Unrequited Learning and Higher Education’s Failure to Address the Instructional Technology Industry

The EdTech industry grew to over $2 billion in 2014 and 2015 appears to be another high-growth year for online and digital learning technologies and service providers. The recent $1.5 billion valued buyout by LinkedIn of Lynda.com, an online software training and education site, underscores the growth in this industry.

Higher education institutions, businesses, and a host of tertiary support organizations and communities of practice have been engaging this space and market for nearly two decades. Starting with the emergence of the ‘multimedia Internet’ or ‘World Wide Web’ which today serves as the backbone to our EdTech reality, the market is booming: from online learning delivery including MOOCs and learning management systems such as Blackboard and Canvas, to the array of mobile apps for learning, to the many related training and development services that support institutional EdTech.

graphicMeanwhile, American higher education continues to tout its ‘academic freedom’ foundation upon which tenure, research, and the entire institution rests so as to help assure a knowledge role that is unbiased by industry, the market, and political influences from national and state governments. Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Instead we see higher education participating and even competing with the industry in ways that are completely dysfunctional and that compromise its core mission: education, research, community, career preparedness, and civic participation.

Amongst the most glaring pieces of evidence that demonstrates higher education’s failure to remain unbiased in the context of our digital reality and its influences: there is a large and growing set of data that screens are significantly harmful to our health, and that our learners could benefit significantly from more active learning — “active” as in mind AND body which science tells us repeatedly are interconnected and interdependent. To be sure, overall results do indicate that instructional technology positively impacts learning.

Perhaps we can be more forgiving of higher education institutions given that most of the research regarding the detrimental effects of screen-based technologies and lack of exercise and healthy diets is generated by these institutions.

But what of EDUCAUSE, the New Media Consortium, the Online Learning Consortium (aka Sloan-C), AERA, AECT, the MacArthur Foundation, Digital Media and Learning, and other organizations committed to improving teaching and learning, and that promote research relating to instruction and the role of instructional and online technologies? Not a single one of these organizations formally recognizes the research and confirmed data that substantiates the detrimental effects of our screen-based realities coupled with our sedentary lifestyle — much of which relates to our lack of non-car mobilities.

Careful examinations of the Horizon Report for Higher Education and the Horizon Report for K-12  over the years — both are collaborative annual publications by the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and the New Media Consortium — reveals that none of these annual reports have ever addressed the dire effects of instructional technologies on health, learning, and what can be done to remedy this reality with solutions. Such solutions could involve a more active curriculum that leverages exciting location-based, mobile technologies to document phenomena in ways that support experiential learning across a wide swath of disciplines.

So how can this be? When I discussed this topic — including a formal presentation — with Dr. Laurence Johnson in September 2014, CEO of  the New Media Consortium (NMC), his response was “I don’t know why.” I suspect that is so because there is nothing to be gained by this message in the context of the EdTech industry, and it is in turn the instructional tech/EdTech industry that supports the NMC. Similarly, when one examines the EDUCAUSE organization and its leadership, we note that the leadership consists of those like Diane Oblinger (CEO and President of EDUCAUSE since 2005) who came from Microsoft, IBM and other related industry organizations. Similarly, the Executive Board consists of university IT leaders — CIOs and such — who have consistently failed to address this reality or even the basics of successful IT leadership.

For example, Vice Chair Susan Metros was removed recently from USC’s central IT leadership because of her failure to produce results for the University of Southern California. Instead, as with many in IT leadership positions, she was appointed by long-time personal friend CIO Illee Rhimes in 2007 and later to her current positions at USC’s Marshall School and the USC Jimmy Iovine and Andre Young Academy for Arts, Technology and the Business. Such is the nature of higher education IT leadership: APPOINT those who will support the glaring conflicts of interest between instructional technology and institutional issues toward maintaining a local IT empire and conflict-of-interest vendor relationships.

It is time for a change — and students, trustees, administrators, and parents should demand accountability, strength, and honor when it comes to this obvious gap in higher education and those responsible for engaging teaching with technology.

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