Published on 2015/06/12

High Tech Higher Ed: How Changes in Educational Technology are Transforming the Industry

The EvoLLLution | High Tech Higher Ed: How Changes in Educational Technology are Transforming the Industry
Creating a system of higher education focused on meeting learners’ needs and fully realizing the power and potential of technological tools requires vision and courage from senior institutional leadership.

The NMC Horizon Report has been a respected source of new and upcoming trends in the field of educational technology for some time. Created by a panel of experts, the report seeks to identify key trends, challenges and developments related to educational technology within a five-year horizon. If I were asked by someone outside of my field to provide an analysis of where I think educational technology is headed, I would unabashedly point them to the NMC Horizon Report. If however, someone were to ask me to identify the underlying cultural and economic forces that drive these surface-level trends, my narrative would take a more circuitous path and draw on an eclectic set of disciplines, experiences and experts. My identification of these undercurrents would also draw from assumptions I’ve developed while working in both high tech and higher education.

As a former Netflix employee, it was always impressive to watch a relatively small group of at-will employees harness the power of technology to change the lives of millions of people in a relatively short period of time while generating over one billion dollars in revenue. In many respects, Netflix, like other high-tech start-ups, leveraged well-designed technology to syndicate and monetize data using a novel service model that prioritized end-user need over corporate tradition and process. While some elements of the high tech sociotechnological revolution seeped into higher education over the last several decades in the form of learning management systems, cloud computing and instructional technology, much of higher education has resisted the core strategic principles of this revolution: virtualization of services, scaled operations and the commoditization of employees. Instead, it appeared that many universities focused on large-scale building projects and more effectively meeting the needs of traditional-age, residential learners.

Virtualizing operations or moving content online may appear to be an easily attainable goal. However, porting degrees online has remained an elusive initiative for many universities, including some of our nation’s more distinguished public university systems like the University of California System. For those institutions whose mission embodies access and public good, the accessibility of online degree programs is a helpful starting point, but it is just that—a starting point. Continued investment by universities to develop online degree programs will continue even as late entrants find less compelling financial reasons to do so. But, invest they must since a virtual presence for most universities has become an invaluable means to alleviate space or parking issues for already crowded residential programs, especially in more urban areas. Perhaps more importantly, offering online coursework provides universities with a platform to test and adapt new pedagogy that is unique to online learning. Without this testing ground, universities’ understanding of media literacy and online learning will be relegated to academic journals and conference presentations, a dangerous proposition as more learners express preference for online learning over onsite.

The growth of more sophisticated online learning experiences will continue to shift the responsibility of procuring and curating learning resources to students, even outside of competency-based learning programs. Syllabi will remain an important part of the class experience to provide high-level direction, but more sophisticated virtual assessment instruments will allow instructors to quantify learning in a way that decouples a learner’s competency from traditional conventions of time, method and geography. This progressive unraveling of the Carnegie Unit and an increased prioritization of the assessment function by universities will draw on a myriad of technology-enabled methods and resources that are highly personalized and adaptive. Big Data and analytics will accelerate this process, but I believe the big ideas in digital learning assessment are yet to come. These learner-centric, technology-enabled trends will continue to shift the university’s role to that of convener or facilitator with a more singular focus on accurate assessment to help provide gatekeeping to credentialing. Universities, institutions or companies who thrive in this space of assessment and facilitation will become leaders in the next evolution of higher education.

Scaling operations and commoditizing one’s workforce are additional concepts that, at first blush, appear rather straightforward. Although it is obviously a delicate balance to sustain a business’ bottom line while protecting the rights and interests of a company’s employees, it’s no surprise to many in high tech or higher education that much of the impressive growth in online learning among both public and private institutions—such as Colorado State University Global Campus, Arizona State University or University of Phoenix—has been linked to a heavy reliance on adjuncts or non-tenure track instructors who are focused exclusively on instruction, assessment and classroom management. The ongoing dismantling of the tenure system will continue, which will give employers more control over employee performance. This issue of whether modern universities can successfully advance their missions without a growing reliance on instructors and staff who are employed in lower-wage at-will agreements will take on greater importance as the private sector expands their reach (and profit) into higher education while driving down operational costs. And as seen in recent large-scale initiatives in higher education such as Unizin or large corporate training partnerships, scaling within larger institutions requires vision, resolve and courage at the highest levels of leadership to scale along with other institutions who share mission and operational characteristics. Without a continued focus on scaling infrastructure at the enterprise level, many universities will be left with a shrinking base of students and untenable customer acquisition costs.

While this vision of the future may not appear to be ideal for most faculty or universities, it does favor the learner’s needs, which become prioritized and more fully realized based on creative and highly accessible technology-enabled business models, learning environments and support resources. This vision of educational technology involves a shift of influence among different power brokers and a strategy that recognizes the growing influence of new private entrepreneurial businesses in this space. While it will be difficult at times to identify clear winners and losers in this tumultuous environment, it is almost certain that roles and functions within higher education will continue to be reformulated as more of our work is virtualized, scaled and our roles and expectations as employees within this system are subjected to more competitive external market forces that are both unkind and self-correcting.

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