term of faculty and staff–but are less able to pay for that support.

We talk about these students as "digital natives," but that is largely a class-based identity. The students that have the economic resources to be digital natives are also generally better-prepared for college and are more likely to succeed in whatever kinds of classes you offer them, traditional or technological. This new demographic of underprepared students are also less likely to be computer literate. Of course that literacy is just another challenge in their education, one they certainly need to meet, but offering technologically-intensive courses is not doing them any favors.

I do see many valuable things in technology: offering lectures for download instead of taking up class time with them, extending class discussion online, broadening the variety of media students can compose, drawing on a larger community of learners, and so on. However, I don’t really see cost reduction in any valuable way. I’m sure you could turn a class into a series of automated lectures and activities, followed by a standardized test. And that might be cheaper. But I don’t think anyone would mistake that for an education, and it is certainly NOT the kind of education and support this increasingly large body of students will require.

The reason technology hasn’t "improved productivity" in the education "industry" is that learning isn’t about efficiency. We could probably reduce administrative and bureaucratic costs related to higher education, particularly if we reduced the incessant oversight of education. But as long as education comes down to teachers developing personal relationships with students, it’s going to be an expensive process. I think technology can improve, enhance, and expand those relationships. But I don’t think it can replace them or even really make them cheaper.

2 replies on “File Under "what we should already know about technology"”

I agree on the broad point, but I think it could help redefine what the culture MEANS by education in the same way it has crowdsourced a lot. While I find the definitions of efficiency hilarious (considering we have machines stamping out thousands of doo dads that used to at least partially involve us fleshbots), I think that automation has forced us into different definitions of all sorts of things. “Entertainment” often involves all sorts of semi-participatory ambient activities (blogging, YouTubing, messageboards, IMing, downloading, etc.). I think education is undergoing this kind of atomization, and what emerges will be all sorts of sinews that connect previously unconnected activities. Teaching as we know it will persist, but it may be coupled with all sorts of other new and networked activities. Who knows?


Thanks Doc. I agree that these networking technologies offer opportunities to shift what education means. Hopefully education will become more participatory. Also, as Will Richardson often talks about, networks offer ways for us to learn beyond the realm official or institutional education. Networks also allow opportunities for students to connect with–and learn from–one another in ways that haven’t before.
However, I find that my students don’t come to this business naturally. Learning in this way is a whole new experience for them. It doesn’t seem easier for them to learn in a networked environment.
I don’t see anyway around the fact that as/if colleges open their doors to a wider portion of the population, the first two years of college will come more and more to resemble the last two years of high school. The average NY HS has a 14:1 student faculty ratio. SUNY Cortland, for example, is about the same, but around half the faculty are part-time.
To give those students the kind of support they are used to, and might very well require, will mean a significant investment in teaching faculty that I don’t think can be offset by technology.


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