What High Tech Can Teach Higher Ed

Darden Dean Robert Bruner

I have had two instances this year in which to observe the relevance of Charles Darwin’s statement.  One was a trip to the Galapagos Islands where I saw that finches’ beaks do vary significantly with changes in microclimate (this was one of the foundations of Darwin’s theory of evolution.)

The other instance was a field trip that I took last week with 15 colleagues from Darden. It was a tour of technology companies on the West Coast, a “Tech Trek.”  No boondoggle was this. The schedule crammed in 17 companies and three alumni receptions in the space of 3.5 days. We raced, literally, from one meeting to the next.  It makes sense for a professional school to stay close to the profession it serves, to visit managers on their home ground. You cannot build a decent understanding from an armchair in the faculty building or from the opinions of pundits and journalists. You must get into the field. This is especially true in the tech industry: the field is changing so rapidly that in the year it takes someone to write a book or complete a lecture tour, his or her insights have grown stale. Several of the tech firms we visited are not just experiencing high growth; they are in hyper-growth.

Our purpose was to take soundings about recent developments in technology as they apply to higher education and to frame the implications for management education and Darden. Without mentioning companies or individuals, let me offer some conclusions I’ve drawn:

1. The impact of the current and prospective technology on higher education will be very very big and emerge rather soon. People have been saying the same thing about new technology for decades (think of Betamax or cable TV in the 1970s). Sir John Templeton said that the four most dangerous words in investing are, “This time it’s different.”  Well, based on the hardware and software that were demonstrated for us, I would say that this time it is different.  We saw systems of presentation, feedback, assessment, and grading that substantially remove the live instructor from engagement with students and therefore enable distance learning and mass access on a scale not contemplated before. New entities are stepping in where universities fear to tread.

2. Everyone talked about the coming impact of “cloud computing.” The cloud will accelerate the dissemination of software enhancements: software upgrades will be ongoing rather than every few years in the form of a major re-installation. As one person expressed it, the cloud is like Esperanto, potentially ubiquitous but likely meaning different things to different people.

3. The cloud enables “software as a service” and promotes the unbundling of applications—you’ll pay for the apps you use, as you use them, rather than having to buy a big portfolio of stuff much of which you won’t use. This unbundling is a very very big deal for higher education.  Imagine “pay per view” for lectures, textbook chapters, tutorials, etc. The Khan Academy is already doing it for primary and secondary school students. iTunes did it for music. Netflix and Hulu did it for home entertainment. Higher education faces major unbundling—indeed, “atomization” might be a better word.  It used to be that a degree program was the unit of consumption: you could only take courses if you signed up for a degree program.  Now, we are seeing the delivery of courses on demand—but why stop there? One could opt for individual classes or tutorials on specific topics.

4. Unbundling seems likely to “flip the classroom.” In a traditional format, students come to class, hear a lecture, go home and puzzle their way through homework problems. In the flipped world, students view lectures and tutorials at home, and then come to class where they work individually and in teams in practice of solving problems—this enables the teacher to focus on student struggles more effectively.  In this way, the real teaching is “just-in-time,” material is engaged at a higher level, and problem-solving is interactive. The book, Disrupting Class, by Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson is “must” reading on the impact of technology in education and on flipping the classroom specifically.

5. If higher education becomes unbundled, then what, exactly, does a school certify? Sitting through a lecture? Clicking through a tutorial? Certification of vocational skills (such as balancing the books)?  Deep mastery of the subtleties of a field? Then too, there is the problem of the integrity of the certification system. In some settings, cheating is widespread.  We have seen no digital system yet that assures the integrity of a student’s work.  The questions of certification and integrity are major issues to be resolved.

Questions about this article? Email us or leave a comment below.