Published on 2013/12/16

Academic Transformation: It’s About Technology, with a Capital “T” (Part 2)

Academic Transformation: It’s About Technology, with a Capital “T” (Part 2)
Big-T Technology has the capacity to truly innovate postsecondary education, but the focus must be on larger innovations rather than smaller implementations.

This is the conclusion of MJ Bishop’s two-part series on the values and limitations of technology (and Technology) in the higher education space. Previously, Bishop outlined some of the problems with introducing innovations and technologies for their own sake. In this piece, she outlines how Technology can lead to positive changes in the industry.

To be fair, this “functional fixedness” isn’t limited only to educators; generally speaking, our preconceptions about the way a tool works can limit the way we think about using it to solve problems. In a series of experiments in the early 1930s, Maier asked participants to tie together two strings that were hanging from the ceiling. The participants quickly discovered that, while they held onto one of the strings, they could not reach the other. The solution was to tie an object to one of the strings and then to swing the weighted string toward the other. Maier handed participants a pair of pliers, hinting that the tool could be used to solve the problem. He found that those participants who could not envision the pliers as anything other than a gripping tool could think only to use them in failed attempts to extend their reach. In this case, there was a mismatch between the problem to be solved and the research participant’s application of his or her knowledge of the tool’s capabilities.[1],[2]

A similar mismatch is revealing itself with regard to our residential facilities, which can also be viewed as a Technology within this broader definition. As with the other Technologies at our disposal, we have a general sense that there is something important about the campus experience, particularly for emerging young adults, in terms of the development of personal identity, purpose and interdependence. In fact, Jeff Selingo, author of “College Unbound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students,” argued that living and working with different people, access to mentors, participating in new experiences, networking and collaborating are all functions a traditional campus performs better than non-residential online alternatives, at least for now.[3] But while American colleges and universities continue to invest huge amounts of money in their physical spaces, spending somewhere close to $11.6 billion on new capital projects in 2011 alone, higher education is largely unable to articulate the “value add” of the residential experience, and is doing comparatively little to design truly innovative academic programs and spaces that capitalize on their facilities’ potential to bring people together as communities of learners.[4]

I recently visited a campus to meet faculty who had undertaken an extensive and very successful course redesign project in order to make their large-enrollment classes more engaging, active and learner centered by off-loading content delivery to out-of-class time and using class time, instead, for a variety of collaborative activities and small group discussions. As soon as I arrived for our meeting, the obviously irritated lead instructor on the project whisked me off to see the “unworkable space” that had been assigned to these courses: a dilapidated old lecture hall complete with a podium positioned at the focal point in front of a whiteboard, a fan-shaped multi-tiered design to assure optimal views of the lecturer and bolted-to-the-floor chairs intended to keep students’ attention focused forward by barely swiveling. All that was missing was a globe.

We cannot continue to limit our educational practice to the boundaries of our previous knowledge. We need to be very certain of the underlying problems to be solved as well as the capabilities of the available tools, techniques and systems to address those needs. Until then, we will continue to deprive our students of the transformative power of Technology – in the true sense of the word – to change education’s future.

– – – –


[1] Norman RF Maier, “Reasoning in Humans. I: On Direction.” Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol. 10, 1930, p 115-143.

[2] Norman RF Maier, “Reasoning in Humans. II: The Solution of a Problem and its Appearance in Consciousness.” Journal of Comparative Psychology, Vol. 12, 1931, p. 181-194

[3] Jeff Selingo, “Why the college experience still matters,” LinkedIn, January 30, 2013. Accessed at

[4] Anirban Basu, “Higher education construction spending: Peak, slump, recover?” Construction Executive, June 2011. Accessed at

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Readers Comments

Dan Jones 2013/12/16 at 4:38 pm

I was hoping Bishop would expand on the most common mismatches between institutional needs and the tools they use to address them, as well as strategies to overcome the mismatch.

One thing that might hold institutions back is a corporate culture that is wary of change. A tool is often kept and applied long after it’s ceased to be effective simply because it’s what the institution is used to, or because it was expensive to acquire.

Tawna Regehr 2013/12/17 at 1:47 pm

I really enjoyed this series because it’s a different way of looking at Technology and technology. Bishop provided some useful examples and made a good case for why we need to first identify a problem before throwing every tool but the kitchen sink at it. Good advice I hope will be adopted by many institutions.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *