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The role of technology in driving efficiency in education

Jessica Tsai | June 23, 2010
The silver lining of the economic downturn is that it made higher education institutions more efficient, or at least aware of the need to be efficient. Consequently, they are now eager to invest in technology.

If inefficiency is to blame for struggling organizations, then technology is seen as the antidote. Automate the everyday. Digitize the manual. Facing financial difficulties, higher education pins online learning as a means to handle rising demands. However, throwing technology at a problem is rarely so simple. Opposition is expected when traditional methods are challenged, and if history is any indication then consumers will be the final arbiters. Just as educators cannot deny changing expectations around learning, administrators cannot force that change before constituents are ready.

Making the choice to learn

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty recently appeared on Jon Stewarts The Daily Show and spoke of wanting limited and effective government. He cited higher education as an area that stands to improve. Pawlenty argued that in 20 years learning will no longer take place at scheduled times in lecture halls. The future of learning will take place on devices like the iPad, and executed at the students discretion. He admonished the one-size-fits-all approach to education in favor of one that puts consumers in charge of what and how they learn.

The idea is appealing. Consumers want to feel empowered, and fostering strong, independent thinkers is a critical objective in higher education. However, the reality it that regardless of how the material is delivered learning is a choice, especially at post-secondary levels. Technology is defenseless against unmotivated students.

Pawlentys argument neglects the role that teachers play in higher education: as experts in their field, they help students navigate the subject and establish a foundation for further exploration. It is naïve to assume that technology will remedy the flaws of a boring professor. As consumers of information, students seek guidance from trusted sources a role that higher education is expected to adequately fulfill. Online learning is convenient and opens up opportunities to a larger, more diverse student body. This bodes well for institutions looking to increase their reach and revenue, but does not resolve questions around faculty and student accountability.

In business, having good people and processes should come before implementing technology. The same mentality applies to higher education. Teaching quality is rooted in having knowledgeable people deliver content in a coherent, digestible manner. However, how this is executed is widely varied. That is not to say that standards cannot be established, but that evaluations should consider higher educations nuances. Technology such as reporting and analytics tools can prove beneficial in evaluating trends and making sense of past activities and their impact on future outcomes. By understanding what works, professors and institutions can adjust accordingly rather than, for example, moving a course online simply because it has moderate or low enrollment.

 

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