March 1997 // Commentary
Needed: A Beacon
by James Garner Ptaszynski
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: James Garner Ptaszynski "Needed: A Beacon" The Technology Source, March 1997. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

As I travel around the country visiting colleges, universities and professional academic associations there are three questions that I ask that very quickly demonstrate to me the level of commitment the institution has to the use of technology. I first ask, by a show of hands, if any number of students at their institution can go through their entire collegiate experience and never have to use a computer. That is, they can perform manual library searches, have someone else word-process their papers (or do them long hand), never use email and never search the world wide web for information. Hands always go up in the audience.

I then say, same question but replace students with faculty. That is, can any number of your faculty successfully perform their research, teaching and service activities without using a computer? Even more hands usually go up (and some nervous laughter).

Where else in the competitive sectors of today's economy can the same be true? Few organizations have been untouched by the significant utilization of information technologies. Representatives of most sectors would agree that information technology has allowed them to either gain a competitive edge or simply remain competitive. Banking, retail, manufacturing, services — all have adopted information technology as a competitive requirement. All but education that is.

We in higher education pride ourselves on tradition. After all, we are still wearing the same gowns after 500 years. To be fair, tradition and slowness to change is one of the great strengths of some parts of our higher educational institutions. As one of the primary gatekeepers of knowledge, the academy is burdened with trying to be correct rather than trying to be quick.

But when the model of the academy was built few people ever traveled 30 miles beyond the place they were born, books were a very expensive and scarce commondity, and "learned men" (yes, unfortunately, they were almost all men back then), came from only a handful of institutions.

In contrast, today, we think nothing of traveling several time zones in a day, purchasing books, videos, CDs and other educational media for our personal use and four-year accredited colleges and universities in the U.S. alone number over 3,200.

Add to this the literal sea of information that is available to us today. The Internet and the World Wide Web, with their honeycombs of interconnected information sources, can provide us with more "information at our finger tips" than our grandparents could acquire through a lifetime of study.

One would think that the academy, whose raw material is information and its finished product knowledge, would embrace this new technology that it helped spawn. Unfortunately, your bank's customer service representative is more likely to access the web to find out the latest government T-Bill rate than your economics professor who is teaching the effects of tight monetary policy on government interest rates.

Why, outside of research, have we been so slow to adapt to the promise of technology in teaching and learning? The reasons are manifold but for this commentary I would offer just two.

First, no mentors. Most of us teaching today never experienced our senior professors using technology in the classroom. How could we... it was not yet available. High tech to them was an overhead project with a new bulb and some colored chalk. As much as we like to think of ourselves as professionals in the academy, we are still very much craftsmen and artisans. We learn our trade through apprenticeship at the feet of those who went before us. We stay as close to the style of the "master" in hopes of gaining entrance to the guild (i.e., pass our doctoral exams). So, aside from the freedom of exploring and disseminating new knowledge, our faculty often find themselves locked into the teaching methods of the past.

The second reason for the slow adoption of technology in teaching and learning by faculty brings me to my third question. "Do faculty get credit in the institution's tenure and promotion document for integrating technology into their teaching?" If the answer is no (and in most cases it is), what young faculty member is foolish enough to spend their most scarce resource (i.e., their time) on an area that will provide no positive return on their investment? That is, help them get tenure. In fact, it may be seen as detrimental as senior faculty do not value "playing with computers."

So what's an academy to do? This is not a problem that lends itself to quick remedies. Probably the most important key elements are designing opportunities for faculty to experiment, learn and practice using instructional technology and to reward them, however small, for their attempts. Many campuses find this difficult to do having always relied on the faculty themselves as the champions of change. Fortunately, several individuals and outside organizations have stepped in to help fill the breech.

Many of you may be aware of the fine work done by Steven W. Gilbert, Director, Technology Projects, at the American Association for Higher Education. Through his "Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtables," Steve has managed to inculcate scores of campuses with the foundation necessary for the accelerated use of technology. His "Levers for Change" workshop workbook guides groups of campus technology champions through the fundamental questions required for institutional planning and organizing support for information technologies.

Another bright spot on the horizon is the work of Rusty Garth and Ed Barboni of the Council of Independent Colleges. Each year, they organize a four-day technology workshop in Pittsburgh for their member institution technology managers as well as interested faculty. Unlike some of the major technology conferences, which have a broad spectrum of programs ranging from the use of PowerPoint in the classroom to Internet II, the CIC tightly focuses their sessions on the parochial needs of its members. Even more beneficial is the relative homogeneity of the institutions represented. Institutional members often continue their conversations and collaboration after the workshop ends given that many of them share the same problems and concerns and are similar in size, student demographics and institutional mission.

Finally, there is the work of Charles Hickman and Anita Craig of the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business. Relative newcomers to the field, they are organizing their second "New Learning Technologies Workshop for undergraduate and graduate business schools. Somewhat unique to their effort is the strong recommendation that schools send teams to the workshop including the dean, a senior faculty member and the information technology manager. The concept here is that individuals often get excited about technology when they go to conferences but their ideas and initiatives fail when they return due to the lack of an adequate support base. It is hoped that having teams composed of these three positions will assist in building support for the necessary planning and implementation decisions.

There are, of course, other examples of professional associations providing valuable leadership in this area. In addition, there are pockets of innovation occurring at many colleges and universities and among the many academic disciplines. Over the course of the next few months we hope to share with you as many of these "shining star examples" as possible. We hope that you join in this "Colloquium" and contribute your own success stories.

Integrating technology into the fabric of higher is difficult. It should not have to be. Unlike the competitive business world, the academy has always been very good at collaboration and sharing within our many disciplines. It is time that our disciplines learn from each other. Ecologists using Microsoft Excel pivot tables with their students to analyze freshwater marshes can share their techniques with colleagues in management trying to help students understand business site selection data. Communication faculty, fluent in the use of presentation graphics, can share their expertise with their colleagues in chemistry and help prevent another generation of pre-med. students from getting poor eyesight as they copy formulas from the back of a 400 seat lecture hall.

To paraphrase former President Bush, there are a thousand points of light in our colleges and university in their use of technology. It's time that we focused some of that light and made a beacon.

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