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The Higher Education Technology Paradox

The academic rewards system will continue to stymie technology adoption unless higher ed administrators promote organizational change.

The number one paradox in higher education is that technology is both transforming and disrupting universities around the world. Institutions that adapt to the technology and become content producers will survive and flourish; those confined to being content consumers will struggle to stay in business.

Many colleges and universities are in financial difficulty today: According to an article in The New York Times, Moody’s Investors Service estimates that the number of four-year nonprofit colleges going out of business could triple (from five to 15 per year) over the next few years, and the merger rate will more than double from two or three today. The inability to keep up with technology-enhanced teaching and learning will only exacerbate the problems of financially challenged colleges.

What kind of technology has such great potential for positive and negative outcomes?

  • Flipped classes have students studying (asynchronous) course materials on their own time usually by accessing content posted to a learning management system on the Internet. Physical class time is spent working on problems, team projects, discussion issues and similar activities.
  • Blended classes are like flipped classes, but typically the time in a physical class meeting is reduced to compensate for the time students spend studying asynchronous materials.
  • Online classes eliminate physical class sessions. There are two types of online classes: those that have no synchronous interaction among faculty and students and those that use videoconferencing software to hold a real-time, synchronous class. Online programs with synchronous classes are the most expensive and labor-intensive to offer, but provide the best online experience.
  • MOOCs are massive open online classes that students can take for free, or pay for in order to earn a certificate or specialization. These classes are available on three major platforms, Coursera, edX and Udacity; anyone with an Internet connection can access asynchronous materials, bulletin boards and instructor videos that constitute the course. Some universities (Georgia Tech, U. of Illinois, Arizona State) are building for-credit classes and degree programs around MOOCs, which is a huge threat to traditional universities and degree programs.

What does it take for a university to develop the kind of materials described above? Obviously, it requires money, but more than money it needs a motivated and committed faculty. The reward system in most institutions and the inherent conservatism of faculty members create a huge barrier to adopting new technologies for education. (Many faculty members are in denial that the technology can improve student learning and that it will be widely implemented.)

How does the reward system impact technology adoption?

  • Assistant professors at research universities are rewarded for publishing scholarly articles and books, which they must do to be granted tenure. They cannot risk the time needed to master the new technologies.
  • Tenured faculty can largely do what they want, and by the time they have received tenure have fallen into a rhythm of research and teaching; once tenured they are expected to undertake more service to the institution. Where does the time come from to adopt a new approach to the classroom?
  • Non-tenure track instructors are employed because they are good, or at least adequate, teachers. Adopting new technology in the classroom is risky and could result in lower student evaluations, which in turn could affect their employment status.

It is true that not all students are ready for technology in learning. An undergraduate in the Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland complained after a flipped statistics class that he was paying all of this tuition to teach himself. What a great outcome! In less than three years when he graduates there will be no one to teach him, so learning how to learn was a tremendous byproduct of the class. As technology-enabled classes become the norm in K–12 schools and at universities, these students will adapt — and they will probably adapt faster than the faculty.

Deans and other administrators are going to have to motivate the faculty and modify rewards in order to move their institutions ahead. They have to lead the charge in collaboration with faculty who are positive and enthusiastic about new ways of teaching and learning. Yes, there are some faculty who want to change, and they come from all of the groups above. Maybe some are risk takers, others like technology, and possibly all of them see the advantages of technology in the classroom. The technology can help change teaching and learning from a largely passive exercise to an active one in which students are heavily engaged and involved in their learning.

Administrators, then, will have to become the prime movers for adopting this new round of educational technology. They have to encourage adoption and organizational change in as many ways as possible: appointing associate deans for classroom innovation, investments in technology and instructional designers, and by rewarding those who step forward to participate. The administration has to bring faculty, staff and students together to transform higher education with technology.

Hank Lucas is the author of Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education: Saving the American University.

May 17 2016