Sunday, May 24, 2015
Ignorance is Not an Excuse
Likewise, if one is in any kind of leadership role, with decision-making authority, it is simply inexcusable to be unaware of the vigorous conversation about the role of education technology in higher education. In particular, it is essential for our college/university leaders to grasp what is at stake when a decision is made about, for instance, outsourcing online course development to the private sector. Higher education, especially public education, has become deeply politicized. Debates about the role of education technology are central to the politics of higher education, in part because there is a lot of money at stake. As campus IT evolves into a complex (and expensive) part of the campus infrastructure, more and more resources are directed away from instructional budgets and towards IT departments (in various configurations). This includes the creation of entirely new units in such areas as Learning Sciences and Data Analytics. This isn't a bad thing; it has the potential to be quite a good thing. But it is a big change.
This reallocation of resources is largely invisible to most teaching faculty and even department chairs; yet an awareness of it is essential. For one thing, it might finally demonstrate to departments that our universities are in the midst of significantly redefining the way they accomplish their mission. Rank and order faculty remain ignorant of this important conversation at their own risk. Departments with graduate programs have an ethical obligation to ensure that their graduate students are trained in the latest best practices, including a strong knowledge of online course design and implementation; and a basic knowledge of important ed tech tools. The graduate students of today will be expected to have this skill set when they apply for jobs, and many of them will be asked to teach both in classrooms and online. It is inexcusable to not prepare those who pursue academic jobs for this reality.
For many decades, it was possible for faculty, and especially for our department leadership, to be disconnected from the larger, national discussions about higher education. It is surprising to me how few faculty have any real sense of the vigorous debates currently happening, especially around the issue of the private sector elbowing its way into both K-12 and higher education. It is simply impossible for departments (and Colleges within universities) to make wise decisions about where to direct resources if you don't understand this encroachment by the private sector--and what factors are fueling it. Most faculty have little sense of where their students are taking classes. They don't realize that, over the past three years, the number of students taking courses outside of the university--either online, at community colleges, or even at other 4 year institutions--has increased exponentially, to the point that a college like mine (Liberal Arts) has already outsourced an unacceptable amount of our General Education/Core Curriculum courses. We should be having vigorous conversations about how to reverse this trend, including how to integrate our own, high-quality online courses into our curriculum. It is frustrating to me to see that, if these conversations are happening, they are happening at very high levels and largely exclude faculty. It is equally frustrating, though, to see my faculty peers express so little interest in these important conversations.
I appreciate that faculty are busier than ever these days. It would be helpful if institutions did more to ensure that faculty are educated about policy conversations but also, that faculty are held accountable for using best practices in their classrooms. In any other profession, an individual who refused to remain up to date on basic technological developments would no longer be able to work in that field. This has become a real issue in medicine, as more and more sophisticated diagnostic tools come out (e.g the Da Vinci robot for abdominal surgeries). Physicians in procedure-intensive specialties regularly have to learn how to use new devices--otherwise they would lose patients and business. Likewise, it would be considered malpractice for a physician to be unaware of the latest research and medications for various conditions. Imagine a rheumatologist who ignored all the new studies about the dangers of long-term use of prednisone and continued to prescribe it at high doses to his patients!
Out of date or sub-par teaching won't kill anyone, to be sure. Eventually, though, students and their parents will become more savvy and less willing to tolerate poor learning experiences. The result won't be that tenured faculty are fired for poor teaching, however. Instead, the persistence of faculty resistance to ed tech and best practices will be used in higher education debates to persuade the leaders of our institutions that the teaching of, especially, first and second year courses can't be left to the luddite faculty who refuse to update their practices. This will (and, in some places, already has) lay the foundations for outsourcing these courses to private-sector companies; and to the continued redirection of resources away from departmental instructional budgets. If departments want to hire more positions, the best thing they can do is figure out how to reclaim the credit hours that we have lost--and will continue to lose in escalating numbers. We are approaching a tipping point. Soon it will be too late, if it isn't already too late.
One of the best historians of education technology is Audrey Watters. She regularly posts her public presentations to her site hackededucation.com (see The Golden Lasso of Education Technology for a recent example). I am also a huge fan of this collection of her essays, The Monsters of Education Technology (a bargain at $4.99 on Kindle; 9:99 for pb). Another fantastic way to get caught up on the conversation about higher education and the politics of education technology? Twitter. Really.
5/26: See also The Ed Tech Curmudgeon: "If the educators that care about students don't find a way to respond, the future of education will belong to those who stand to profit economically or politically or both. Who will build the universities and colleges of the future - those who understand the history and share the values of the educational enterprise, or those who simply want to make a buck?"