Digital Foreigners in Charge

Boards of trustees are spending more time debating how their institutions should invest in education technology, but many members say they feel unprepared to make those decisions.

October 8, 2013

Board members are spending more of their time debating issues such as competency-based learning, online courses and technology in the classroom, but many of them feel unprepared to make strategic decisions about the role of technology in their institutions.

The Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges surveyed more than 2,000 board members this spring, finding that 57.6 percent of respondents felt they spent more time discussing how educational technology would impact their institutions than the year before. As the conversation about technology on campus intensifies, only 19 percent of respondents said their boards are prepared to decide which technologies to invest in. Half of respondents rated their boards as showing “generally good engagement; some lack of awareness or understanding,” and an additional 20 percent said their boards exhibited “poor execution of this area of oversight.”

The sense of unpreparedness may stem from the lack of information board members receive about the various technological initiatives taking place on their own campuses. In every category, from what competitors are doing with online learning to the cost of online education, between one-half and two-thirds of respondents said they received “fair,” “poor” or no information. Instead, board members learn about online education from other higher education professionals (74 percent), presentations at board meetings (67 percent) or higher education publications (66 percent).

The results suggest board members may not be as up to date on technological innovations as they feel they should be, but that they also have time to catch up. Only 28 percent of respondents say online education is “important” or “essential” to their institutions today, but when asked to look ahead five years, 71 percent of respondents say they expect it will be so. At the same time, the group of respondents answering “not important” drops from 30.9 percent to 3.2 percent, suggesting a general agreement among board members that while online education will eventually play some role, its significance may vary.

Massive open online courses continue to be a topic on which board members have a range of views: 57 percent of respondents said they think MOOCs may have a positive impact on their institution in the future, but 56 percent also agreed that MOOCs could pose a threat to their business models. In comparison, board members were more positive toward the use of prior learning assessments and competency-based credits, with 62 and 60 percent, respectively, saying those initiatives could have a positive impact. As respondents identified greater scheduling flexibility and reaching different students as the top priorities of online education, the numbers suggest board members are most positive toward initiatives that appeal to nontraditional students whose obligations prevent them from pursuing higher education.

With the perceived growth of online education in the next five years, many board members are questioning their institutions’ rate of change. A single percent of respondents said their institutions are moving too fast to offer online education, while 35 percent of respondents are concerned they are moving too slowly. Yet a plurality, or 43 percent, rated their institution’s approach as “just right.”

The tendency among board members to think universities are too slow to launch new technological initiatives can be seen at institutions such as the University of Virginia, where disagreements about the role of online education last year led to the brief ouster of President Teresa Sullivan. E-mail conversations between members of the Board of Visitors in the weeks before Sullivan’s departure showed board members sharing articles that discussed the potential of massive open online courses to lower the cost of higher education. The board reversed the decision two weeks later.

About 90 percent of the institutions surveyed offer at least one four-year degree. About eight percent identified as for-profit institutions, while 58.9 percent enrolled between 1,000 and 5,000 students.


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