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Diana G. Oblinger is president and CEO of the nonprofit association EDUCAUSE. After a decade leading the association, first as vice president then as president, Diana announced this year she will be retiring in 2015. 

I connected with Diana to discuss her career and the evolution of information technology in higher education she has witnessed and guided over the past few decades.  

Question 1: What would you say has been the most important change in higher education in your academic career?

One of the most important and biggest changes I have seen in higher education over my career is the enormous growth in the impact and influence of information technology. Computers were still in the “glass house” era when I was in college. If you weren’t a computer scientist, you couldn’t use the computer. And of course to use it you had to learn to program and use punch cards. When I was a professor in the 1980s, the PC was born. Then things really started to change.

Of course technology is used for almost every aspect of higher education today. It has transformed research, scholarship, learning, and our personal lives. It isn’t just a big machine in a glass house — it is part of how we do just about everything. While technology is powerful, we need to remember that it is the purposes for which we use technology — and how we use it—that makes the difference.

Question 2: Well that makes for a perfect segue to my next question, which is, what do you think has been the biggest impact of technology on higher education during your career and especially during your tenure at EDUCAUSE?

Technology has become part of almost everything we do. It connects us at many levels. It is a fundamental communication tool; it enables collaboration; it can help us automate and speed processes so we can focus more time and resources on activities of higher value.

Virtually everyone and everything is interconnected. The World Bank says 75 percent of the world’s population has access to a mobile device, so the number of people who can connect to the Internet is enormous. These connections magnify the reach and value of not just information, but also our relationships, creating opportunities for learning, working, and collaborating on an unprecedented scale. Higher education is a community driven by connections—connections among faculty, students, research, education and disciplines.

For me, it has been exciting to experience the emergence and growth of online learning. Of course, online is not an adequate descriptor anymore. Learning and the many technology-enabled tools for student success are online, face-to-face, and hybrid. But you couldn’t do it without technology.

The emergence of analytics holds huge potential. It also illustrates the complexity of IT. There is technology behind analytics, but some of the trickiest questions are about privacy, data governance, and the skills needed to do analytics. And, if we don’t ask good questions, analytics won’t provide us with suitable answers. 

Question 3: With that in mind, what do you think is the biggest hurdle we’re facing in terms of how higher education can fully maximize technology?

Before the full impact and influence of technology can be optimized in higher education, we must resolve a perception challenge. Many still see technology as just a fast, inexpensive way to disseminate information. It is much more. IT has the power to change our experiences and expectations. It is changing what we consider “the norm.”

The key is recognizing that IT as a game changer, as it is in other sectors. IT has brought about much of the economic growth of the past century, accelerating globalization and fostering democracy. Such broad impacts would be impossible if “information technology” was only a set of technologies. IT can create new experiences as our use of mobile devices, games, and social networks illustrates. More importantly, IT enables new models. It can disaggregate and decouple products and processes, allowing the creation of new value propositions, value chains, and enterprises. These new models can help higher education serve new groups of students, in greater numbers, and with better learning outcomes.

As important as IT might be, technology does not have impact in isolation—it operates as one element in a complex adaptive system. For example, in order for IT to be a game changer, it requires that we consider learners as well as the experience that the student, faculty, institution, and technology co-create. The system is defined by many things, such as faculty workload, courses, credentialing, financial models, and more. To realize changes through information technology, higher education must focus on more than technology.

Finally, we have to resist the “either or” mentality by demonstrating that greater and wider adoption of technology does not mean we must choose between online learning versus face-to-face or man versus machine. It is both. It is combinatorial.

Question 4: One of the changes we’ve seen in EDUCAUSE has been its involvement in strategic issues that impact all of higher education, not just technology. How does that strategic focus fit EDUCAUSE as an IT association?

When you consider the biggest strategic issues in higher education the future is less about the technology and more about what we do with technology to address big issues such as affordably serving the needs of today’s diverse student population, helping students close the gap on the complex skills needed in today’s competitive world, or how to make institutions more efficient and effective through the power of crowds and clouds. 

EDUCAUSE’s focus is on helping higher education optimize the impact of IT. EDUCAUSE’s events, research, publications, and other activities build the profession, enhance strategic decision-making through data, benchmarking, and research, and create connections between IT professionals and those interested in IT. By continuing to do these things we will benefit higher education because we will all be better able to anticipate the future, stimulate innovation, and enhance the digital presence of colleges and universities—in short, to enable the mission of higher education.

I think we all dream that we’ll be able to change the world, somehow. I truly believe that higher education and IT have, and will continue to, make the world better in ways we can only dream about today.

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