Technology in Higher Education: The Big Yawn?

Copyright 1990 CAUSE From _CAUSE/EFFECT_ Volume 13, Number 3, Fall 1990. Permission to copy or disseminate all or part of this material is granted provided that the copies are not made or distributed for commercial advantage, the CAUSE copyright and its dateappear, and notice is given that copying is by permission of CAUSE, the association for managing and using information resources in higher education. To disseminate otherwise, or to republish, requires written permission. For further information, contact CAUSE, 4840 Pearl East Circle, Suite 302E, Boulder, CO 80301, 303-449-4430, e-mail TECHNOLOGY IN HIGHER EDUCATION: THE BIG YAWN? by Linda Fleit ************************************************************************ Linda Fleit is President of EDUTECH International, a CAUSE corporate member that provides management and technical consulting services to colleges and universities. She also publishes EDUTECH Report, a monthly newsletter about information technology issues in higher education. ************************************************************************ One of the many file folders I keep handy, and keep constantly filling with material, is labeled "View From the Top" -- my name for a collection of items on the ways in which decision-makers in higher education view computing. In looking through that folder recently, I noticed a clear, but unhappy, pattern emerging. These are some examples from my file: "Technology Is a Hot Topic, But Its Impact on Higher Education Has Been Minimal," from The Chronicle of Higher Education (June 7, 1989), discussing the lack of enthusiasm for technology among many campus people, the inconsistency in approaches to incorporating technology, the misdirected decision-making processes about technology, and a whole variety of other, discouraging issues. "Museum for Interactive Multimedia Opens in Washington, D.C.," from Electronic Learning (February 1990). I saved this because of one sentence in particular: "Tech 2000 was designed partly in response to the near-total lack of attention given to educational technologies at President Bush's Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia last year." "Nine Issues Affecting Higher Education: A Roll Call of the States," again from The Chron-icle (September 6, 1989). Guess which issue isn't mentioned -- and isn't even hinted at? Not a single word about computing, or any kind of information technology, appears in any of the topics mentioned. American Education: Making It Work, then-Secretary of Education William Bennett's report. In discussing the dramatic reforms needed, neither the word "computer" nor the word "technology" is mentioned in the entire sixty-page report, even in the sections on mathematics and science. This file is unquestionably one of my thickest. As well as newspaper and magazine articles, it includes items such as higher

education conference agendas (the American Association of University Administrators had an annual conference not too long ago entitled "Challenge, Change, and Diversity" -- with nary a moment spent nor a word whispered about computing in four days' worth of speeches, sessions, workshops, and special-interest group meetings); brochures for new higher education publications that never mention the possibility of articles on technology; and copies of tables of contents of books meant for higher education administrators, empty of content about technology. The examples go on and on. Is it just my own possibly distorted perspective -- the perspective of one who works with higher education computing every day -- to think there is something wrong with the picture the material in my folder portrays? I suppose it is human nature to exaggerate the importance of the work we do, but hold on -- the work we do is important! We are working to execute an idea that has the chance to change the very foundations of our educational systems, to alter the ways in which one of the most important human endeavors -- the giving and receiving of instruction -- takes place. We are working to make our institutions more efficient, so a greater portion of resources can be channeled to the educational enterprise. And we are working hard at it. How is it that "they" don't see it? Why do the president's eyes still glaze over during a discussion of the strategic advantages of technology? Why does the financial vice president ask the same questions he asked last year (and the year before) about the computer budget? Why does the human resources vice president say she still doesn't understand why the computer center people don't have "normal" work habits? Why does the provost read a consultant's report reviewing -- and disagreeing with -- a hardware decision made by the computer center director, and then not know which one is right? Why does a large and prestigious university in the east "excess" its vice president for computing because he was putting "too many" computers on the desks of users? The most common questions I hear from institutional computing folks are: "How do I make them understand? How do I reach the president (or vice president, or whomever)? How do I get them to see that the theories which are being taught to students in our own MIS courses should actually be implemented in our campus computing? How do I get them to pay attention and do things the right way?" Excellent questions, born out of the frustration of those who see the costs of missed opportunities, the damage from neglect, and the consequences of avoidance of such a potentially valuable resource. But before we can answer those questions, we have to see what it is that's causing the underlying problem. In examining the possibilities, we certainly have to discard lack of intelligence or creativity. After all, in terms of imagination, rational thinking, awareness, and enlightened perspective, higher education is certainly in the forefront of our social institutions. We also have to discard lack of information. Campus people, presidents included, are constantly bombarded with many of the same magazines, newspapers, books, television shows, radio programs, and what-have-you as the ones computer people read and see, not to mention the growing ubiquity of technology in their outside-the-campus lives: bank teller machines, computerized airline reservations, programmable VCRs, Nintendo games, and so on. What is it then? Steve Gilbert, EDUCOM vice president, recently wrote an open letter to leaders in the American Association of Higher Education and other

similar organizations.[1] In it he said, "We have a long way to go to persuade the leaders of our institutions and associations to include information technology whenever they reflect on significant factors for the future of education. Their 'blind spot' is our peril." Our peril, indeed. Although Gilbert asserts in the letter his belief that technology is not being rejected by higher education leaders, just simply omitted, I disagree. I don't think it is as benign as all that. I think our leaders are, at least in part, actively rejecting technology. Why this rejection of technology? My theory is that fear is the biggest culprit. There are too many campus people who still think that to deal effectively with computers, and to make good decisions about technology, they have to understand how a computer works. They think they need to know how to program a computer; they think that before they can get immersed in the issues surrounding technology, they need to know much more about hardware and software than they feel comfortable with -- or feel they can cope with or have time for. I have seen this time and time again -- the president deferring to others on important decisions involving campus technology because, as he or she puts it, "I don't know anything about computers." Unfortunately, the president's single exposure to computing may very well be observing the frustration of computer-literate campus people in getting the computer -- or the computer center -- to actually do what they need to have done. There are other reasons as well. Cost certainly plays a large part, both in terms of money and time. Many campus people feel that the computer center is a black hole into which a hugely disproportionate share of resources is continually poured, compounded by a lack of the immediate payoffs usually associated with such large outlays. Too many information systems projects are still beset by cost overruns and missed deadlines. Faculty in huge numbers still avoid getting involved with computing, fearing it will take too much time away from their real work. Unfulfilled expectations about technology (to which many computer people, especially hardware and software vendors, have contributed), changes in the computing world (and the campus computing environment) too rapid to absorb, and too many pressures bearing down from other sources also play a role in the lack of high-level focus. Considering all of this, perhaps it should not be surprising that for many of our non-computing colleagues and leaders, technology in higher education is just no big deal. This has to change The opportunity cost is simply too large to let this continue. The potential for technology's positive impact is too great to allow this kind of non-involvement. And as campus computing professionals, we need to take an active role in bringing about the change. We need to quell the fears of our top-level people. This may mean never again mentioning the words "baud rate" or "UNIX" in their presence. It may mean making a business case, rather than a technical case, for the next computing initiative we want to undertake. It will almost certainly mean lowering the (noisy) frustration levels of our current users. It may also mean providing constant reassurance, in every way possible, that a technical background is not necessary to be wellinformed about, and well-prepared to deal with, campus technology issues and opportunities. Of course, before we provide such reassurances, we

have to believe all this ourselves. Once we are past the fear (and much of it will go away just with the passage of time), we then need to educate our presidents and vice presidents as to what we really need from them. At the same time, we have to let them know what they can realistically expect from us. Delivering what we promise, being service-oriented, setting realistic expectations, and keeping the lid on costs will all help to establish our credibility. And it will also most certainly help in raising the consciousness of the educational establishment as to the potential power of academic and administrative technology. We need to get beyond "the big yawn" to a place where higher education computing is well-understood, well-appreciated, and, most of all, fulfilling its promise to transform our colleges and universities in the most positive ways. As Bob Heterick said in these pages not too long ago, "There hasn't been a significant change in higher education since the Renaissance."[1] We can make it happen. ======================================================================== Footnote 1 Gilbert's letter appeared in the April/May issue of the EUIT Newsletter, published by EDUCOM. ========================================================================

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