Earlier this month, BYU’s sponsoring institutionÂ implemented aÂ hiring freeze and other cost-saving measures for 2009 (and perhaps beyond). The current economic “downturn” (insert your own euphemisms here) is impacting higher education coming and going. While the struggling economy and tightened job marketÂ are driving more people to seek degrees, the institutions offering those degrees find themselves in situations similar to–or worse than–what we’re facing at BYU.
In a meeting with the Deans the other day, my boss observed that “crisis plus wit equals opportunity.” He was essentially inviting the Deans to think about things they might do creatively and innovatively, in the midst of economic crisis, to address long-standing dilemmas and challenges. I’ve thought quite a bit about this in terms of academic technology the past few days. As I’ve visited with colleagues at other institutions over the years, I’ve participated in many a conversation aboutÂ institutional leaders notÂ quite catchingÂ the vision of distance learning, online learning, hybrid learning, andÂ otherwise technology enhanced learning in higher education. Now that we face growing demand for our services (teaching and learning) at the exact moment that we’re facing resource constraints, we have a goldenÂ opportunity to demonstrate the value of our craft.
The Sloan-C Five Pillars of Quality research suggests that online learning ought to yield significant improvements in (1) the quality of student learning outcomes, (2) the efficiency of learning, (3) access to learning,Â and (4 & 5) studentÂ and faculty satisfaction with the learning process. We have the opportunity before us, perhaps like we will never again in our lifetimes, to demonstrate our ability to deliver on these promises–particularly, the 2nd and 3rd–at our institutions.
My guess is that administrators, deans, chairs and faculty members at colleges and universities around the world are anxious for good ideas and sound proposals about how to manage the problems that confront us in higher education. Let’s not miss this opportunity to meet crisis with wit and do something bold and innovative.
I’ve been thinking “big thoughts” lately, a problem brought on by several recent conversations with David Wiley. I realize I’m repeating something I’ve written before, but the idea isÂ so core to the way I see things thatÂ I think it bears repeating–the purpose of institutions of higher education (and all of theirÂ associatedÂ functions and personnel) is student learning. Learners and the knowledge and skills they acquire are the raison d’etre of colleges & universities. Sure there are folks who might argue that university-based research is just as important, but the number of institutions that could send their students home and still make a case for their continued existence is very small. Â Â So why does this matter to an academic technologist? Because at the end of the day, my purpose is to ensure that our investments in technology promote better, more effective and even more efficient learning. WhileÂ institutional and instructor efficiency and convenience are laudable goals, however, I’m increasingly of the mind that these goals, by themselves, are not very good justifications for technology expenditures. Unless these efficiencies and conveniences have a direct impact on student learning effectiveness and efficiency, I think we’reÂ missing the mark.Â For example, if we relieve some of the administrivia for an instructor in an introductory course, we should ask ourselves what the instructor is doing with the saved time. If he or she simply has more discretionary time, that’s a nice thing, but not necessarily worth significant institutional investment. If, on the other hand, that extra time is dedicated to more one-on-one time mentoring and coaching students, working on mentored research projects with students, or teaching smaller sections of upper-division courses, methinks that is a more justifiable use of institutional teaching & learning improvement resources.Â Some not-so-random observations that have been bouncing around my noggin related to learners, goals & technologies:
- We should focus on technologies that support LEARNINGÂ activities more than we do on technologies that support TEACHINGÂ activities.
- If we can’t readily explain how we expect aÂ particular technology to improve learning, we should rethink what we’re doing.
- If a technology yields significant institutional or instructor efficiency, we should ask how learners will benefit from that efficiency, i.e. how will learning be improved?
Perhaps these observations are obvious to most readers, but, again, I believe their important enough that they need to be repeated, again and again, so we don’t forget them. Maybe a teaching & learning with technology mantra is in order: “Teaching & learning technology should always improve learning. Teaching & learning technology should always improve learning. Teaching & learning technology . . .” You get the idea.Â So, how can we tell if technology has actually improved learning? That’s the subject of aÂ presentationÂ I’m making this Friday atÂ Educause 2008. I’ll post about in a couple of days.Â