In the Dark on Digital Learning

College IT officials don't believe campus leaders are particularly informed or engaged in digital learning, new survey results suggest.

October 16, 2019
 
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The results of a new survey offer presidents, provosts and CFOs a wake-up call about how they’re perceived by their colleagues in IT and digital learning. The reviews are less than glowing, with only about 40 percent of IT officials reporting that college leaders are “well informed” about digital learning and digital transformation.

Presidents or CEOs, along with CFOs, fared particularly poorly, with slightly more than 30 percent of IT officers saying those colleagues are “very engaged” and about 40 percent saying they are “well informed.” Provosts were spared the worst in the assessment, with more than 40 percent of IT officers saying provosts or chief academic officers at their institutions were “well informed” and “very engaged.”

Casey Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project, which conducted the survey released this morning, said the fact that many administrators are judged to be neither well informed nor very engaged is striking. “Their engagement, their understanding is critical in terms of campus strategies and moving forward,” he said.

Green said IT officers may be gaining more responsibility in keeping administrators educated about and engaged in digital learning. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a new role, but I think it has now become a more important role,” he said.

Though the survey has been conducted and reviewed for 30 years, the digital learning question was new for 2019.

Ray Schroeder, associate vice chancellor for online learning at University of Illinois at Springfield (and an Inside Higher Ed columnist), said that although administrators at his university have been very engaged, the results of the survey were not surprising. Many administrators went to college before online learning was possible, he said, and they have not registered the changing demographics of American students, who are now older and thus more likely to choose online classes for flexibility.

"It has crept up on higher education administrators," he said. "They’re caught up with accreditation and policy matters and all kinds of things, and they just haven’t kept up with the demographics of their own students."

Schroeder also said more residential students are choosing to take online classes for the scheduling freedom they can provide. As the trend doesn’t seem to be abating any time soon, Schroeder said it’s important for administrators to give IT officials a seat at the table, specifically on the dean’s council or president's executive committee.

“I know colleagues all across the country who are struggling with getting the message across, getting their voice out there,” he said. “If you have an administrator who’s been in a position a long time and hasn’t paid attention, fully, to these changes, it’s a very difficult job.”

Uncertainty About OPMs

Another takeaway from the survey results is that IT officials who participated are on the whole ambivalent about the use of online program managers, for-profit companies who create and manage online programs for colleges.

Less than half of participants said they believed outsourcing these instructional services to OPMs is a “viable and effective” strategy, and less than a third said they believe outsourcing is a profitable strategy for their institutions. The feedback did vary by sector, with bachelor's and master's degree-granting institutions on the whole having greater faith in OPMs than their counterparts at community colleges. But no sector surpassed 50 percent approval for either prompt.

Online program management companies have been at the center of a heated debate in the last few years about their role in higher education. Though supporters say the companies make quality online courses and degrees possible for institutions that don’t have the capacity to build them themselves, detractors say outsourcing instructional services undermines a university’s nonprofit status and provides incentives to raise tuition and recruit students aggressively. Companies that charge institutions a percentage of revenue have been the subject of particular scorn.

“If campuses are going online to generate enrollment, and by extension revenues, then they have these agreements that require significant seat fees due to the OPM providers,” Green said. “The question is, what is the result of the revenue for the campus?”

The OPM question has been asked on the survey in past years, but the result had not changed significantly, he said.

IT officials at 235 institutions took part in the survey, with those at private four-year colleges being the most prevalent, with 90 respondents, and those at private research and doctoral universities being the least prevalent, with 12 respondents.

Other challenges IT officials reported were concerns regarding data security and the hiring and retaining of IT workers. Only 34 percent rated IT security at their institutions as “excellent,” and over 75 percent said hiring and retaining IT talent is made difficult by competitive salaries in the private sector.

Looking at three decades of the Campus Computing survey, Green said that over all, the underlying issues about technology in higher ed haven’t changed much. “We’re still struggling with financing; we’re still struggling with training and user support,” he said. “Analytics has fallen well short. We don’t do a good job of evaluating our investments in IT, particularly on the instructional side. We do all these pilot projects and initiatives that we never take the time to evaluate.”

“The reality is the technology issues aren’t necessarily about technology,” he said. “They’re about everything that technology touches.”

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