Dr. Tony Bates is one the leading voices on the use of technology in higher education. Author of 11 books and over 350 essays, Tony now consults for organizations around the globe.
KCH: You’ll soon be completing your twelfth book, the latest with Albert Sangra, entitled ‘Integrating technology in universities and colleges.’ I’m delighted to hear that it focuses on management issues. Can you provide us with an overview?
TB: It’s based on eleven cases studies, six in Europe, and five in North America, of how institutions have gone about the planning and management of technology in their institutions, and in particular,we’ve tried to relate this to how well technology is actually integrated within teaching and administration. The book has turned out to be more about management than technology; technology has just been the mirror in which management practices have been reflected.
KCH: If there’s only thing for the reader to take away from the book, what do you want that to be?
TB: Well, any large organization is difficult to manage, and universities particularly so. In fact, the terminology explains why. They’re not called managers or executives in universities but administrators – they are there to serve the main stakeholders in the university (and faculty in particular), not to ‘run’ things. Unfortunately, though, this term ‘administrator’ (which strikes me as being reminiscent of civil servants in colonial England – responsibility without power) is no longer suitable in organizations often with billion dollar budgets facing great challenges, both externally and internally. We need if not professional management, administrators with a high level of managerial and executive skills. What technology has done is to throw a light on management practices in universities, and it’s not always or even usually very pretty. So here’s the message: public universities and colleges still have a critically important role to play in the 21st century, but they need to change and adapt much more quickly than they are doing if they are to survive. The intelligent use of technology is an important survival factor, but it needs to be accompanied by a strong vision for teaching and learning based on meeting the skills and expertise needed in a knowledge-based society, not for just a small elite, but for over half the population. You can’t do this with amateur management – or without the intelligent use of technology.
KCH: Higher education tends to operate with little data on learning outcomes. Does this need to change in order to improve learning?
TB: It actually operates with little data on everything, apart from last year’s budget and expenditures, which act as the basis for projecting next year’s budget and expenditures. For instance, what was the main goal (in general) for technology in teaching in our 11 case studies? To enhance the quality of classroom teaching. What data do we have that (a) classroom teaching is meeting the learning outcomes desired (b) that the introduction of technology will – or has – improved learning outcomes? We have no data – yet we continue to pour millions of dollars into lecture capture, clickers, multiple screens, projectors, lecture consoles, whiteboards, you name it, without any data whatsoever as to its likely impact on learning outcomes. In fact, we don’t even know what we are spending on technology for teaching as it’s all buried in other budgets.
KCH: I read recently a great essay that addressed the incongruity of universities and learning in the “digital age.” One is informal, the other formal; one is open-ended, the other closed; and so forth. Are universities the right institutional model for the 21st century? How fundamental of a change do we need to make to truly leverage technology?
TB: You’ve probably sensed my frustration with universities from my previous comments. It’s frustration rather than anger, because I do strongly believe that universities (and just as importantly) community, technical and vocational colleges are desperately needed in the 21st century. We need excellent centres that generate, collect, preserve and disseminate knowledge that is or has been rigorously validated and tested. We need to create and sustain expertise, especially in a world where technology enables anyone not only to have an opinion on anything, but to be able to disseminate that all over the world in an instant. We need institutions that develop learners who can differentiate between creationism and science, who can ask where the data comes from, who can challenge emotional or sloppy thinking, just as much as we will continue to need doctors, scientists, engineers, social workers, skilled tradesmen and all the other professionals that can draw from a well-substantiated knowledge base to enable the world to run better. And these institutions should be fiercely independent of short-term business interests, political expediency, and special interest groups. So the mission of at least the publicly funded university does not need to change.However, how that mission is delivered must and will change, if universities and colleges are to survive (or rather, if independent, publicly funded educational institutions are to survive). In particular, we have to move away from the idea of the classroom as the default model for teaching and learning, to looking it as just one of many tools we have for teaching and learning. If over half the population needs not only post-secondary education, but also ongoing lifelong learning, and the main means of communication are technological, we cannot effectively provide higher education in a factory-like structure organized like a factory, with everyone at the same place at the same time. So it is in the delivery and organization of teaching and learning where fundamental change is needed.
KCH: How important is the decision-making process to successful integration of technology in higher education? Is the way in which decisions are made about technology different than the way other types of decisions are made in universities?
TB: The decision-making process of course is absolutely essential. We looked quite carefully at strategic planning, leadership, committee structures, organizational structures, technology projects, and operational units in each of the 11 case studies then related this to not only how much technology was being used for teaching, but to what extent it was innovative in its use. We did, for example, find excellent leadership in a few cases, such as the whole executive team, or at least the three VPs responsible for academic, technology and financial matters, all working from the same page regarding the importance of technology for the institution. We found that institutions that had technology integration embedded in strategic plans actually did end up with greater technology integration than those that did not. I see a lot of similarity between how decisions are made about technology with how decisions are made about financial matters. Both are ‘core’ activities that now permeate the whole organization, and both need some knowledge and expertise to manage well. The main difference though is that if the investment in technology is to radically change the university (or college) strong vision is needed – or rather strong visions. Our greatest concern was the lack of innovation in teaching in almost all the case studies. We need many more visions of how technology could change the way we do business, more experimentation, and hence some risk taking (not what you need in financial management).
KCH: What are the key differences you found between the way universities integrate technology in Europe and North America?
TB: I was hoping you weren’t going to ask that question. The case studies were chosen mainly on the basis of easy access by Albert and myself, convenience and direct personal experience. For instance I had worked at UBC and SAIT for some time, and both Albert and I had worked together at the Open University of Catalonia (Albert’s base) and on a project at the Open University of Portugal. Albert chose three more Spanish universities and one in Italy where he had contacts and I had worked on projects at Virginia Tech, the University of Central Florida, and College Boreal in the past and their cases had already been written for another study I worked on. The sample, more by accident than design, captured a wide variety of post-secondary institutions. What really amazed me was not the differences but the similarities between the institutions, especially in terms of organizational culture between the seven campus-based universities, wherever they were. However, when we ranked the cases in terms of the degree of technology integration, there was a clear difference between the European and North American campus-based institutions, with much higher levels of integration being found in the North American ones. But this was because three of the five North American institutions had been chosen as examples of best practice in the use of technology for teaching for the earlier study, and the two European open universities also had a high degree of integration. I am sure if we had chosen different cases we would have had a much different correlation between technology integration and continent. Nevertheless, the suspicion still remains….
KCH: You wrote what many people thought was a great critique of an essay by Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams in the Educause Review. One point you made in the critique, which I think needs to be emphasised, is that “The interesting question is not what universities should be doing, but why it isn’t happening.” Similarly, I’ve argued that in order to move online learning forward, we need to pay as much attention to how universities are organized (management practices, business models, etc) as we do to theories about how people learn. Comment?
TB: The answer to why change isn’t happening is both simple and complex at the same time! It’s simple, because it can be summed up in two words: organizational culture. It’s complex, partly because organizational culture is complex, but also because the organizational culture will have to change if the institutions are to adapt to changing needs, but the core mission needs to stay the same, and the organizational culture has grown up to protect that mission. Thus change needs to take place so that enough of the ‘old’ culture remains to protect the core mission, while the rest of the organizational culture that blocks change must itself be changed. That sounds a little abstruse but it’s not. Take academic freedom for example. I believe that we need to protect academic freedom, and tenure is one very effective way to protect academic freedom. However we have also seen a rapid growth in adjunct faculty, often with poor pay, lack of security in employment, and no training. We could be taking a more long-term and intelligent approach to adjuncts that would enable at least some changes without threatening academic freedom. Also I think too often academic freedom is equated with academic autonomy. I don’t think academic freedom should allow a tenured professor to do whatever they like (and avoid doing things they don’t like – such as refusing to teach undergraduates). For instance, I strongly believe that all faculty should have compulsory training in teaching as well as research before they can get tenure. This would affect academic autonomy, but not academic freedom to express their views or in the end, teach whatever way they want, but at least they will have been exposed to educational theory, best practices in teaching, and the role and limitation of technology, before they exercise their freedom on the poor students.
KCH: Do you have anything you want to add?
TB: Of course! It looks as if I have been very critical of individuals in universities and colleges, especially senior administrators. I’d like to say a couple of things about this. Henry Mintzberg has shown clearly that management, wherever it is carried out, and no matter what the ‘competence’ or experience of the manager, is a really messy business. It’s just one damn thing after another, and that’s no different in a university or college. The idea that an individual, no matter how charismatic, can somehow ‘control’ a huge organization like a research university is inherently foolish, as any experienced President will tell you. Furthermore, senior administrators are extremely lucky if they get more than the merest training for their new jobs. So there is no point trying to ‘blame’ senior administrators as a group when things go wrong. We did have many examples of bad decision-making, poor communications, and a lack of knowledge or understanding of technology and the issues around it. But in nearly all cases, senior administrators were doing the best they could, for the institution as a whole, and some performed to the highest standards, under the circumstances. I guess our message is: change the circumstances. So this goes back to your last question. Yes, we do need to pay attention to organizational and cultural matters, we do need to use best practice in management, but adapted to the unique conditions of higher education. Training – both for instructors and for managers – will definitely help. We need to pay much more attention to collecting and analyzing data for decision-making, and business intelligence tools make that much easier, provided we know what data to collect, and how to organize and analyze it. We really need to look at incentives and reward systems to encourage change and innovation, especially in teaching. But don’t blame individual administrators or senior administrators as a group when things go wrong; it’s not helpful. (OK – there are exceptions: the ones who fired me – twice!).