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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Disruptive Technologies and Distance Education

Education is expensive. People will pay something for a rite of passage, but they have certain expectations of their tuition dollar. What this means to me, as an instructor, or designer / developer of courses to be delivered in possibly yet-undefined ways, boils down to professionalism and flexibility. I have to make a commitment to deliverability and service. I can’t let challenges dismay me. I can’t let myself get caught up in being “right” or “wrong” – what I have to do is listen.

As I listen, certain issues will converge, and I will have to pay attention. If I don’t, I risk losing all the progress I’ve made. The problem with disruptive technologies is that they require you to look at every situation in a very individualized manner.

You have to prepare.

You can’t just go into your study, dust off last year’s lecture notes, and then drone on to your students. You also can’t get away on charm, stage presence, and facile banter.

Address the online / hybrid credibility issue straight-on. Traditional programs are threatened by online programs. The straw argument that is usually proffered up is all about “quality” and “standards.” Of course, you have to make sure that your materials are of high quality. They need to meet the “no significant difference” measure. But, that’s not really what’s driving the issue.

What is really going on is a combination of fear and exposure.

The fear factor comes in knowing that aggressive marketing and providing high-quality education – any time and any place – will take market share away from the traditional campuses.

The exposure factor comes in laying bare the realities of some tenure systems. How many tenured professors have you met who have essentially “retired on the job” ? Thankfully, most universities have instituted post-tenure reviews, but it is still an embarrassing reality. The other exposure factor is this: What happens when you make a job a life-long sinecure? What happens when the people who have the lifelong sinecures come to realize that a) they’re going to have to stay in one place for the rest of their lives; and b) they don’t really like the other people in their department. This is a legacy of the old monastery / university days. Once you’re in the order, you’re always there, unless you’re off to foreign climes to set up missions and establish centers of higher learning.

Remember that jealousy and rivalry in academia mask themselves as a concern for academic standards. Certainly part of this is true. However, it doesn’t take a Machiavelli to identify turf wars, squabbling over scarce resources, and lust for power. The online environment liberates people and defuses much of that energy, but one must remain always aware that your online and hybrid programs will receive much more scrutiny that any face-to-face class ever did.

Armor yourself with good assessments and evaluations. Avoid hype. Keep the intellectual content solid and beyond reproach. Encourage creativity, and – above all – seek teamwork and partnering with traditionally types. Perhaps the resistance and jealousy have their origin in feelings of being excluded or rejected. You have an opportunity to probe and explore.

Instead of jumping on the latest technology bandwagon, it’s good to step back and determine the precise needs of the institution and the learners. Make sure that they come together, and never substitute fireworks and flash for the fundamentals.

The curriculum, delivery modes, content, and assessment should center on the institution’s mission. If a technological innovation, delivery mode, or curriculum change does not support the mission of the institution, to implement it will be counter-productive.

The other day, the same professor who asked me about new hybrid solutions, asked how she could start podcasting. I was very excited about her enthusiasm. She wanted to use the podcasts to simulate a phone call with a student, and to help give an idea of what the advising process is like.

I was impressed with her willingness to anticipate the needs of students, and to use the technology they are likely to have and to be comfortable with. It reinforced to me that disruptive technologies require you to step out of your comfort zone and to innovate.

I have to remember that it’s not my comfort zone that matters. It’s the comfort zone of the students.

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