Ed + Tech = :)

Fairy tales and truths in higher ed.

March 23, 2017

Here is the fairy tale version of Higher Ed that some traditionalists still tell themselves, and which has some elements of truth in it (as all fairy tales do). Once upon a time, the players on the academic stage were known, and usually there was just one of them: the professor. There were, of course, other supporting dramatis personae. Administrators and support staff were there to make sure the necessary structures and procedures were in place to undertake the educating that the faculty led in their view essentially on their own. People, like those in the dean of students and technology support offices, were there to make sure the students did not harm each other and that the projectors worked, but the core mission of the university -- to educate students -- was essentially left to the academics. The generous version of this fairy tale expanded the lead role beyond the faculty member and even included department chairs and perhaps even provosts on occasion. Even more generously, some faculty were so tied up in their work that they simply were unaware of the support structures in place, and merely thought they were on their own.

This just so version of the academic world was never true, and, over the last few years, has moved even further away far the actual, lived truth of contemporary academia. That said, just as we can learn something from studying ancient as well as modern myths, we can learn something vital from the re-telling of this academic myth.

The “sage on the stage” model has not been fully supplanted and perhaps never will be. The faculty and their expertise still sit at the center of the academic enterprise, but, importantly, they are no longer alone in that central role. While the causes for the change are unclear, learners now demand levels of attention and care that were unheard of even 25 years ago. More generously, we now know much more about how some learners learn differently from others, and attempt to address those varied expectations. Either way, student services are now seen as much more vital to the success of the overall venture as students increasingly see themselves as customers. Other important trends that have led to a greater emphasis on student support include: a greater and deeply welcome emphasis on assisting students with disabilities, psychological challenges, and first generation college students to succeed on our campuses; a heightened -- and again, highly welcome -- emphasis on accountability and outcomes; and an deepened regulatory environment around issues such as drugs and alcohol.  Students also demand a greater flexibility in how courses and content are delivered given how many more of them are balancing work and family, as well as extracurriculars.

More dramatically, technology has taken on a driving role in academia. Technology is no longer simply a nice, helpful tool to be added to the toolkit of Higher Ed. As much as it might pain some of us to admit it, we have to stop thinking of technology and learning as being fundamentally separate things. More and more, our learners no longer see the difference between the two. They see technology and learning as so intertwined that there is little if any . . . smartphone screenlight between them.

Beloit College’s Mindset List reminded us this year about the baseline knowledge of the 18 year-old mind that walked into – or, just as likely, logged into – our classrooms this fall. Many of these realizations were tech related. One of them is that none of these young folks have ever had to watch a TV show at a set time. Those of us who came of age in the 90s or before had to schedule our lives in order to see a favorite show. Powerful forces called “networks” decided when we could access content that they owned and controlled. These 18 year-olds are flabbergasted when they hear this. They are used to driving access to content on their own timelines and on a myriad of devices. To ask them simply to forget that mindset when they come to our campuses, and accept that a professor completely controls access to content is simply bound to fail.

That said, the faculty-centric traditionalists cannot be ignored. Decisions about which elements of technology get brought to our campuses can no longer be decisions driven only by our talented technologists, instructional designers, and CIOs. These decisions have to be made hand-in-hand with the leaders of the core academic venture of Higher Ed, so by the faculty and their department chairs, and provosts/chief academic officers.

The good news is that there is tremendous talent in both groups on our campuses. I come from the academic side of things, but I have come to realize that our tech-infused colleagues in places like CIO offices are not only our equals but often our significant superiors in understanding the mechanics and even the choreography of learning. Many CIOs would like to be invited to the academic table to participate in pedagogical conversations, and many universities would benefit from their input.

I taught at the university level for a decade before technology beyond that of an overhead projector found its way into my classroom. Before that, I basically controlled that space. I controlled the flow of information. Few students had laptops and there was limited if any Wi-Fi. In fact, other than the textbook, I was the information. I drew on the knowledge of the students in the classroom, but I was the clear center of that space.

As much as I value my own subject matter expertise, I am deeply thankful that this I am no longer the sole being at the center of the learning universe for my students. Whether we like it or not, we are all becoming naturalized citizens in an increasingly digitally native world. Once we recognize that this perhaps inexorable process is quite likely unstoppable, we can then start to see what this sometimes frightening new world looks like. The only other choice for recalcitrant faculty is to climb further up increasingly narrow staircases in a variety of ivory towers. You will be accompanied there by fewer and fewer learners in those increasingly empty classrooms. And, beyond that, learners are able to get the kind of lecture-based, one-way information that many faculty would still like to teach but entirely without faculty participation through a myriad of online sources.

The same advice goes to the many technology leaders I have met, both at universities and in the Ed Tech world. The CIOs and instructional designers you faculty members have likely met. You may not know that those folks are hearing daily and sometimes hourly of the new tools that are being developed by the Ed Tech community. That rapidly growing world is made up of hundreds of little companies, often led by outrageously young former students of ours who were dissatisfied with the kind of one-way information transfer that constituted their learning experiences in college. Just as faculty much adjust their perspectives in this changing world, I would also counsel patience and understanding for the campus technologists and their Ed Tech counterparts. You, of tender years, can’t know the fears your elders grew by, are experiencing right now in real time, and without the benefit of pleasant vocal harmonies. You Ed Tech-ers need the traditionalist professors as much as they need you. Treat them with the respect that their long years of study and content matter expertise deserve. Or simply go where the data and student surveys take you and see what student-qua-customer wants. We all agree on the goal of learning. Ed Tech-ers, what do the surveys and the ed school research tell us?

We have some good examples of how technology has deeply improved the Higher Ed world, from data-driven admissions processes with which we are now quite familiar to using any of more than a dozen software systems built to help engage alumni to, simply, the now ubiquitous learning management systems used on nearly all of our campuses. These now familiar and nearly unseen solutions are the first step in this process that has now come to the classroom.

I am an undocumented alien in the nation of technology. I came from the world of political science and law to live in this fast-paced, often confusing space populated by such alien concepts as MOOCs and metrics. I have seen good will and great skill on both side of this divide, but it is a divide that cannot exist if we are to all succeed, the ed folks, the tech folks, and all of our shared learners. It’s time for these different groups to cooperate, perhaps as managed by a vice provost for online learning, whose creation was pioneered by one of America’s key Higher Ed innovation hubs at Stanford University just three years ago. The future they saw then is here now.

What specifically should come next? In the view of one of my co-editors, Steven Mintz, we need to train a new breed of Higher Ed professional, versed in specific disciplines, and knowledgeable about pedagogies and tools relevant to that discipline. Perhaps we need to partner with our graduate schools of education and they need to partner with other departments on their campuses. I gather I will find out with the publishing of this column that such endeavors already exist. I hope that is the case. Perhaps the legions of out of work/underemployed graduate students, with just such subject-matter expertise, could be brought in as educational shock troops on this front.

One of the other insights from the Beloit Mindset List about today’s starting first-year students is:

“Bada Bing – Tony and Carmela Soprano and the gang have always been part of American culture.”

The chances of Higher Ed succeeding as an industry without cooperation between the faculty folks, the university tech folks, and the Ed Tech folks -- Fuggedaboutit!

Akiba J. Covitz, Ph.D. is co-editor of the “Higher Ed Gamma” blog, and serves as Head of Commercial operations at Yellowdig, a social learning platform.  He previously served as associate dean for faculty development and a member of the faculty at Harvard Law School, as vice president for university partnerships at edX, as senior vice president for strategic relationships at Academic Partnerships, and as a tenure-track professor.

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