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1/8/2013
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Rob Preston
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InformationWeek Education: Your New Guide To Higher Education IT

Even if higher education is an industry and calling like no other, it must grow and evolve with its tech-literate clientele. Or it will whither.

Every industry tends to think its IT challenges are unique, and higher education is no exception. Its resources are especially scarce. Its goals and motives aren't inherently commercial. The services it provides are fundamentally different from those of other enterprises and institutions.

But like any enterprise, colleges and universities are ripe for technology disruption as customer expectations change and competitive alternatives emerge. Resistance is futile.

I've seen such resistance in other industries. In healthcare, for example, doctors, nurses and other key stakeholders used to insist (many still do) that IT advances could do only so much to improve patient care and provider efficiency. What worked for those other industries won't work here, they said. We're different.

And then came a federal electronic health record mandate and years of IT-based transformation, still underway. Turns out the healthcare industry isn't so different. It isn't a pretty transformation; IT-based ones rarely are. They're rife with vendor snake oil and standards battles and unrealistic expectations and unfulfilled promises. But they're inevitable in a day and age when people -- customers, especially the young -- expect a rich technology experience with all of their product and service providers. And it's inevitable at a time when our nation realizes it must try to do something to try to rein in ever-rising healthcare costs.

After writing a column in May 2011 suggesting that the higher education sector is just as prone to tech-based disruption and business model destruction as the financial services, bookselling and other industries, a respected, veteran computer science professor wrote me: "nonsense."

"A research university is not a 'business,'" he wrote, "and notwithstanding The Wall Street Journal's view that business is everything, scientists, engineers and teachers do what they do not for profit, but for the advancement of all mankind." Two of the examples I had used to illustrate the disruptive and destructive effects of IT -- E.F. Hutton and Borders, done in (in part) by modern online alternatives -- can't be compared to colleges and universities, the professor argued, "since neither of those are attempting to convey deep scientific concepts."

Point taken. No such comparison is ever perfect. But the crux of my column at the time was that as higher education costs soar (fees jumped 15% between 2008 and 2010, according to a 2012 U.S. Department of Education report) and student/parent debt mounts (student loan debt exceeded credit card debt for the first time in 2010), colleges and universities will find themselves under intense pressure to deliver more value for the money. Already, USA Today reports, university systems in Arizona, California, Iowa, Maine, Minnesota and New Hampshire have proposed to keep tuition steady for state residents in exchange for receiving steady or higher taxpayer funding.

I also suggested in that column that online universities and courseware will rise quickly as an alternative to the pricier status quo, and that traditional institutions of higher learning need to reevaluate their business models and offerings to stay viable long term.

My point wasn't and isn't that colleges are only as strong as their smart boards, Wi-Fi networks and distance learning programs, or that they'll all be replaced overnight -- or even in the next 10 years -- by the University of Phoenix and its like. But technology will play an ever-bigger role in higher education, just as it has and is in other sectors, as a means to attract customers and keep costs down.

Some sacred cows will be slaughtered. Bet on it.

What's the difference between a lecture hall with 500 students listening to a star professor at UCLA, or nine lecture halls of 500 students each across nine campuses in the California state university system listening to that star professor over high-definition telepresence? Maybe that star professor even rotates among the schools, so that each gets a chance to see the professor live. That's still cheaper than employing 10 such professors. Such a setup won't work for every course, especially those in medicine and the sciences that require hands-on learning, but it will work for some. It's just one example of what's possible.

Distance learning programs of all sorts will grow in size and scope as employers give them more credibility and as the technology that lets remote students collaborate with their instructors improves. Financially strapped California is taking a keen interest: Higher ed leaders in the state, including policy-makers and academics, convened at UCLA on Jan. 8 to discuss the potential for online education to lower costs and improve quality. Expect other states to do the same.

In their seminal book Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change The Way The World Learns (McGraw-Hill, 2008), Harvard professor Clayton M. Christensen and co-authors Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson challenged U.S. educators to use technology to craft customized and "student-centric" curriculums, in many cases outside the traditional classroom structure. The authors argued that most mainstream educators just apply IT to existing lesson planning, teaching and testing processes. Meantime, the more individualized and market-oriented approaches of charter schools, private tutors and companies that provide online curriculums will become more affordable as they become the norm rather than the exception, said the authors, who went so far as to predict that online courses will account for half of high school enrollments by 2020.

Having a son who just completed his first semester at university, I can attest to the value (even at exorbitant expense) of the traditional on-campus experience in honing learning and independent-thinking skills. Not only is my son regularly interacting with people of different backgrounds and viewpoints, but he's also learning how to get along with roommates and floormates, manage his own time and academic workload, and deal with university-issue bureaucracy and arrogance ... without mom and dad's interference. You can't get those life experiences by logging on from home.

But it would be a big mistake for college educators and administrators to think that technology-intensive learning, whether on campus or off, is just a marginal, incremental consideration. Even if higher education is an industry and calling like no other, it must grow and evolve with its tech-literate clientele. Or it will whither.

Such is the philosophy and coverage mandate of InformationWeek Education, our new website and quarterly digital magazine for technology executives and managers at colleges and universities. InformationWeek Education will bring the enterprise IT credentials and credibility of InformationWeek, providing news, analysis and expert commentary on the technology issues reshaping higher ed. Coverage areas will range from the latest digital learning and course management systems to mobility, cloud computing, analytics, enterprise applications, security, privacy, networking and much more. We'll also enlist CIOs, academics and administrators at colleges and universities to write about their frontline experiences and challenges with technology.

Read more on InformationWeek Education. And when you have a chance, please drop me a note at the address below to suggest ways we can better serve this vital community.

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