Technology: Riding the Waves of Change
By Ronald Roach
Twenty years of information technology (IT) innovation have transformed American higher education. From the introduction of personal computers to the spread of the Internet and e-mail, information technology innovation has altered the communications, administrative, research and teaching landscapes of colleges and universities. Its reach has permeated throughout colleges and universities from administrative systems to the research laboratories to classrooms and student life.
“It has, indeed, been a journey,” writes Dr.
Kenneth C. Green, the founding director of the Campus Computing Project and a visiting scholar at the Claremont Graduate University, in an online column titled “Beginning the Third Decade.”
According to Green, IT tools “that did not exist or were simply emerging in 1985 — personal computers, notebook computers, cell phones, PDAs and the Web — today have moved from incidental to essential. These technologies, and others now emerging (for example, wireless) have made the transformation from costly conveniences to compelling, inexpensive and ubiquitous necessities.”
While schools worked hard in the 1980s and early 1990s to make personal computers, local area networks and productivity software improve school operations, as well as provide enhancements to research and teaching, the grounds for a more revolutionary IT era were laid mostly in the confines of research universities. Since the late 1960s and the 1970s, a cohort of top research universities, largely with U.S. Defense Department funding, developed the technology that would lay the foundation for the Internet.
“Higher education invented the Internet. At one level, we don’t give enough credit to the university research community for having spawned the Internet. And I think that one layer, university research and DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) research, have made some of the most significant progress,” says Ken Kay, the founder and chairman of Infotech Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based consulting firm, and a leading proponent of technology in education.
The Internet’s advent has enabled for-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix and Strayer University, to add tens of thousands of students to their enrollments due to the Internet’s enhancement of distance education. A large cohort of adult learners, late 20s and older and eager to better position themselves in the job market, have fueled the enrollments of online education programs. Community colleges and numerous four-year public colleges and universities have also had significant enrollments in online distance education programs.
Along with the Internet, “we’ve moved into a new era of technology,” says Dr. Kevin Franklin, deputy director of the University of California Humanities Research Institute in Irvine, referring to supercomputers, grid computing and the next generation Internet networks, such as the ones connecting members of the Internet2 consortium.
Higher education IT experts tend to view the last 20 years as a period divided between the pre-Internet years, which encompass the spread of personal computers, productivity software and local area networks, and the Internet age, which blossomed with e-mail, the World Wide Web and browser software to facilitate convenient Internet access and the networked campus collaboration among people based at multiple institutions.
Higher education IT progress has been “split between the big adopters, the early adopters and the early researchers who get credit for having created it on the one hand … and a lot of the higher ed community, without being too harsh, has been dragged kicking and screaming into the Internet age,” according to Kay.
Having spent her formative years as an administrator at an early IT adopter school, Dr. Joyce Williams-Green recalls that in the 1980s the Virginia Tech provost while on a trip to Japan sent an e-mail that successfully reached Virginia Tech computers. Then e-mail was in use by a select group of research universities, including Virginia Tech, which worked on the development of the Internet. “When the provost sent us e-mail from Japan, we were so excited,” says Williams-Green, who is now the associate provost for information resources at Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina.
Franklin describes the pre-Internet period as one in which higher education staff, administrators and faculty were getting their first exposure to modern IT tools, such as personal computers, software and local area networks. “It was kind of a training phase,” Franklin says.
“PCs provided an enormous productivity boost,” says Dr. Bryant York, a professor of computer science at Portland State University, who had one in 1979, a few years before he made a transition from corporate employment at IBM to a computer science professor.
In 1998, Williams-Green moved from Virginia Tech to Winston-Salem State University to become the school’s associate vice chancellor and to guide the historically Black campus toward a full embrace of the Internet age. When she arrived on campus, however, numerous administrators, staff and faculty didn’t have personal computers of their own in offices, there was no central computer network that linked the campus together, and students depended on dial-up accounts to access the Internet.
“There was a culture here, and it didn’t include the use of technology,” Williams-Green says, recalling that a number of employees “didn’t want anything to do with (personal computers).
“They were people who had computers in boxes that were sitting in their offices,” she notes.
The task fell to Williams-Green and her staff to organize and centralize the campus computing operations. One major issue was that individual departments, which had contracted out on their own to have computer networks and Internet access, were neither linked to one another nor linked to the administration’s mainframe computer, she recalls.
Eventually as the school got a central network installed, faculty, administrators and staff had to undergo training to learn the use of the personal computers with access to e-mail, the campus network and the Internet. Students would also get access to the campus network, but Williams-Green says some resisted giving up their access to the dial-up Internet accounts the school had previously provided them. There was a fear of a loss of autonomy if students accepted the campus network connection, she notes.
“They were afraid to get on our network. They wanted to stay on the phone lines,” Williams-Green says.
But after seeing the advantages of high-speed Internet through the campus network, student resistance faded away. Currently, Winston-Salem State boasts campus-wide wireless Internet access, a high-speed campus network connection for every student in its dormitories, and will require all freshmen arriving in fall 2005 to have a laptop computer or an advanced computing device, such as a personal digital assistant (PDA).
In recent years, Winston-Salem State has also become a key player in a coalition, including Wake Forest University, to bring a supercomputer to the Winston-Salem area. A supercomputer center in or around Winston-Salem would complement the state’s only supercomputer, which is based in Research Triangle Park near Raleigh and Durham, N.C. Winston-Salem State has also supported efforts to bring high-level research network connections to local institutions.
“We’ve been able to contribute to the high-performance computing initiative in this area,” Williams-Green says.
While Winston-Salem State scrambled quickly enough to adopt IT so that it became a leading institution within the academic community in and around the North Carolina Piedmont region, the record is said to be spottier for higher education in general in embracing IT innovations.
“It’s ironic that higher education as a whole has been relatively slow to really adopt as much of the Internet technology as you would think they would, given that they were so central a facilitator of its development,” Infotech Strategies’ Kay says.
Nonetheless, Franklin of the Humanities Research Institute says it’s critical to note how advances in high-performance computing have dramatically shaped discoveries in fields, such as biotechnology and nanotechnology. In addition, advances in computing have also led scientists to develop entirely new research fields. Bioinformatics, which marries the power of supercomputing to biology, is one such field driven by discoveries with computers making millions of calculations to reveal new information about biological or chemical processes.
“I’d say high-performance computing, which is now leading to grid computing, is causing all kinds of reshaping within academic schools and departments. The informatics areas of study have grown out of computers becoming more powerful, allowing us to manage data more effectively,” Franklin says.
“Some of the computational leaps that we’ve made, I would say, have had a major impact on higher education,” he contends.
THE LEARNING REVOLUTION
Nola Stair, an instructional technologist at the University of Maryland-Baltimore nursing school, is among a vanguard of higher education IT professionals who work closely with faculty to help them adopt their courses to an online distance education format.
“You have to redesign your instructional technique to facilitate learning in the online environment,” Stair says of the transition from classroom teaching to that of online instruction.
Formerly the director of academic computing at Bowie State University, Stair found that she enjoyed the challenge of working with faculty on online course adoption and leapt at the opportunity of leading faculty at the University of Maryland-Baltimore to create an online bachelor’s of science in nursing program. In addition to working with faculty, Stair manages the technical demands of 400 to 500 online nursing students in a given semester.
Dr. Valorie McAlpin, the associate dean for communications and information technology with the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Maryland at College Park, says online distance education has opened the door to innovations in teaching and learning.
“Course content material now using technology is designed in such a way that students can access the information virtually anytime, anyplace, anywhere. They don’t have to be in the classroom; they can be on their jobs; they can be wherever,” McAlpin says.
“With the technology, it’s allowed more interaction among students because they can participate in online discussion groups. The whole environment for learning has just become so rich with technology,” she adds.
Observers say future challenges in making IT work for the betterment of higher education largely revolve around improving teaching and learning. Despite the proliferation of online education offered by community colleges, for-profit entities and public four-year institutions, there’s a belief that IT’s benefits for academic research have far outdistanced the teaching and learning models that have been enhanced by online communications.
“I would say the nature of research has turned and twisted itself inside out in the last 10 years, but the nature of learning is at the front end of turning itself inside out and that has not yet occurred,” Kay explains.
“I think what has happened is that the technology has moved fairly quickly, and we’re getting stuck on some of the societal, social, organizational, legal issues — that seems to be a real hurdle that folks have not figured out how to deal with from the highest levels in the universities down to the departments, Franklin says.
Though the demand for online education is high among adult learners, Green of the Campus Computing Project cautions that “much as the past two decades have been marked by academe’s great aspirations for the role of technology in instructions and operations, this decade may be marked by efforts to make institutions accountable for the continuing (and rising) investment in IT.”
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com