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The Challenge of Technology

Millions of words have been written, on these pages and elsewhere, about the “technology revolution”—classroom computing, fully online courses, hybrid courses, e-books, MOOC’s (massive open online courses). I’ve written a few thousand of those words myself.

In the end, though, all these technological breakthroughs represent nothing more than opportunities for us to reach more students in different and potentially better ways.

The challenge that accompanies this breathtaking opportunity is threefold.

First, some of us must work at being a bit more open-minded. And when I say “some of us,” I’m referring to people like myself, mid- or late-career faculty members who did not grow up using computers and tablets and smartphones, who are not necessarily early adopters, who have never taught (much less taken) an online course, who might even regard such “innovations” with skepticism.

A certain amount of skepticism is a good thing. As history has shown, not every new “breakthrough” is actually an improvement, and it’s always the skeptics who point this out.

On the other hand, skeptics also have a long history of being wrong. So while I’m picturing myself as Laocoon before the gates of Troy, others might just see me as Ebenezer Scrooge.

In the end, skeptics like me have to admit that many technological breakthroughs are actually improvements over the old ways of doing things. Even if we’re not particularly savvy ourselves, we must acknowledge that some of our colleagues use technology with great success, and that their efforts do much to further our collective enterprise. We must educate ourselves about the advantages of various technologies and have the courage to adopt what seems beneficial. Who knows? We might even get ourselves a smartphone for Christmas.

The second challenge is for the mavens to take a deep breath and recognize that not every new technological development is going to “revolutionize” the academy. Some of those developments, as I noted above, turn out not to be that useful, or else they’re quickly eclipsed by the next great thing, obsolete before more than a handful of people have had an opportunity even to consider adopting them.

In addition, some of us simply don’t want to do the things you’re doing, such as teach online or use an e-book. We might recognize that those are valid teaching strategies, in the right hands, but we also believe that there’s still a place in the academy for the tried and true methods that have served us so well for years. So please stop badgering us to “innovate.”

And finally, the challenge that we all confront, I believe, is to make sure that when we use technology, we’re using it for the right reasons.

I took a lot of flak a couple of years ago for saying that, at many community colleges, online classes are viewed as “cash cows.” But I believe that statement is not only true, it’s self-evident. There’s no question that online courses can be done well and that they greatly benefit many students. But all too often, that’s not really why we’re offering them. Instead, we’re trying to lower costs, or increase enrollment, or some combination of the two.

Many years ago, at the onset of the “technology revolution,” the rural community college where I was an administrator at the time was trying to figure out how to offer more courses to students on a remote satellite “campus.” We didn’t want the students to have to drive any farther than they had to, and it wasn’t really cost-effective to send an instructor 50 miles to teach six students. Fortunately, we were able to acquire some grant funds to equip a room on that campus with closed-circuit TV so that those six students could take a course with a professor on our main campus. That, I believe, is a perfect example of how technology can benefit students.

The problem arose when enrollment on that satellite campus grew to the point where the number of students watching the professor on TV was nearly as large as the number of students physically present in his classroom. At that point, I began arguing that it was time for us to send an instructor to teach those students face to face.

Was taking the course via closed-circuit TV better for those students than not taking the course at all? Absolutely. Was it better than taking the course in person? No, I don’t think so. Once we had reached the point where we had enough students to make it cost-effective for us to send an instructor, we were using the technology purely as a means of saving money, to the detriment of students.

I recognize that technology has advanced far beyond closed-circuit TV. (Then again, how different is a MOOC?) But I believe the same principle still applies: As we’re deciding what technology we’re going to use in our classrooms and on our campuses, the overriding question has to be, “What’s best for students?” Not “What’s best for the college?” or “What’s best for the bottom line?” or even “What’s the latest, coolest thing?”

If our primary mission is to teach (and at community colleges that’s definitely the case), then everything we do, including using technology, must support that mission—not become the mission.

[Creative Commons-licensed photo by Flickr user quasireversible]

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