Academic Technology Investments

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Sarah Stein
North Carolina State University

New technologies have been making rapid inroads in higher education, and, in many ways, are changing methods of teaching, learning and research. Yet, strict segregation of academic disciplines, industrial-age concepts of technological ownership and control, and entrenched silos across institutions place limits on the kinds of innovation and extension of learning and research that computer-mediated communication networks can help facilitate.


Institutions of higher education afford significant benefits to students and researchers within their walls as well as the broader public. At the same time, economic downturns have resulted in diminishing revenue streams for legislative support of higher education, and for-profit as well as international educational institutions offer increasing competition. Academic institutions need to explore the greater opportunities enabled by information technologies for inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional pedagogical and administrative partnerships, in order to revitalize their economic circumstances and re-establish their social relevance.


Institutions of higher education play a critical role in the maintenance and advancement of a nation and a culture. They are also often mired in organizational fiefdoms and disciplinary rivalries arising from competition over scarce resources. In turn, opportunities for collaboration are neglected that can advance the education of students and the production of knowledge.

Information communication technologies (ICTs) enable faculty and students to interact with others in academies across the nation and around the world. Courses engaging other institutions are being taught through video conferencing and computer-based classrooms; groups activities for students using databases and computer-generated learning objects are revolutionizing large lecture courses in physics and other sciences; researchers are using high performance computing to conduct experiments with international colleagues, at the same time that the extra computing power is leveraged to make available to students at their desktops expensive software through virtual computing labs.

Yet, the rapid and continual development of ICTs leave administrative budgets and personnel at universities struggling to adapt to the constant rate of change. In an age of vastly distributed information networks that can speed data and news around the globe, transparency and accountability are still lacking at traditional universities and other academic institutions. Despite the proliferation of communication devices and channels, faculty, staff, and students too often feel that their needs and views go unheard. Though the complexity of technological advances make it impossible for any one person or group to know all that is needed to make the best implementation plans, for example, ICT investment decisions continue to be made without soliciting other viewpoints.

At the same time, academic communication systems such as email and electronic calendaring that have become inextricably interwoven with the day-to-day operations of universities are still being run by multiple units and departments who have developed a sense of distrust and distance from central operations. Educational institutions within the same region and state continue to run routine technology networks individually instead of investigating the significant cost-sharing possible through inter-institutional cooperation, and beliefs in the necessity of institutional branding outweigh the advantages to be found in inter-collegiate curricula and teaching.

Part of what hinders the realization of more of the collaborative advantages communication networks can offer is an administrative hierarchy that tends to favor corporate-style decision-making in the hopes of producing corporate-style efficiencies, especially in light of the huge costs and rapid change of educational technologies. Yet, Institutions of higher education are built on principles of peer-review of evidence, and communal sharing of knowledge. When the diverse constituencies of the academy—students, faculty, administrators, technical staff—are not consulted in top-down decisions, and have no forums in which to engage with each other, those foundational principles are discarded and progressive initiatives can be resisted and even sabotaged.

A Chronicle of Higher Education article titled "The Role of Colleges in an Era of Mistrust” lays out ten communication principles by which colleges can provide leadership and maintain good faith in the public eye. Reporting on a University of California controversy over the cancellation of an invited speaker by the university’s president without consulting faculty or students, the authors press for a process of communication that includes diverse perspectives: “When it is possible to make deliberations open and transparent, colleges must do so. When open-door meetings are not prudent or practical, colleges must be careful to ensure that all the affected parties have a place at the table. Just as important, they must emerge with a clear account not only of what was decided but of how that decision was reached.”

Multiplying communication channels do not necessarily yield greater communication. An inclusive environment that fosters transparency and accountability within all academic sectors can go a long way to eliciting the sense of mission and dedication that characterizes the motives of people in choosing to be part of an educational community. Collaborative learning opportunities, inter-institutional partnerships, and inter-disciplinary scholarship are all developments that are supported by ICTs; creating a climate of openness and engagement across the university enterprise will further their realization.


ICTs can facilitate the development of new models of teaching, learning and research that take advantage of inter-disciplinary and inter-institutional collaborations in higher education and contribute to the quality of an information society. Such developments can be hindered by the persistence of traditional top-down decision-making that excludes the voices of the wider academic community, and in turn perpetuates a climate of disciplinary rivalry and entrenched silos. The constructive realization of the network capacities of new communication technologies in higher education need to be guided by insights and perspectives from a diverse collective.

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