Reflection: 6 Objections to Technology in Higher Ed

This is a reflection on Joshua Kim’s article, 6 Objections to Technology in Higher Ed. I’m going to address each of the major points, but for more context, please refer to the original article.

Objection #1 – Money Spent On Campus Technology Is Money Not Available to Spend Elsewhere:
Price growth (tuition) has outstripped wage growth (and everything else). The states have largely walked away from funding higher ed, shifting the cost burden to students and their families. There is a general worry amongst many in higher education that spending on campus technology organizations and big ticket technologies is taking dollars away from faculty.

It’s undeniably true that budgets are tighter than ever in higher ed. One reason for this is that, for the last 30 years,  conservative anti-tax politicians have systematically slashed funds for public education– an ideology-driven “starve the beast” privatization campaign that has held steady since the 1980s and has only gained speed since the beginning of the Great Recession.
A graph of the aggressive defunding of higher education, state by state.

What results is that costs are increasingly shifted from the government onto students, saddling them with onerous debt and jeopardizing their return on investment of a college education. While other countries are offering free university tuition (even to Americans), we can’t even provide it for our own children.

This tightening of funding increases pressure on everyone connected to the institution– everyone from instructors to IT to edtech vendors and administrators are forced to offer greater value with fewer resources. It also creates the impression that we all need to be fighting over the same pieces of an ever-shrinking pie. I argue that we should be demanding a bigger pie. I see this as a political issue, and I urge you to find your state lawmaker and let them know you want to see increased state funding for education.

With that said, the good news is that open source and free consumer cloud tools are mature enough to provide a first-class learning tech ecosystem for a fraction of the proprietary enterprise tools of yesteryear. So even if tightening budgets are here to stay, we can get more connectivity and functionality for less of our edtech budgets.

Objection #2 – Campus Technology Spending Serves Corporate / Profit Interests Rather Than Learner / Educator Interests:
There is little doubt that a great deal of higher education money is spent on technology goods and service from for-profit companies. The question is what value are the students and faculty getting from all this spending? There is a worry that interests of technology companies, and campus technology staff, may not be fully aligned with the interests of either educators or learners. This concern about the role of technology vendors is part of a larger concern about the corporatization of higher education. A concern that traditional values of discovery, dissent, and questioning are being sacrificed in an ever expanding quest for rankings, prestige, and the tuition and grant dollars that flow from these external validators.
I don’t know if edtech corporations can be faulted for crafting seductive marketing campaigns that promise the moon and deliver something less. Sadly, that’s sorta’ what they all do, because ‘Merica. However I have seen this phenomenon play out on the institutional side — how important tech purchases get made without a critical analysis of the needs, objectives, or rollout plan for success.
This. Is. Hard. Work. Unreasonably hard. I found that most of my colleagues, faculty, and administrators didn’t want to engage with the bullet-point-level minutiae of comparing five different LMSes against our self-study data about how faculty are using the LMS. I think that institutional tech purchasers and influencers need to learn to see through the slick marketing copy and ask the right questions before investing in any system, commercial or otherwise.
With this said, I realize there are a small number of us who will ever want to deal with the complexity of evaluating software decisions at this granular level. For those who would rather follow the mainstream, it’s important that we get a publicly visible dialogue going about cost efficiency in education technology. Do we know if switching from an enterprise groupware solution to a BYOD iPad 1:1 system is a net savings for the school? Does it merely shift costs from institution to student? Does shifting from owning self-hosted technology to using subscription-based cloud services actually result in a net savings to the institution?
Objection #3 – Non-Faculty Technology Staff May Erode Faculty Autonomy and Control:
Our not-for-profit postsecondary system is built on a system of shared faculty governance. When it comes to the curriculum and the academics, the faculty run the place. There is a concern that a growing cadre of campus administrators, including technology administrators, may erode long-held systems of faculty governance and autonomy by exerting too much influence on institutional decision making. These concerns are particularly relevant as more of the core functions of the academy are mediated by technology, such as the shift to more online modes of instruction.
One characteristic of a student-centered school is that we look at all facets of the school institution, asking the question “how does this affect student learning?” Faculty control is not a good in and of itself– it is a tradition we have developed because it protects freedom of speech and expression against institutional interference. It becomes problematic when faculty control actively opposes reforms that can result in better student outcomes. Higher Ed faculty are being asked for the first time to align their courses with industry and academic standards, and to transparently show how their learning activities produce the expected outcomes. This is uncomfortable, scary, and inconvenient for faculty who are accustomed to little oversight, but it’s a level of transparency that promises to result in better student outcomes.
Objection #4 – Enterprise Technology Solutions and Services Are A Poor Fit for Campus User Needs:
The enterprise technology systems purchased, rolled out, and supported by central IT organizations may be a poor fit for the needs of the academic end-users. One-size fits all technology solutions may not fit the needs of many on campus. Many researchers object to part of the overhead on grants going to central IT, as they believe they are in a better position to meet their own technology needs. Many on campus would rather use agile (and often free) consumer solutions, rather than be confined to the enterprise platforms and software approved and supported by central IT.
I agree with this one — to a point. Most enterprise systems are designed to keep proprietary secrets inside the organization, which is a fundamental mismatch with the kind of free flowing interchange of information that characterizes education institutions. However, the opposite — a “wild west” where everyone is using their own unique set of free tools — can result in poor coordination between departments and the institution as a whole. I think the right mix is to provide a powerful core set of flexible tools for email, collaboration, file sharing, etc. (Google Apps really shines within education institutions), but still allow users the freedom to supplement this with free tools where needed.
Objection #5 – Investments in Campus Learning Management Systems (LMS) Work Against Educational Aims:
There is a strong distrust of the rise of the ubiquitous campus LMS amongst many thoughtful educators. The objections are two-fold. First, many question why students should invest so much time learning a digital platform that they will never use in their work lives once they leave campus. Why not use the free or near-free consumer and social services and platforms, such as blogs and Twitter and Google Drive or DropBox or even Facebook, to perform the teaching and learning functions currently handled by the LMS?  The second objection is the closed and siloed nature of most LMS courses. LMS skeptics ask why should students collaborate, create, and publish into systems that are closed off to everyone else in the world.
There are a lot of issues boiling under the surface here. It’s absolutely true that LMSes cost too much, especially considering that most faculty use only a small subset of the features they include. They are used mostly as “document dumps” — a place where PDFs and PowerPoints are posted and downloaded. This low-level usage doesn’t take advantage of the more advanced features hiding in every LMS — the ones that are most associated with interactivity, critical thinking, and mastery learning. Discussion forums, group collaboration spaces, rubrics, collaborative annotation, and formative exams are un-sexy, but when used correctly, are much more powerful than merely sharing files– whether in Google Drive or Blackboard. The question we need to ask ourselves is “are we OK with accepting that transferring files is all education is about? Or should we be figuring out how to incentivize instructors to use the advanced features that make LMSes worth the price!?!?”
Lastly, on the question of why LMS courses are siloed, (A) they don’t have to be, most modern LMSes allow an “public” setting to facilitate open courses, and (B) many schools choose not to open courses to the public, erring on the side of protecting students’ privacy and FERPA rights. Another reason to close off one’s course to the public is so faculty don’t have to worry about the copyright status of the materials they’re sharing with students. Faculty tend to want to protect their own intellectual property (lectures, tests, etc.), and don’t want to re-license copyrighted course readings for public rebroadcast.
Objection #6 – All The Resources Spent On Technology Have Failed to Improve Productivity:
This last objection the higher ed technology is perhaps the most damning. Critics ask where the payoff is for postsecondary productivity for all the money that has been spent on postsecondary technology.  Are we seeing the payoff in better educated students?  In lower tuition costs? In greater access to higher education?  How has all the technology, and the technology administrators, made any meaningful contribution to addressing the iron triangle of quality, costs, and access in higher education?
I touched on this above. Yes, it’s true. When technology is not used strategically to address the institution’s most pressing goals, it is a huge, expensive waste of time, money, and energy. That’s not technology’s fault — it is merely a tool. And as the old adage goes, “it is a poor workman who blames his tools“.
Often, the problems you see in technology are really institutional, human problems. They’re symptoms that people are not having the right conversations, asking the right questions, and doing the unsexy, necessary gruntwork that makes a difference in student outcomes. Consequently, tech problems are a highly visible bellwether for the types of organizational changes we need to make in our institutions. You can see from my responses above– all the competing perverse incentives in and around the institution that tend to distract and disincentivize effective practice. These are human problems that need human solutions before your technology tools will serve you well.
I have faith that by addressing the problems our technology reveals about us, we move beyond low-level usage, low expectations, low effort, and low results. The tools are capable of supporting us in flying much higher than is the current norm.

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Ted Curran is a Learning Experience Designer/Developer for Autodesk. He is committed to empowering educators and learners to create transformational change through effective pedagogy and technology integration. You can follow Ted on Mastodon, LinkedIn or learn more at my 'About" page. These thoughts are my own.

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  1. February 22, 2015

    […] Ted Curran – Reflection on 6 objections to technology in higher ed […]


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