financial crisis,  higher ed

Ed tech & the new academic reality

Day #335 Tension

In my last post I tried to set out some new(ish) realities for academics in the UK. In this post I want to think about what these might mean for educational technology. I am not going to discuss the broader implications for higher education and research as a whole, as there has been lots written about that. Again, I am going to attempt a neutral tone, my aim in this post is not to bemoan the state of affairs (I do that enough in other posts), but to think through what it means to operate in this context.

So in terms of ed tech, here are some thoughts:

Less time for play – if greater accountability is key, and there is a focus on cost and return, then exploring technology is likely to need greater justification. That isn't to say it will be cut (see next point, it may even increase), but rather that it will need to be set out in clear terms. So for example, taking some study time to develop a blog will be justified because once established it will eliminate the need to conduct face to face update briefings, or it will meet the public engagement profile of a unit. But exploring technology with no direct, or clear goal, is likely to be frowned upon.

Technology as efficiency driver – one of the strong justifications for the adoption of technology is likely to be around efficiency. When a case can be made that adoption of technology will lead to greater efficiency, then it is likely to meet with approval. This can be fairly cynical, but it may also be fruitful, for example if learning analytics leads to intervention which helps keep a student on a course then it's beneficial for both the university and the student.

Technology to replace campus expansion – in DIY-U Anya Kamanetz sets out a good case of how tuition fees have increased to rise in the US, often to fund the building of more extravagent campus facilities to attract more students. A kind of arms race has been created, except with sports facilities and cafeterias instead of nuclear weapons. A possible impact of the new academic context is that the online status, reputation and facilities of a university become significant, particularly as estate enhancement becomes prohibitively expensive. This may not mean building your own social platform, but it may mean making sure you have a good Facebook presence with people monitoring it, have actively engaged online academic staff, create online content for people other than students, etc.

Interest in cheap or free technology – higher education has often set about creating its own versions of technology, or buying in enterprise versions to be run in-house. As course and IT budgets get slashed, then encouraging staff to adopt existing third party tools is likely to be seen as a means of keeping courses vibrant.

Research as hobby – I've argued elsewhere that the granularity of research can be seen to be shifting. As data becomes open, free tools become available and dissemination routes democratised, much of the research that used to require a project fund can be performed by the individual now. As more of the day job focuses on managed work, academics will find the type of online environment the best place to conduct their discourse and research, extending into their personal lives.

Rise of online versions – it is likely that online conferences, remote participation, virtual project meetings, online open journals, etc all become more prevalent as the costs associated with travel, time away, and physical artefacts place pressure on the traditional formats.

Increased significance of online identity – if academics are travelling to fewer conferences, and doing less of the general scholarly activity that brings them into contact with others in their field, then establishing an online identity and cultivating an online network of peers will become increasingly significant. This will be if not the main route, then a very significant one, through which they share ideas, find collaborators for research projects, and establish reputation in their field. This may link back to the efficiency argument.

Lack of new blood & reliance on outsourcing - the increasingly commercial-like atmosphere in higher education may mean that many smart young people (particularly in the ed tech area) who might have come into higher ed because of the freedom it offers will go into industry, perhaps in start-ups that offer services to higher ed. This may result in a skill gap between higher ed and industry in the use and development of new technology.

So these are both the challenges and opportunities for educational technology in our new context, as I see them. I'm sure I've missed some, so let me have it…

One Comment

  • JohnGreenaway

    Agree with most of those points. As someone only just coming into this sector fresh – the first couple of points have (unsurprisingly) been a reality in most commercial companies for a long time. Though the more enlightened ones do recognise a bit of R&D (play) time is beneficial to the company. Sure it’ll be the same for unis.
    The online status and use of free/open tech may actually counter that last point on new blood and losing to start-ups. A uni with a good online presence (of staff as much as PR), and using OS software, mashups etc is more attractive to interesting developers than a more closed off one that uses enterprise-y software.

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