Innovation in higher ed – who promotes what

The higher ed system in North Dakota is in serious jeopardy of a great drop in quality. Budget shortfalls that resulted from the downturn in oil prices combined with lower prices for farm commodities and tax cuts based on optimistic legislative speculation has resulted in double digit cuts and faculty downsizing for several years. Politicians have taken the opportunity to urge that higher ed needs to become more innovative.

Here is a video of an interview with the present Governor (start at about the 2o minute mark for comments on higher education). The governor and moderator propose that it is time for higher ed to innovate and speculate that technology should the basis for such changes. As is often the case when someone knows just enough to be dangerous, the recommendations are vague and simplistic. For example, the moderator argues that Google allows access to information so that factual knowledge is less important. The Governor seems more focused on the instructional potential of online educator for what he calls “knowledge transfer”.

A couple of general reactions to points that may resonate with the general public. First, knowing is always better than having access to information. Anecdotally, this may not seem to be the case. Those who argue this point by noting why do I need to know this or that fact. This makes some sense, but the wrong way to think about things. Consider the absurdity of this argument if taken to an extreme. For example, why must I acquire a vocabulary if I can look up any unfamiliar word in second? The answer is that comprehension much occur within seconds to work well because this is the way the mind works. The more disruptions the more impossible comprehension becomes. Those who possess more information and information that is organized in storage will have a tremendous advantage in anything cognitive task Рcomprehension or general thinking. Technology offers a great advantage in recovering from failures of knowing, but it is not an acceptable replacement for knowing  and the proposal that we can just look things up is a silly and no well thought through understanding of learning and the application of learning.

I taught in a university setting for nearly 40 years and during part of that time I taught some courses online. I continue to teach online. I understand the financial advantage to students enrolled in online courses and I understand the necessity of some students learning in this fashion. However, teaching online is more difficult and less efficient than teaching face to face. I understand that those politicians who argue for more efficient “knowledge transfer” have never been online instructors, but more importantly most have never experienced learning in such settings. I would encourage interested parties to invest 45 hours or so in an online experience to see what they think. Better yet, I would suggest they enroll their children and save the money of sending them to campus. These programs already exist so the requested “knowledge transfer” innovations are already available. Maybe they did not know this. If so, they can count this as an example of technology-enabled “knowledge transfer”.

I also think politicians have some strange ideas about what higher education is and isn’t. Most of worked on what is called a 60/30/10 contract. What this contracted is intended to mean is that we have a 60% commitment to teaching. Teaching involves much more than the stand in front of 200 student lectures (the knowledge transfer part). I might spend more time working with 2 grad students in a week than I spend with the 200 students in an Introductory lecture. If you regard this as my failure, I would note that I sat in my office with door open and any student is welcome. The 60/30/10 assumes that teaching, research and service support each other as scholarly activities. The model also assumes that universities contribute in very important ways beyond “knowledge transfer” and that facilities and social processes facilitate these other activities as well.

I don’t see the campuses at “universities” going away. There are too many efficiencies in the interaction of individuals in face to face settings. These efficiencies may be possible to duplicate online, but I would suggest this numbers involved when such approaches are taken would require an expansion in the number of “educators” involved.

Don’t get me wrong regarding the role of technology. My work for nearly half of my career involved the application and research on the effectiveness of technology to learning. The approaches I value can improve effectiveness, but I do not see opportunities for great cost cutting. Consider a comparison to the practice of medicine. Does anyone question whether technologies have improved medical practice? Does anyone argue that the improvements they have in mind involve lower costs?

So, when politicians argue that the world is changing and technology should play a larger role in most areas what exactly are they expecting? Is it improved performances of those services or is it the expectation that the services should cost less?

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