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February 24, 2009

How Technology Will Reshape Academe After the Economic Crisis

Today's blog appears in an edited form in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Where will the Academy be the ‘day after’ the current global economic crisis passes?

If we imagine the future state of the university and the education eco-system, of which we are a key institutional part, as effectively picking up from the same point the day before the crisis, then I believe we will have missed the dynamics driving the current crisis. Some are prepared to concede that the financial crisis may take its toll on a number of universities. Mergers, consolidations, and perhaps even closures are all possible outcomes of the financial crisis. Viewed as only a financial crisis, crisis management has attempted to attack the economic equation by constraining and re-directing inputs. Fewer students, fewer offerings, suspend sabbatical leaves, salary freezes, and staff layoffs are all intervention strategies for the financial ledger. As someone who lives with the crushing budget challenge those decisions are painful and risk ripping at the core fabric of the Academy. It’s also not the heart the challenge.

The structural challenges we face are far more complex than (tuition+research+endowment)-(salaries+facilities). Paul Romer is quoted as having once said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” I leave it to thought leaders across the Academy and readers of this blog to opine as to what opportunities might present themselves to universities prepared to seize the moment.

I offer one arc of insight for consideration regarding the explosion of education content in the past 20 years. The iron lock and tyranny of traditional text book publishers and the tacit complicity of the Academy in this oligopolistic business practice is imploding. In the pre-Internet era, the scarcity model of education was enabled and reproduced through the specialized and encyclopedic knowledge of the professoriate combined with a cannon text which bore truth as a supplemental guide to our favorite professors. The information explosion engendered by the distributed architecture of the Internet has transformed much of our research agenda and also the DNA of the educational experience in the classroom. First it was the electronic posting of syllabi and email for office hours as complements to their legacy analog functions. Hypercard became multimedia and desktop publishing became the World Wide Web. Learning and expressions of discovery moved from fundamentally inward artifacts like a classroom presentation or an exam to student published web pages, searchable discussion boards, and collaborative wikis for medical school education. In a curve which is only accelerating these past 20 years, we now have an educational economy of abundance confronting an educational delivery system which has become calcified and premised on an outdated model of scarcity of information. I am of the general view that we won’t solve the underlying fiscal crisis facing the university until we look at and re-frame the nexus of technology, educational content, and knowledge creation. While it need not be an either or proposition, there is little positive that can come out of continuing to deny the impact of the technological revolution we are living in and contributing mightily towards as we chart the next chapter in the life of our collective enterprise.

The most exciting challenge the Academy now faces is a collective project to advance the research and learning enterprise moving into the 21st century by embracing the tsunami of open educational resources that have been generated by distinguished faculty researchers, brilliant teachers, and exceptional students. Today, those resources live both within the gardened walls of our institutions and our web presences and over the past three or four years as generally available resources through platform technologies like Apple’s iTunes U, Open Courseware, and explosive content creation activities underway in countries like India and China. The collective effort of technologists and technology leaders has created (and will no doubt continue to generate) a series of platforms for re-visiting our pedagogies and our understanding of how different kinds of learners engage in the socializing and processing of information towards knowledge.

While we might have asserted in the pre-Internet era that we had a significant (if not monopolistic) impact on the learning that a typical university student has during their experience on campus, that is simply no longer the case. If we are to remain relevant to the post-secondary education experience of future generations, nothing less than a big, bold, and yes, transformational project is required. If indeed a crisis is a terrible thing to waste, future generations of learners will no doubt look back at the global economic crisis of 2008-09 and reflect on which institutions were agile enough to bring the wisdom of its scholars together with the acumen of its technology leadership and the ingenuity and determination of the universities leadership team to make a difference. It’s actually not only the future of the university that is in play. How we produce, organize, and distribute open education resources is at the heart of the future of education around the world.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University

Posted by lsg8 at February 24, 2009 03:29 PM and tagged

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