Technology is the Wrong Lever


There is growing recognition on even the most traditional college campuses that change is afoot, and not in the run-of-the-mill, change-is-the-only-constant way we are weary of discussing. Rather, the sense is that higher education is at something of a crossroads, with dramatic reinvention the more appealing outcome and complete annihilation or worse, irrelevance, the lesser. In other words, NBD…

It’s the kind of identity crisis that I imagine has taken place in higher education before (or has it?), but perhaps never with such visibility or collective foresight that a critical turning point in history is about to occur. Or rather, it’s already occurring. As I’ve written elsewhere, there is mounting evidence that what higher education is offering to its patrons is no longer to their satisfaction. The old model is too expensive, too linear, too impersonal and frankly, too useless. The demand for something new has been growing, I think, for the last decade. At the same time, in the span of a half-generation, technology has become ubiquitous. So seamless is the gap between our identities and our technologies that we no longer conceive of them as separate, and this is all the more true for our students. Meanwhile, the systems, methods and philosophies that underlie higher education have been scrambling to keep pace.

What I wonder is whether, in the discomfort of the larger shifts happening in higher ed, we have eagerly placed all our eggs in the technology basket as a sort of scapegoat solution. Have we conflated these two co-occurrences in such a way that has us feeling like we’re addressing the issue without actually doing so?

On his Inside Higher Ed blog this week, Josh Kim aligns the downfall of the Polaroid Corporation as a result of failing to evolve with the risk that higher ed runs for doing the same. He explains that while Polaroid had a long history of success, was willing to innovate and had developed new technologies to meet the demands of the future, the company had not budged at its core. The spirit of evolution had not infiltrated deeply enough to reach its strategy or culture.

In higher education, we’ve incorporated new technologies, but have used them in large part to cling to our old ways. As Gardner Campbell explains in a Q&A with Mary Grush, the arrival of online learning and the learning management system have made it easier than ever to track student behavior, productivity and other easily measured forms of “learning.” Placing our measurement focus in these areas emphasizes the linear pathways, predictable structures and impersonal approach to education. So as we feel accomplished institutionally for changing with the times and implementing these new tools, we obscure our own view of the larger issue. As Kim says, investing in technology is not a substitute for evolving the culture.

Maybe we’re pulling the technology lever as a stand-in for enacting real change because, well, change is hard. Our institutions are committed to who we’ve always been, and much depends on continuing the status quo. But I am ever hopeful that real change is not only necessary, but increasingly possible; not only possible, but already begun. For every stick in the mud I see on my campus and beyond, I see counter examples of people applying their creativity, resilience and wisdom to envision and create a different reality. I am part of more and more conversations about shaking things up, and these conversations lead to real work, new initiatives and sometimes, institutional funding. And I am convinced that beneath the grueling layers of politics and bureaucracy that exist at every institution, there are high-quality relationships and a commitment to the mission of teaching and learning that we can rally around.

Let’s rethink how and why we’re pulling the technology lever, and face the possibility that we’re still hoping for a bailout–something to save us from the hard work of shifting culture and aligning strategy. Let’s create new levers, or draw on change models that produce results in other fields. Let’s let technology be a tool to enable real change rather than the red herring that may prevent it.