What do IT leaders in higher ed think about the role of digital learning technologies? How are those technologies evolving from year to year? And what are the biggest challenges in applying them effectively?
In this Q&A, Dr. Kenneth C. Green, a renowned authority on information technology in higher ed, discusses select findings and implications from his most recent Campus Computing Project survey, the largest ongoing study of IT’s role in American higher ed.
Q: Your Campus Computing Project recently conducted its 28th annual survey of CIOs and senior IT leaders across U.S. colleges and universities. How would you characterize the landscape in terms of their attitudes on campus learning technologies?
A: Without question senior campus IT officers have great faith in the benefits of digital technologies for instruction. For example, 90% of the survey respondents say they believe digital curricular resources provide a richer and more personalized learning experience than traditional print materials. And an even higher percentage say these resources make learning more efficient and effective for students. I should add that when we surveyed provosts/chief academic officers last fall, we found similar numbers: very strong support for the value and potential of digital pedagogy to enhance learning and student engagement.
CIOs also feel like they’re not alone: 75% agree/strongly agree that faculty support the role of technology in teaching and learning, and four-fifths – 80% – feel academic leaders understand the strategic value of institutional investments in IT resources.
However, context matters, so not surprisingly there are data from our survey that complicate the rather rosy endorsement of CIOs (and CAOs). Regarding actual technology implementation, for example, CIOs estimate that only 14% of general education classes use courseware, and just 7% use adaptive learning technologies (an educational method that uses computers as interactive teaching devices). So, you can see that there is some distance between reach and grasp, between attitude and actual deployment.
Also, when CIOs are asked to rate the actual effectiveness of campus IT investments, the assessments are very mixed, and none even come close to the high percentages about the potential benefits of IT resources cited above. For example, nearly 60% report that institutional IT investments in on-campus instruction are very effective, but then in areas such as data analysis & analytics, that number drops below 20%.
I should add one budget-related comment here. Our survey shows that across all sectors, well over half of the survey participants believe IT funding has not fully recovered from the budget cuts initiated during the Great Recession that began in 2008. Particularly hard hit have been public comprehensive institutions and community colleges, where core IT funding suffers from the compounding consequences of annual budget cuts and mid-year recessions that began a decade ago.
Q: Do you see specific learning technologies that are clearly on the rise?
A: Without question, video lecture capture is growing in popularity, and that parallels what we’re seeing with the exploding use of video in consumer and corporate markets. Students increasingly expect that video will be available – on-demand access to class lectures and presentations, along with shorter video segments as course supplements. Meanwhile, the campus capacity to provide video continues to improve, and its importance is growing not just in conventional courses, where a class might be recorded and made available to students, but also for an expanding array of course offerings including flipped, hybrid, and online classes.
Also, 82% of survey respondents said OER (open educational resources) will be an important source of course content in the next five years. Note, however, that there are some major issues surrounding OER, in particular faculty concern about the quality of the actual materials intended to supplant conventional textbooks.
Q: Do your survey results point to any serious – or even urgent – problems?
A: Digital accessibility is a major challenge for most institutions. Over the past several years in our survey IT officers have consistently indicated that their institutions struggle to do a good job of providing digital access and resources to serve students, faculty, and staff with disabilities. Of course, some argue that this is more than just a legal question – that it is also a moral imperative.
In any case, it’s not surprising that campuses nationwide have confronted complaints – and litigation – about digital accessibility. I’m on-record in a number of public presentations over the past few years saying that the digital accessibility issue is a case study for lawsuits waiting to happen. Furthermore, the record shows that the complainants almost always win in these kinds of cases.
This issue really points to a larger question: Who is responsible for the design of digital course resources for individuals with disabilities? In too many instances, too much of the responsibility resides with faculty members, who, as they deploy digital resources or move their courses online aren’t necessarily well-trained or properly prepared to address accessibility in the design of their courses and course materials. Too often the accessibility issues are addressed after the fact – they are “bolted on” afterwards rather than “baked in” at the front end of the course design process. That’s why instructional designers are increasingly important to the course design and development process. Designers and instructional support personnel can work with faculty to improve the accessibility of digital content in whatever format and on whatever platforms.
Q: Speaking of larger questions, what’s your overall view on the future of digital technologies in higher education?
A: First, recall the “great faith” I referred to earlier – among both CIOs and CAOs. As good as that may feel, we still lack compelling evidence that these new technologies or innovative instructional techniques really make a positive difference in student learning outcomes. They may very well do that, but too often campus conversations about digital pedagogy and resources are fueled by opinion and epiphany, as opposed to being informed by evidence of impact – what difference does this technology or resource make in the learning experiences of my students?
Admittedly, there may be resistance to change – and to new instructional technologies and resources. But resistance typically dissipates when there is real and compelling evidence of benefit. Too, at many institutions and in many academic departments there is a clear fear of trying, fostered by the absence of support for innovation in the review and promotion process.
This really speaks to the importance of infrastructure and how it can drive innovation. In this context my view of infrastructure is much more expansive than just hardware, software, and campus websites, for example. Those things are actually the easy part. For me, infrastructure must include instructional support assistance for faculty, along with recognition and reward for faculty who make serious and significant efforts to leverage digital pedagogy resources in their instructional activities.
The real challenges for the future success of digital technologies will involve a commitment to two issues: 1) researching the actual impact of innovation initiatives on student learning and outcomes and 2) providing meaningful reward and recognition to faculty interested in innovating their instructional methods.