1.0 Losing My Religion: The Promise of Digital Higher Education


“ What would become of such a child of the 17th and 18th centuries, when he should wake up to find himself required to play the game of the 20th century?" Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams

In the late 90s and early aughts, what now might be understood as the early days of online higher education, advocates of technology-mediated learning, myself included, were largely relegated to the margins of higher education. On our better days we imagined themselves as rebels, the Barbarians at the Gate of the ivory tower, trying to bring the transformative power of the Internet to a centuries-old, change resistant institution.

Photo by  hiva sharifi

Photo by hiva sharifi

We knew what we were up against: despite widespread talk about the revolutionary effects of the Internet and related technologies, higher education is controlled by faculty and academic leadership who earned their stripes using chalk and talk and many of whom see distance education (or “distant education” as one faculty colleague put it repeatedly, until corrected), as a pale substitute for the real thing. For the believers, this was a battle between for those trying to forge a better future through technology and Luddites; the cutting edge against those stuck in the past. In those early days, ed-tech conferences often felt more like support groups; a space for technology advocates to commiserate about the best ways to generate buy-in from resistant faculty.

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But much has changed in the last two decades. Technology-enabled learning is now the go-to example when university leadership needs an example of innovation. Digital teaching and learning has morphed from a little understood, borderline activity carried out by a handful of restless academics and disheveled tech staff - typically working out of a basement office, to the single most common solution for a institution under increasing pressure to reduce operating costs, increase transparency, improve student outcomes, and reach underserved student populations(fn). In 2018, most university Presidents, not typically revolutionaries, now feel compelled to profess their belief in higher education’s own digital revolution(fn) regardless of what they might think personally.

The excitement about technology’s impact managed to transcend the walls of the higher education community. Starting around 2012, mass market publications, such as The Atlantic, New York Times, Fast Company, The Guardian, and the Globe and Mail - helped popularize the notion that higher education is undergoing the same tech-fuelled changes faced by the music recording industry, journalism, bookstores, and other industries.(fn) “Higher ed is next”, they told us.

“Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won’t survive. It’s as large a change as when we first got the printed book.” Peter Drucker, Claremont Graduate University, 1997

“[The university is] ready to collapse in slow motion once alternatives to its function become possible.” - Eli Noam, Columbia University, 1995

Instalments

1.0 “Losing My Religion: The Promise of Digital Higher Education

1.1 “I’m a Believer, I Couldn’t Leave Her . . .

1.2 “Future Looks Bright

1.3 “No Dress Rehearsal