3 Learning Tech Observations From a Week Of College Visits

How do (small liberal arts) colleges talk about technology and learning?

April 17, 2016

Last week my wife and I accompanied our younger daughter (11th grade) on college visits.

7 (small liberal arts) colleges in 6 days. 1,700 miles driven. Inspiring. Exhilarating. Exhausting.

This is our second round of college visits, having toured campuses two years ago with our older daughter.

During each campus visit I try to do 3 things: 1) Stay quiet - this is my daughter’s college visit - not mine. 2) Make sure to stay at the back of the campus tour and information sessions (prospective students should go up front). 3) Learn something about how each school is thinking about how technology can improve learning.

I don’t claim that the 3 observations below are representative of all of higher ed, or even maybe of small liberal arts colleges in general. What you learn from a college visit depends on the people you interact with, how much you know about the school, who else is on the campus tour, and how your kid is responding. With these caveats in mind, here are my edtech campus tour observations:

Observation 1 - Technology Is Not Talked About as a Differentiator:

In my world (I’m a director of digital learning initiatives), technology is a differentiator.

It is not the technology itself, but what it enables educators to accomplish that matters. The goal is always discovering new ways to develop the relationship between the educator and the learner.  To discover ways that technology can assist faculty in their goals to create active, experiential, and rigorous learning opportunities.

During this week of college touring, I was surprised that the topic of innovation in teaching and learning almost never came up.

The schools that we visited were happy to talk about their philosophy of education, their student-to-faculty ratios, and the emphasis that they place on teaching.

What was harder to get a sense of was how each school handles classes that (traditionally) are the most challenging for students, the introductory / foundational courses. At every school the introductory course will have higher enrollments, and will also be the place where students are least likely to form a relationship with a professor.

What I was hoping to hear was how the colleges were investing in new methods and new technologies to make their larger (introductory) courses feel like small seminars. 

There was almost no talk about how shifting content to digital platforms can open up class time for collaboration, discussion, and active learning.

Observation 2 - When Technology Is Mentioned, It Is Usually the Least Interesting Technologies:

When technology is mentioned during the campus tours, it is almost never learning technology.

On every campus we heard about the great WiFi and the presence of digital projectors in the classrooms. You hear about network printing. Library tours will mention the number of digital databases available.

Sometimes (although rarely) will the information sessions or tour guides mention the presence of a learning management system (LMS) to distribute curricular materials.

I bet if I asked about learning technologies during information session or campus tours that more interesting initiatives and experiments would have been discussed. But I was trying to stay quiet, and the prospective students (including my own kid) did not seem inclined to ask much more about technology than about the speed of the WiFi.

Observation 3 - There Are Weak Signals That Learning Technology Might Become More Important During Campus Visits:

On most of our college tours the topic of how technology is utilized to improve learning did not come up. But at a couple of schools, in a couple of instances, there were (brief) glimmers that this could change.

At one school the tour guide talked about how terrific it was that one of her professors was teaching an introductory class as a flipped class. She was enthusiastic about how much more she learned by being able to watch the lecture ahead of the class meeting time, and then spend the time in class going over muddy points and receiving individualized coaching from her professor.

Another school we visited talked about their Center for Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Although discussions of how research (and data) are evolving teaching practices at the colleges that we visited were rare, they were not completely absent.

My guess is that the content and the format of the campus tour are slow to change. On every campus the number of books that the library owns is always highlighted. Replacing that talking point with some examples of how technology is being leveraged to improve learning will take time.

I'm certain that my colleagues in admissions departments fully understand that today’s high school students are already using learning technology. This is a generations raised on Khan Academy and on digital media projects. My daughter’s assignments, class materials, and formative assessments have been running through digital platforms for years.

Your school is - no doubt - already making significant investments in learning technology. If my family’s campus tour experience is at all representative, however, the stories of these investments have not yet made there way to the campus visit. I for one, hope that this begins to change.

What is your experience accompanying your prospective student on campus visits?

How does being a higher ed person change the way that you approach accompanying your own kid on college visits?

Do you think that my experience with how learning technology was discussed (or not discussed) was representative (or not) of how small liberal arts schools present themselves?

Would we have had a different learning and technology experience if my daughter had chosen to visit large research universities, rather than small liberal arts schools?

Is learning innovation discussed during prospective student tours at your school?



Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top