I have always been sensitive to the cost issues surrounding the integration of technology into higher education. When I was an associate dean, I would always ask students and faculty what benefits to either teaching, research or service would be accrued from the purchase of a new piece of technology. Usually, their excitement was great but their justification slim under the harsh light of our funding process.
Several events of the past few months lead me to believe that I have lost some of my edge when it comes to justifying the cost and use of technology. Perhaps it has something to do with working at Microsoft and seeing on a daily basis how technology can provide a more effective learning and working environment. Although still realizing the financial challenges facing higher education, I find myself justifying the use of technology a great deal faster than many of my colleagues at colleges and universities around the country.
I first noticed this several weeks ago when Steve Gilbert, Director of Technology Projects at the AAHE, stopped by for a visit. I was about to present to college presidents at the annual American Council on Education meeting in Washington, DC and asked Steve what he would suggest to college presidents if he only had one minute. I thought the four points he made were so good I asked if I could tape his response using my camcorder and insert it into my presentation. Steve's third point was that, "As far as I can see this all is going to cost more than it currently does even though in the long, long, long run we may see some cost saving and some very significant productivity gains and gains in what we can do in terms of effectiveness."
Last week I was taping a video program called "Microsoft's Technology Tools for Today's Campuses" with Dr. Edward Barboni, Senior Associate with the Council of Independent Colleges. In our discussion on the evolution of educational environments, Ed took exception to my assumption that, in the new paradigm, it would be "less costly." Like Steve before him, he argued that it was likely to cost more especially given the need to build the initial infrastructure to support the use of technology.
My latest wake up call came from Ernie Marshburn, Associate Director, Computing and Information Systems at East Carolina University. Ernie and I were using Microsoft® NetMeeting conferencing software the other day and he commented how one of his faculty members felt that the program too resource intensive (i.e., not cost justified).
I think that on the one hand I have started to take technology for granted with less consideration about cost because no longer are its benefits abstract to me. In contrast, many of my academic colleagues still see technology as too costly because they see it as being "bolted on" to existing teaching and learning systems. For example, probably what Ernie's faculty member had in mind was the fact that, when used to it's fullest potential (e.g., including live video), NetMeeting would require considerable campus network resources (read the NetMeeting 2.0 Resource Kit at http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting/reskit/ for specific information regarding NetMeeting requirements). The assumption being if there were enough meetings going on using NetMeeting, either the network would slow down or additional resources would need to be purchased.
True. But this does not consider the entire scenario. Granted, if a professor was using NetMeeting to simply add a different dimension to the traditional classroom experience the cost of doing this might not be justified. But, let's look at two other scenarios. First imagine a "non-traditional student" (e.g., married with children) that finds it difficult to return to campus in the evenings to take advantage of the help desk in a computer lab in order to receive additional assistance in statistics. By using NetMeeting conferencing software the student and a help desk attendant could share and collaborate on a statistics problem (even if only one of them actually has the statistical package running or even installed). In this way, the help desk attendant could actually see what the student was doing in the application and perhaps diagnosis the problem. In addition, the attendant could "take control" of the application and illustrate expected outcomes. In such a scenario having audio would definitely be a plus over using the chat function but resource intensive video would not add that much to the learning experience.
Another example using NetMeeting or NetShow network multimedia server might relate to declining class attendance due to the spring job-hunting season. Let's say a student is out of town interviewing for a job after graduation. After we get through the initial angst that the student would actually want to miss our class for such a frivolous reason, we then can consider, "Are there ways that they can participate in the class without actually being there?"
We face this same problem at Microsoft each week and our solution could be applied to the springtime higher education scenario. We have numerous training programs on our corporate campus each week. Some of our employees are either out-of-town traveling or work out-of-town on a permanent basis (e.g., live in New York, Paris or Troy) making their attendance on campus difficult. In addition, most people at Microsoft have very intense scheduled and sometimes find it difficult to justify the 30 minutes wasted traveling to and from the training site (although a number of people use this time on their cellular phone to catch up on voice mail). Enter NetShow.
Using NetShow (a free program available on our web site) we can "broadcast" our classes out over our intranet. "Students" can tune into the live program, see and hear the instructor and see their PowerPoint slides as they appear in the training room. Using the chat function they can even send questions to the instructor if this option is allowed. Finally, we usually use NetShow and allow people to access them at other times that may be more convenient for their schedules (e.g., 3:00 p.m. on our corporate campus in Redmond, WA is 11:00 p.m. for our folks in London).
So given this scenario is NetShow resource intensive? Yes, it does require a great deal of expensive bandwidth to project audio and streaming video. But in many cases the information that our employees receive in order to keep their skills current is well worth the cost. Looking at it another way, the cost to support NetShow is minuscule compared to the cost of transporting, lodging and feeding all of our folks from around the world. Even if the expense was not an issue, the likelihood of providing this kind of traditional classroom experience for all of our employees would probably be limited to a few times per year. Given the rapid changes in our industry this would be unacceptable.
So imagine now our East Coast college student interviewing on spring day on the West Coast. Their class is at 9:00 a.m. back home and their interview is not until 9:00 a.m. in Redmond. The difference in time zones gives them the opportunity to do both. Would their learning experience be just as good as the other students sitting back in the traditional classroom? Perhaps not. Would they have the potential of continuing their education while they are away? Definitely.
This brings me to another point. Why limit this technology only to being a replacement or substitute when the "real classroom" is unavailable? Why not use it to enhance or augment the teaching and learning process? Again, using NetShow or NetMeeting as our vehicle, students could form "virtual study teams" to collaborate across the Inter or Intranet. These activities have the potential of fostering more inclusion of the aforementioned non-traditional student into educational experiences outside the traditional classroom.
When I was an associate dean at a graduate business school I frequently heard from our graduates interested in keeping their business knowledge and skills current. Unfortunately, most of them lamented that time or distance inhibited them from coming back to campus for continuing education.
But what if we had broadcast some of our courses through NetShow? Alumni with an Internet connection and the appropriate security authorization students could have access to these courses right from their own computer wherever they reside. Provide them with the related textbooks, give them access to network public folders and electronic mail/groupware (e.g., Microsoft Exchange Server), and we have a very robust electronic learning environment.
Expensive? Yes, but these resources open-up additional learning capabilities for our traditional students. For non-traditional or continuing education students the use of technology may offer their only opportunities for learning.
So in the final analysis integrating technology in higher education is expensive. But the expense should be offset with the multiple benefits offered by the technology. The key is leveraging the technology to add real improvements or additional capabilities for teaching and learning.
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