KC Wednesday: Deciding to Digitize
The most recent edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education featured a series of articles looking at ways that higher education could be reformed to match the needs of society. The series of articles looked at various aspects of “reinventing college”, ranging from changing the leadership structure to charging departments and divisions for required space on campus. An intriguing article and one that is garnering a greater amount of attention these days, was describing the concept of scrapping the traditional grades for a system based on “badges”. Badges are a concept drawn from the technological world, popular among gaming platforms looking to recognize skill sets that players have obtained and giving tangible objectives to continue to draw the interest of the player in and keep them hooked. Translating this feature to education has been led by some of the free online learning systems and is now being considered as a possible way to help drive education. This article peaked my interest not just for the content, but also as a reflection on how education is looking to the technological world for innovation and development and what the possible limits of this borrowing might be.
Education has long been borrowing from technology for improving both programs offered as well as pedagogical practices. Online education, for example, has been practiced since electronic communication has provided the ability to transmit the information quickly and efficiently over long distances. More recently, pedagogical practices have focused on integrating gaming and electronic portfolios into subject matter as a way to engage students that are more frequently put off by traditional methods of learning. In addition, technology has shifted the way that students view organizations. The concept of a “one stop shop” is something very familiar in the digital world where businesses such as Amazon sell their consumers almost anything you can imagine and are continuing to branch out into new areas such as real world deals similar to such sites as LivingSocial. Technology has helped higher education to deliver services where our students are, and even though there is a long way to go in refining these in order for greater effectiveness and user friendliness, most institutions have come a long way from having students wait in lines to register for classes or to pay their bills.
All of these developments do raise a very important question: is there any limit, or should there be a limit, to the level of technological integration in higher education? Unfortunately this discussion too often follows the lines of politics by labeling individuals on either side of the argument in unfriendly ways. Those that oppose the increasing influence of technology in higher education are branded as backwards thinking, not ready to take on the inevitable changes that are coming. Meanwhile, those that are arguing for everything to be guided by technology are branded as fanatics, following the next fad without really understanding what education is about. The truth is, unfortunately, lost and far more subtle than either of these sides would like to admit. Technology is and has been both a positive and negative influence. It has allowed a greater amount of individuals to connect with higher education. Students from around the country and around the world can work together in the same virtual space, learning and growing with each other, all while accessing educational benefits that once would have been unimaginable. On the other hand, there is evidence that online education itself does not deliver all the skills desired on its own. There are concerns regarding the personal interaction and soft skills that many students are lacking in today’s job market; skills that are essential for making through first jobs and life challenges.
So if both sides are right and wrong at the same time, where do we go from here? There is no clear path but over the next decade there will be fundamental shifts in the way that we educate the future generations of leaders. As we ponder the role of technology and the influence of human interaction and what that means, it is imperative that we remember to consider one of the most important skills that we desire our own students to develop: critical thinking. The ability to take opposing viewpoints to develop one’s own viewpoint. If we can accept that technology provides some positives but also may not be a complete substitute for education that has been going on for centuries, we start to think instead about how to bring them together in the best possible way.