Survey: Ed-tech vision stunted by stagnant budgets

Eighty-eight percent of faculty see challenges moving away from the traditional lecture model.

Higher-education technology leaders have long called for a shift to more technology-based learning—so what’s stopping the revolution? Results of a recent survey identify limited budget and outdated infrastructure as the primary obstacles impeding transition to a new learning model.

Responses revealed a strong pull toward increased use of technology: Two-thirds of students expressed desire for more technology in their classrooms, and 76 percent of IT staff reported that faculty requests for help with ed-tech implementation have increased in the last two years.

The survey, administered by major technology vendor CDW-G in May and June of 2012, asked 1,015 students, faculty, and IT staff about new learning models in high schools and higher education. CDW-G released the survey results June 26 as a report entitled “Learn Now, Lecture Later.”

Obstacles to a seismic shift remain, however, as almost nine in 10 IT professionals said they would need to upgrade their infrastructure before they can incorporate much more technology in their classrooms.

“Today, generally speaking, the infrastructure is working and doing a good job. But anytime there’s a fundamental shift, you need to reevaluate infrastructure,” said Andrew Lausch, CDW-G’s vice president of higher education.

In particular, Lausch noted that cloud computing “is here to stay and can be part of the answer toward new and interactive learning models” because it takes some of the burden off IT management staff.

As education technology evolves, long-term planning is key, said Benjamin Hockenhull, director of digital infrastructure for St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas.

“It doesn’t make sense to invest in IT that works for you now but isn’t going to carry you through,” he said.

A university’s IT infrastructure should be as reliable as electricity or the phone—something that “always there and you don’t have to think about,” Hockenhull said.

St. Edward’s implemented comprehensive wireless connection on campus, to be ready by the end of summer. The new setup should allow students to walk from one building to another and maintain a secure connection on their tablets, laptops, and other devices.

Survey results showed that two-thirds of high school and college students want to use technology more often as a learning tool. In particular, higher-education students want more recorded lectures, opportunities to use laptops and tablets in class, and digital content.

Schools have been scrambling to meet demand: The new library at St. Edward’s boasts “global digital classrooms” equipped with tools for immersive video conferencing, lecture capture, and content display from mobile devices.

But surveyed campus IT staff cited budgets as the biggest challenge to changing campus technology infrastructure to support a shift to more tech-based learning. In higher education, public universities are facing less funding from states, and because it is difficult to keep raising tuition, many are forced to cut their budgets at a time when they are trying to expand resources, Lausch said.

Class size issues, lack of time, lack of professional development, and difficulties in adapting traditional curriculum to new formats can further impede the move to a new learning model—although these concerns are secondary to budget worries.

“Managing people and budget resources will always be a challenge,” so it is imperative to determine “what needs to be done now, later, and in what order,” Hockenhull said.

At St. Edward’s, faculty and IT staff meet regularly through the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable (TLTR) program to check in on the efficacy of existing instructional technology projects. There, faculty members can also propose new projects and the group votes on which pilot programs merit funding.

To make difficult funding decisions, Lausch and Hockenhull both emphasized the importance of focusing on the big picture.

Even as university IT staff continually push boundaries and expand, “the core educational mission should inform everything you do,” Hockenhull emphasized.

As St. Edward’s develop pilots for putting several degree programs online, he said the challenge is to ensure that the “appropriate academic and intellectual discourse is still there … for a true St. Edward’s experience,” he said.

Campus technology staff should engage both academic leadership and academic assessment, Hockenhull said. He recommended that schools work with accrediting bodies to ensure that adding more technology helps rather than hinders educational outcomes, based on documentation and assessment.

“You don’t just play with technology—you don’t throw technology at the problem and hope it’s going to solve it,” Hockenhull said.

While technology is part of the solution, it comes down to the core mission of providing high-quality education, he said.

As schools move toward the new learning model, they must carefully monitor not only planning, but also implementation.

For the most part, college students today are digital natives who can easily pick up new technologies, but professional development is essential for faculty, Lausch said.

From a budgetary standpoint, it is also essential that schools find vendors that can make their vision happen in a cost-effective manner.

One way to maximize cost-efficiency is to go beyond ordinary vendor-customer relations and seek partnerships, said Chris Gonzalez, who handles procurement and sourcing for St. Edward’s University.

A school might merely buy and receive deliveries from a vendor—but with a partner, a school can develop a relationship over time and talk about priorities and challenges.

“Looking for the right partnership” is “not easy,” said Gonzalez, and requires schools to have “honest and open dialogue about what they’re trying to do.”

Lausch added that for technology providers to best serve their customers, it is important for schools to ensure that they have coherent internal communication across their departments and campuses. Vendors and schools work together best when the school has a clear vision of what it is trying to achieve, he said.

In addition to understanding the needs of IT staff, a vendor like CDW-G spends a great deal of time working with a school’s procurement staff to leverage resources and establish the most cost-effective solutions, Lausch said.

A growing trend among IT staff is to reduce the number of vendors they work with in order to procure products on a greater scale, with greater discounts, and colleges with smaller budgets will most likely increasingly leverage their smaller budgets to share resources, Lausch said.

Although CDW-G has previously researched “classrooms and campuses of the future,” the company administered this survey because “instead of just anecdotal evidence, we wanted to look at hard numbers,” said Lausch. “We cannot help our customers meet their needs if we don’t understand their needs.”

In terms of whether the survey results would change CDW-G’s offerings for higher education, Lausch said his company has already been preparing for this shift for years.

“The findings didn’t spark anything new, they actually just corroborated what we’ve already focused on,” he said.

“All of this does not start with technology and it clearly does not end with it—it’s about the students, staff, and faculty,” Lausch said. “We’re not just looking at technology. We’re looking at the learning model.”

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eCampus News Staff

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