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Technology in Higher Education: It’s Not About Technology

By Ryan Frazier

Reflections on LCI 2013, Part I

Despite being in a room of 25 or so higher education IT professionals (and an equal number of colleagues from libraries) for a week at the Leading Change Institute program sponsored by CLIR and EDUCAUSE in June, it wasn’t until the morning of the last day when I heard anyone speak about “the cloud.” Based on what I expected going into the program, this was surprising.

It was also incredibly refreshing.

I come from a large private institution, large enough that my role supporting data center and networking infrastructure usually keeps me a fair distance from the core teaching, learning, and research missions. So to spend a week where I could step away from the cloud, server provisioning, and the like to focus on these areas through extensive (and intense!) engagement with peers and conversations with an impressive array of higher education leaders was a remarkable opportunity. It was a chance to stand back from the mechanics of IT and ask myself why I was supporting all of this technology, and to what end the technology could be used to better support higher education.

But from the first day it became clear our conversations were going to probe much deeper than how technology could be used. They were going to be a foray into the more fundamental question of what the current objectives of higher education are in the first place. And from that point of observation, there was the unusual double-vantage that our conversations were both nothing about technology, and almost entirely about technology.

One of our speakers drove home this paradox on our first day when he said that the best technology discussions don’t start with technology. What I took from the comment was that technology is no longer a distinct “thing” that is somehow independent of our daily lives, whether at work or at home. It is the matrix in which almost all of our activities are embedded, and as such the critical question flips from “how do we use technology in education?” to “what does education need that can be furthered by technology?”

Information professionals in higher education are accustomed to taking our technology gadgets and applying them in interesting, though typically limited, ways. While there are many exciting things that have resulted, what’s clear now—with the emergence of MOOCs, a burgeoning number of private companies aggressively building technology-enabled business models, and the uncertain challenges from the explosion of digital publications and scholarship—is that technology has outpaced us, and many of the long-standing assumptions, conventions, and principles upon which higher education—and our prior initiatives—have rested are now no longer so certain. Just as we have seen happen in many other industries, the technologies that started out as interesting adjuncts are now looming as disruptive forces. Coupled with the growing economic challenges (cost structures, which are hard to moderate, and funding, which is threatened), and the accountability challenges from a public that wants to understand the value of education (measured largely by jobs), it is clearly a transformative point.

But what does this mean for information professionals in higher education? It means it is time to pull our “chin up” and lead.

The fundamental questions of how we teach, how we learn, and how we research are no longer just supplemented by technology but fully enmeshed with technology. As a result, it is imperative that we actively join in the conversations at the heart of the academy. It is not sufficient for us to make sure the payroll system runs, ensure classrooms have wireless, and upgrade repository services to manage video files. It is no longer adequate for us to wait to be called upon to solve the small, practical problems that we are comfortable with. And above all, it is not acceptable for us to complain and wring our hands about how IT, or the library, or higher education isn’t appreciated or understood.

It is time for us to step forward, to take all that we have learned performing these functions, all we have observed from working in our institutions, and all we know about our professions to help address these fundamental shifts and disruptions in the landscape. It is time to change our own biases slightly away from deliberation, and slightly more towards action. It is time to step out of our comfort zones and focus not on delivering services, but on building partnerships.

This may be a difficult transition to make, both for ourselves and for those who are the traditional voices of leadership. Nevertheless, it was clear from a week of conversations and speakers that we can inform these conversations, and that there is a strong desire for us to help answer the questions which are, for many higher education leaders, outside of their core areas of expertise.

These are exciting and challenging times in higher education, and the potential stakes are large. We must do all that we can to engage our colleagues, engage our administration, engage our faculties, and engage all of the other stakeholders so that we can become active participants and leaders in the conversations about the direction of higher education.

While I must admit to having trepidation at this charge, I know that my week at the Leading Change Institute has strengthened my resolve to tackle these challenges as well as given me a strong cohort of colleagues—and now friends—with whom to undertake this journey.

Ryan Frazier is director, infrastructure customer & project services at Harvard University IT.

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