September 21, 2011

CHALLENGE? IT'S A BLESSING:

The Challenge of Technology (Barry Mills, September 19, 2011, Inside Higher Ed)

Remember the movie, "Monty Python and the Holy Grail," when the bridge keeper asks Sir Robin to name the capital of Assyria? Well, back then, if you didn't know the answer, the only option was to ask the other guys standing at the bridge before being catapulted into the abyss. Later, one might look it up in an encyclopedia, in an almanac (remember almanacs?), or in a card catalog in the library. Today, Sir Robin would pull out his iPhone and have the answer in a heartbeat, avoiding an untimely demise.

And in a more modern context, I always ask students from far off states how they found their way to Bowdoin. In years past, it was frequently about camp in Maine, a Bowdoin graduate who was their teacher, NESCAC, the Fiske Guide, or the Princeton Review or when Tony Soprano visited Bowdoin. This year, for the first time, the answer -- from more than a few students I met in matriculation -- was Google. And remarkably and importantly, more than a quarter of our applicants are now students we have never seen on campus or who have no contact with us before they apply.

My point is that we are storing, sorting, and filtering information today in ways that are vastly different than we did even 50 or 25 or maybe even 10 years ago.

Now, I am very willing to concede that it is just not the same to do art history research without traveling to a dark archive in France and looking directly at a priceless piece of art. And I am also willing to concede that generations have found it invaluable to walk through the stacks in the library and to locate books and treatises that they didn't even know existed. I understand the power of these experiences and this scholarship, but one must also concede that the transmission and organization of facts and information has changed, and has changed forever.

In the future, we are less likely to be limited by one surprising find in a library, there because a librarian decided to purchase a particular book. Instead, we will be surprised because an algorithm has placed a particular source at the top of our search list on Google, or the next Google. Of course, the future will decide if the process of discovery is as equally rewarding.

And, let me point out that in a world where there is persistent attention on the cost of higher education, the cost of books for our most expensive first-year seminar this year is over $150, and all of those books may be bought online for less than half the cost. Saves money, saves the environment and lightens back strain from the backpack. At this point, online textbooks are a work in progress -- but there are educators and entrepreneurs working today to deliver in the near term a new generation of online textbooks that focus on information, "accessibility, searchability and collaboration." These textbooks will not merely provide information, but provide it in a variety of learning and teaching modes that will make learning more accessible for their readers. One of our faculty colleagues reminds me often that our mission here is not to teach, but to learn. Recognizing that different people, including students, learn in different ways is essential. And, these new advances will allow us to become more effective if we are open and willing.

Where I am headed with all this is that I am convinced that we cannot responsibly ignore the changing dynamics in the way that information is stored and delivered, because these changing dynamics will undoubtedly change our role as educators. The imperative to supply information is being supplanted -- or more likely refocused -- by the availability of the information if sorted and organized responsibly.

The last dot I want to connect is the work of Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor who has done work throughout his career studying "disruptive change." Christensen studies industries that are convinced that they are serving their clients and customers well, innovating to serve their most important needs. These industries are, in fact, doing so. Until one transformative moment, their clients are willing to pay the high costs of the service or product they deliver. Then, one day, the business is replaced by a lower cost, more effective model, often driven by the power of technology. And the mature, well-conceived, high-quality, high-cost supplier is suddenly an anachronism.

Christensen's examples include PCs displacing mainframes, department stores yielding to Walmart, and Fidelity overtaking conventional investment banks, among others. Not surprisingly, Christensen has focused on technology as the disruptive change agent for education at the K-12 level. Also, given the economics of higher education and the skills required of our workforce, Christensen sees the advent of distance learning as a powerful change agent for higher education.

Christensen's focus in higher education is more directed at institutions that are educating vast numbers of students less than effectively at high cost. His thesis, borne out by current trends, is that the substance of the education these institutions provide will likely be delivered in the future much more through distance learning and possibly through for-profit education that is more cost effective and directed to skills and education that translates into job readiness.


Posted by at September 21, 2011 7:12 AM
  

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