Info Tech Promise Unfulfilled in Higher Ed

In 1989 I gave my undergraduate students this assignment: "Log on to your university email account and send me an email in which you describe what you like and don't like about this class." Of the 80 or so undergraduate students I encountered that semester, perhaps two had used email. My intent behind the assignment was for them to experience using email. This predated the ubiquity of the personal computer. Students had to send their from a machine on campus. How things change; how they stay the same.

In 2004 I find myself still seeking ways to entice my students to experience information technologies that will enhance their productivity. All students now rely on cell phones, email, and IM as primary communication channels. Yet, I feel stymied. My ability to further expand use of information technologies to enhance the educational experience is limited by the few number of students that have portable internet-enabled devices. I get frustrated. Mostly, I struggle to figure out how to get my students to leverage the collaboration potential of our information technologies to enhance their class experiences.

My frustrations are not unique. Edward Ayers, an historian and dean, concludes his article
The Academic Culture and the IT Culture: Their Effect on Teaching and Scholarship as follows:
Information technology has not made the impact on higher education—or at least on the core missions of higher education—that it has made on many other aspects of society. We’ve built a great infrastructure that has transformed many social and business aspects of our work and our libraries, but teaching and scholarship have been relatively little touched. I think we’re ready for the next stage: building tools that can be carried into the heart of the academic enterprise. For teaching, we need tools that anyone can pick up, that can be customized, that are quick and adaptable, and that are less expensive in money, time, and commitment. For scholarship, we need to craft forms of scholarly presentation that take advantage of the power of the new media we now possess. For both teaching and scholarship, therefore, we need IT people and academic people to work together more closely than ever before.
Ayres also includes an intriguing table that highlights the core characteristics of information technology competes with the core characteristics of the academy:

Table 1.
Competing Characteristics

Information Technology

The Academy

  • everywhere and nowhere
  • strongly identified with a very specific location
  • brash young industry
  • a self-consciously ancient institution
  • highly unstable
  • the most stable institution across the world
  • new competitors continually emerge
  • impossible to break into top ranks
  • possibility of great profits
  • no possibility of profit at all
  • work performed by anonymous teams
  • centered on scholarly stars
  • obsolescence built in
  • designed to deny obsolescence
  • virtually instant results necessary
  • patience a central virtue
  • designed to be transparent
  • opaque and labyrinth

  • The last two entries speak volumes toward the challenges I experience.

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