18 minute read

Technology in Education

Higher Education

Colleges and universities have generally been quick to adopt new technologies, often even before their educational value has been proven. Throughout its history, higher education has experimented with technological advances as diverse as the blackboard and the personal computer. Some technologies have become permanent parts of the higher education enterprise. Others, such as the slide rule and the 16-millimeter movie projector, have been replaced as more sophisticated or more cost-effective technologies have emerged to take their place.

At the dawn of the twenty-first century, new and rapidly improving technologies are in the process of transforming higher education. Each year since 1994, the Campus Computing Survey has shown increased use in college classrooms of technology-dependent resources such as e-mail, the Internet, course web pages, and computer simulations. Technology has the potential to revolutionize the traditional teaching and learning process. It can eliminate the barriers to education imposed by space and time and dramatically expand access to lifelong learning. Students no longer have to meet in the same place at the same time to learn together from an instructor. Fundamentally, modern technologies have the ability to change the conception of a higher education institution. No longer is a higher education institution necessarily a physical place with classrooms and residence halls where students come to pursue an advanced education. Thanks to recent developments in technology, the standard American image of a college or university as a collection of ivycovered buildings may need to be revised for the first time since the founding of Harvard in 1636.

Computers and telecommunications are the principal technologies reshaping higher education. Due to advances in each of these domains, electronic mail, fax machines, the World Wide Web, CDROMs, and commercially developed simulations and courseware are altering the daily operations and expanding the missions of colleges and universities.

Forces Promoting and Inhibiting Technology Use

Powerful forces are promoting higher education's adoption of new technologies. The rapid advance of globalization that is lowering international barriers and transforming the business world is also expanding the potential reach of colleges and universities. With sophisticated communication technologies, institutions of higher education are no longer limited to student markets or educational resources in their geographic regions. Likewise, the growing need for lifelong learning opportunities to keep pace with social, economic, and technological changes fuels demand for accessible alternatives to traditional real-time, campus-based instruction. In addition, competition among higher education institutions contributes to technology's advance within colleges and universities. Not wishing to be outpaced by competitors, many institutions are active participants in a technology "arms race" that requires the rapid adoption of new technological innovations as soon as they become available. The alternative is to fall behind other schools that are attempting to recruit the same students, faculty, and donors.

In spite of technology's promise, its integration throughout higher education has not been rapid or painless. Many barriers to technology-based innovations exist within colleges and universities. Academic traditions, such as the faculty-centered lecture, make many professors reluctant to adopt alternative instructional strategies using the computer or telecommunication devices. The cost of many technological applications also prohibits their easy adoption at many resource-limited institutions. Before technology became such a central part of institutional operations, many colleges paid for new or improved technologies from funds left over at the end of their annual budget cycle. Now that technology has become an essential and recurring investment, most schools must locate additional funds to meet their increasing needs for technology resources.

Limited support to help faculty and staff members learn how to take full advantage of technology is another factor inhibiting more widespread use of technology in colleges and universities. According to the 2000 Campus Computing Survey, the single most important educational technology challenge facing colleges and universities is helping faculty integrate information technology into their teaching. The second most important challenge is providing adequate user support. According to Kenneth Green, director of the Campus Computing Project, higher education's investment in technology hardware is, by itself, not sufficient to reap the full benefits of new technology advances. Green concludes that "the real [information technology] challenge is people, not products" (p. 1). Technology will neither reap its full potential nor revolutionize higher education if these barriers to its adoption are not resolved satisfactorily by individual institutions or the educational system as a whole.

Impact on Teaching and Learning

No aspect of higher education remains untouched by the technological developments of the 1980s and 1990s. Academic administration, as well as the instructional process, has been dramatically altered by new technologies. When compared to other college and university operations such as student services, housing, and administration, however, the teaching and learning process probably is being changed most dramatically by technology.

Traditionally, professors have used much of their class time with students to disseminate information through lectures and follow-up discussion. This was especially the case in introductory-level courses, where students lack a foundation in the basic concepts and principles of a field. In an era of advanced technology, this approach to instruction seems archaic and inefficient. Computers, especially web-based resources, can disseminate basic information more efficiently and more cost effectively than human beings can. For example, Gregory Farrington recommends that instructors use the web to do what it can do well. This includes presenting information to students in a variety of formats, twenty-four hours per day. Students can access course material when it is most convenient for them and return to it as often as they need to achieve basic comprehension, competence, or mastery.

This approach to information dissemination can save precious class time "for the intellectual interactions that only humans can provide" (Farrington, p. 87). Following this revised method of facilitating learning, traditional lectures can be replaced or pared down. In their place, classes can be more informal, seminar-like sessions with more free flowing discussion structured by students' interests, questions, and concerns. In other words, appropriate use of technology applications can help instructors to structure more active learning opportunities. Research shows that active engagement in the learning process helps to motivate students and enhance their learning outcomes. New technologies can facilitate active engagement in learning by reducing the amount of class time where students sit passively listening to lectures.

Technology can also help to make education a much more interactive and collaborative process. Email, course-based websites, and computer-based chat rooms are some of the technology-enabled resources that facilitate communication and teamwork among students. Research by education scholars has shown that collaborative learning opportunities enhance recall, understanding, and problem solving. Technology can greatly ease the work of collaborative design teams, peer writing groups, and other types of collaborative learning groups, even among students who do not live in the same geographic area and who cannot meet face to face.

While technology helps to promote collaborative learning, it also helps to personalize and individualize education. By reducing the need to deliver vast amounts of information, technology can free an instructor to devote more time to individual students. With more time to interact and get acquainted, professors can adapt their teaching strategies and assignments to bring them more in line with the interests and needs of the students in their classes. Technology's capacity to deliver large quantities of information over networks also expands the potential for tailoring educational programs to the specific needs of each learner. Dewayne Matthews argues that technology-enhanced programs "can be custom-designed around the needs and interests of the recipient instead of around the scheduling and resource needs of the provider" (p. 3). With the help of technology, educational programs–even full degrees–can be structured around flexible course modules that students can combine in a variety of forms to meet their personal and professional objectives. Matthews suggests that technology-mediated education makes traditional academic calendars and rigid curriculum structures obsolete because it can adapt education so well to individual learning interests and needs.

If education's goal is to help the learner reach his or her full potential, why should education be designed for the convenience of the instructor or the educational institution? Essentially, technology is empowering learners to take more control of their education than ever before. The expanded reach that technology affords educational institutions has encouraged many new providers to offer educational services. This increased competition enables consumers to choose the learning opportunities that best meet their needs within the constraints of their life circumstances. As technology transforms the educational marketplace, the balance of power is shifting from the education provider to the education consumer. Education consumers are now freer to pick and choose, from a variety of sources, the learning opportunities that meet their goals. In this fluid educational environment, the old system of accumulating credits from one or two nearby institutions becomes too restrictive for many students who are balancing a variety of personal and professional roles.

There is a related shift underway as technology transforms the teaching and learning process. The traditional higher education measure of educational achievement, the credit hour, is also being questioned. Matthews argues that "learning outcomes, as measured by student competencies [rather than course credits], is the quality measure that makes the most sense to consumers" (p. 4). In the new educational environment defined by technology, innovative institutions such as Western Governors University award degrees by certifying that students have achieved certain required competencies, regardless of where those competencies were acquired. Such a dramatic shift in the way educational achievement is documented would have been unthinkable before the advent of the free market educational system stimulated by the technology advances of the late twentieth century. Measuring competencies rather than credit hours represents another shift in favor of the consumer. As long as a student can document competence in a subject or skill area, it makes no difference where or how the learning occurred.

Technology's potential to lower the cost of education has been one of its principal appeals. The ability of computers and telecommunications to reach large audiences with the same high-quality educational programs has raised hopes for economies of scale never possible in the very labor-intensive traditional forms of instruction. To date, technology's promise to lower instructional costs has not been realized. Developing the infrastructure to support technology-mediated teaching and learning has been a very expensive proposition. The possibility remains, however, that new, advanced technologies may eventually lower the costs of higher education as researchers and educators learn how to blend technology-delivered and traditional instruction in a more cost-effective manner.

Impact on Professors' Roles

Technology has already changed the lives of college professors in significant ways. As the twenty-first century unfolds, professors' roles will most likely evolve further as computers and telecommunications media are more fully integrated into higher education. Professors can now use technology to prepare for classes, conduct research, deliver instruction, and keep in touch with their students and colleagues in far away places. Electronic mail, fax machines, computerized databases and search engines, and high-tech classrooms are some of the technologies that have transformed the work of college professors. Many experts on teaching and learning and instructional technology are suggesting that a fundamental shift in faculty duties is underway as more technology applications are adopted in higher education. Because technology calls into question the professor's role as a knowledge transmitter, educational reformers such as James Duderstadt, former president of the University of Michigan, suggest that professors should become "designers of learning experiences, processes, and environments" (p. 7).

Rather than serving primarily as a subject expert who shares specialized knowledge with students, this new type of professor acts more as a consultant or coach. With the aid of technology, his primary instructional role is to inspire and motivate students, to construct an environment that promotes learning, and ultimately to manage an active learning process. Ideally, in this carefully designed context, students take more responsibility for their learning and construct meaning themselves, rather than passively absorbing information from a professor. According to conventional wisdom in contemporary higher education, the professor has moved from being "a sage on the stage to a guide on the side." This individual knows his subject deeply, but is also skilled at constructing situations conducive to learning. Effective utilization of instructional technology is part of the twenty-first-century professor's redefined duties.

There has been some discussion that technology may eventually make many instructional positions obsolete, the same way it eliminated the need for telephone operators or police to direct traffic at busy intersections. Why employ undistinguished professors to lecture in classes when sophisticated telecommunications technology can bring world-renowned authorities into classrooms via satellite or the World Wide Web to inspire students and share the latest information in their fields? Critics of this proposal counter by arguing that big academic "stars" do not hold office hours, grade papers, construct exams, or counsel troubled students. They believe that professors should not lose their jobs to automation. According to this view, there will always be a need for many of the conventional faculty functions, such as designing learning opportunities, motivating students, and evaluating performance.

The future probably lies somewhere between these two contrasting options. Higher education will undoubtedly supplement its local talent with other human resources that have become easily accessible through technology. Yet it will also continue to employ professional staff members to design curriculum, manage academic programs, and work closely with students.

Technology is loosening professors' control of the curriculum. Faculty and academic administrators once wielded nearly absolute power over the academic programs their institutions offered. However, technology has now made it possible–and commercially viable–for publishers, software companies, and other providers to design and distribute a wide variety of courseware and instructional modules. This alternative to "in-house" production of courses and academic programs is appealing for financial as well as educational reasons. Spreading the development costs of technology-enhanced educational products permits the integration of sophisticated instructional strategies, such as gaming and simulations, into educational programs. On the other hand, moving the design of educational programs further from those who know an institution's students best causes many educators some concern. Technological advances usually lead to trade-offs. In this case, the benefit of being able to integrate high-tech elements into courses is counterbalanced by the reduction in local control of the curriculum.

Rethinking the Concept of College

Since higher education institutions first emerged, they have been physical places where people gather together to learn. Although higher education institutions have grown and become more complex over time, their basic essence has remained constant. Technology now calls into question the very idea of a college or university. Some accredited institutions of higher education, such as Jones International University, now exist entirely in cyberspace with no campus, classrooms, or athletic teams to tie together the academic community. The traditional campus-based institutions that have served the United States so well are being challenged in the early twenty-first century by a host of nontraditional competitors that offer education at a distance. Many of these entrepreneurial institutions are aided by an assortment of technologies, including computers, satellites, and electronic streaming video. Technology has vastly expanded the demand for education over the course of a lifetime. It has also released education from the confines of the conventional classroom. It has even removed the restrictions imposed by the clock by enabling people who have access to Internet technology to convene for the purpose of shared learning.

The multipurpose American university was so successful because it brought together the array of facilities, experts, students, and funding needed to educate the masses and expand the boundaries of knowledge in service to humanity. The university assembled the critical mass of talent and resources necessary to meet the knowledge needs of a dynamic society. Although this formula worked throughout the twentieth century, technology is challenging this comfortable arrangement. It has enabled many other organizations, such as corporate colleges and for-profit firms, to provide educational services such as degree programs, professional certificate programs, and a host of outreach services that were once monopolized by the higher education community.

The result of this "unbundling" of higher education roles remains in doubt. Technology has led to a vast expansion of the postsecondary education market, and it is calling into question conventional views of what a higher education institution is or should be. However, no one knows precisely what a college or university (physical or virtual) will look like once the other side of the technology revolution is reached. In the past, when higher education adopted technological innovations, the educational system became more open, more complex, and more dynamic. If the past history of higher education can serve as a guide to its future, the technologies now working their way into the system will lead to a more diverse and responsive educational enterprise. How that enterprise resembles the system that functioned throughout the 1900s remains to be seen.

Special Challenges of Technology

In spite of its nearly irresistible appeal, technology presents higher education with difficult challenges. Systematic planning of technological enhancements to educational programs is difficult when technology changes so quickly and unpredictably. Academic planners are continually playing catch-up to implement new technology applications that appear more quickly than a careful planning process can anticipate. Similarly, paying for new technologies with exciting educational applications remains troublesome for institutions with more needs than resources. Authors who wrestle with the funding issues raised by technology argue that new budgeting strategies are necessary to keep institutions from lurching from one technology-funding crisis to the next. Institutions must view technology as a routine expense, not an exceptional special expenditure.

Training faculty and staff members to utilize technology effectively remains a challenge that many colleges and universities have not resolved satisfactorily. It seems clear that building a physical technological infrastructure is not enough. It is also necessary to build a human resource infrastructure for technology to fulfill its promise to higher education.

Finally, adequate evaluation of technology's contribution to higher education remains a challenge. For example, in Teaching with Technology, Wake Forest University vice president David Brown concludes that "the case for computers [in collegiate education] rests on scant amounts of hard evidence"(p. 5). Much of the immense investment in technology that occurred in the 1980s and 1990s was to a large extent an act of faith. Brown argues that the logic in favor of using technology in higher education is compelling, however. He believes that "more choice leads to more learning" (p. 4), and that technology greatly enhances the "box of tools" a professor can employ to reach diverse students. According to Brown, most of the evidence that supports using computers in education is indirect. In his view, research demonstrates that repetition, dialog (question and answer, point and counterpoint), collaborative learning, and visualization and animation (using pictures to support learning) enhance learning. Because computers and other technologies can support these proven educational strategies, Brown concludes that the weight of logic comes down firmly on the side of technology use in colleges and universities. Although Brown makes a strong case for technology, more empirical evidence is needed to justify higher education's massive investment in computers, high-tech classrooms, distancelearning programs, and other technology-based initiatives.

An Emerging New System

Duderstadt asserts that the United States needs a new educational paradigm in order to deliver educational opportunity to a broader spectrum of humanity. The advanced technologies available at the beginning of the twenty-first century are laying the foundation of a new higher education system, better equipped to meet the needs of a complex and rapidly changing society. The outlines of this system, transformed by technology, have begun to appear. The educational system that George Connick believes will eventually result from the current technology revolution has four defining attributes. First, it is easier to access than the old campus-based system. Second, it is unconstrained by the barriers of time and space because technology can liberate education from the restrictions imposed both by the clock and geography. Third, it is student-centered because technology can increase students' learning options. Fourth, it is cost-effective because technology can reduce the labor-intensive nature of higher education and permit the reorganization necessary to make institutions more responsive and competitive.

No one knows what higher education will look like in 2025 or 2100. It is certain, however, that colleges and universities will be very different places than they were in the year 2000. Many factors will contribute to the changes that will occur as the higher education system moves into the future. There is no doubt that technology will be one of the driving forces contributing to the educational transformation that is already well underway.


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