Perspectives on the Future of Campus Technology

Via strategy group perspectivesFrom online classes to virtual campus tours, technology is having a profound impact on higher education. While universities are home to groundbreaking research and Nobel prizes, until recently they were laggards in the adoption of innovative technology to better deliver on their core mission-learning. I most certainly am not the best person to prognosticate on what new and innovative applications of technology we’ll see in the next few years. But, having been involved in higher education in one way or another for over 40 years, I can take a look back at some of the evolutionary changes that have had a profound impact on the delivery of post secondary education. I’ve experienced these changes personally with my own children.

The first is simply a profound change in how students select and apply to Colleges and Universities. Forty years ago it was quite an arduous and time consuming process. Research relied almost exclusively on printed directories and word of mouth. Campus visits were unstructured and time consuming. Applications were typed or filled out by hand. Today College rankings and evaluations are readily available on line. Every University has an extensive online presence with virtual campus tours. Applications are submitted online and the Common Application makes applying to multiple schools a breeze. In the movie How I got Into College, much was made of the daily trip to the mailbox and the high anxiety of waiting for acceptance or rejection letters. The anxiety persists of course, but prospective students can easily track the status of their applications online.

Next, you’ve been accepted and have to register. Course catalogs were thick and often out of date. Scheduling was a challenging manual process. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate that most engineers’ schedules were predetermined. I distinctly remember, however, my first experience as a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. For whatever reason, it took 14 separate physical stops throughout the campus to register for the first time. It took the better part of the day. It got a little easier after that but was still a challenge. Today is a completely different story. Programs of study and course catalogs are online, up-to-date, and easily searchable. Potential schedules are easily seen graphically in real-time. Registration is literally a few clicks and done in minutes.

Forty years ago managing your courses was a challenge. The good news, perhaps, was that, if you weren’t physically present, you had no idea what was going on in class or what the assignments were. Everything was a physical piece of paper handed out in class. Today, everything from the syllabus to the class notes to your grades on every assignment are readily accessible online. In some cases even, videos of the lectures are available. I can easily monitor my own kids classroom performance online in real-time. Unfortunately, there is less incentive to show up in class which remains as valuable as ever.

Finally, research has been profoundly impacted. Not long before I started my own doctoral program, dissertations were typed by hand-with the requisite carbon copies. Even minor revisions were often a massively time-consuming effort. Fortunately for me, word processing had become available by the time I wrote my dissertation. Revisions and multiple copies were trivial by comparison. Earlier, statistical analysis of research data was laboriously done with mechanical calculators. While data collection remained tedious, SPSS made analysis of that data a snap. And then there was the literature search. My wife and I reminisce about our day long trips to the library with rolls of dimes to make copies of journal articles bound in often missing dusty volumes. Today, of course, most of those journal articles are readily available online and can be quickly searched and printed from home.

On balance, these technological advances have made learning and research much more effective and efficient. Striking an appropriate balance between the use of this technology and personal interaction with faculty, other researchers and fellow students will be one of the challenges we’ll have to be more cognizant of in the future.