The Dark Underbelly of IT at the University?

I want to talk about a strange irony that I’ve been thinking about lately. It has to do with the ways in which information technologies — and all the wonderful things they afford us — may have actually, somewhat indirectly, encouraged universities and colleges into a “zone of safety” that, ultimately, may be spelling the demise of these institutions.

Bear with me. I know that sounds a little dire. I’ve been told I have a flair for the dramatic, and I’m done fighting it. 😉

What I’m interested in, on a very basic, level is data. I would suggest that it was about 20 years ago that University administrations really began to realize that technology could help them be more efficient and responsive to their student clients, and, as a result, they began to invest in information systems, first main-frame based and more recently of the data center variety. With those systems, suddenly the University had tools at it’s disposal to start collecting all kinds of information about all kinds of things — students, faculty, classes and enrollment, scheduling, institutional projects, the list goes on and on.

I’ve noticed a funny thing happens when people realize they can gather data; they automatically assume they should. And when institutions are the ones doing the data collection, they automatically assume they should use that data to become better businesses. Even if being a “business” isn’t their core mission.

I look around at some of the things that I think plague higher education:

* a greater emphasis on careerism rather than education
* valuing courses over people (and the connections between them)
* creating curriculum based on maintaining course enrollments rather than building a culture of learning
* marketing universities with information about how long it takes to graduate, how many graduates land jobs, and the latest ranking in US News and World Report rather than finding ways to expose the life of teaching, learning, and research at the University and letting that speak for itself

I start to wonder how many of these decisions have been enabled by some well-meaning administrator’s analysis of data using the latest, greatest tool for data analysis.

Now, I’m not arguing that collecting data is bad. I’m definitely not saying that. I’m also not arguing that analyzing data is bad.

Rather, I’m concerned that our analysis of all of that data and information isn’t happening in the context of an ongoing, rigorous, creative conversation about the mission of higher education. We should collect the data, we should use the data, but sometimes we should be brave enough to say “Data be damned! Let’s do the right thing.”

A few weeks ago I was listening to an episode of the podcast “Ockham’s Razor” in which Australian scientist John Bradshaw discussed his experience of getting a PhD at Cambridge 40 years ago. He described how he was able to rig up a lab to do detailed analysis of photographs we was taking of subjects’ eyes (he was analyzing their irises) in the basement of a building that his department had just acquired. He didn’t ask for permission. His advisor never even know about his arrangement until he turned in his thesis two years later:

That’s how things often happened in Britain in those days, laissez-faire, sink-or-swim, all very different from the carefully civilised apprenticeship closely integrated into the lab’s overall strategic plans, of the modern science PhD, often with a committee of supervisors closely following, and often squabbling over a student’s progress. Nowadays, graduate students are more of a work-horse whose success is hardly less important to their supervisors’ careers than it is to their own. However certain personalities, such as my own, take well to being left free to explore the world of science in their own way and in their own time. That cellar was just great!

It may be a stretch, but I think this anecdote is related to my sense that we’re allowing ourselves to over-engineer the experience of getting an education — and often we’re doing it on the back of the data that we’re collecting and carefully analyzing.

I worry that we’re so busy making sure we’re doing what’s strategically right according to that data that we’re forgetting about the role that play, serrendipity, imagination, risk, and even failure can and should play in education.

And for me, as someone who works with technology and works to promote the transformative effect it can have on teaching, learning, and research, it intrigues me that the flip side is that technology’s integration into the University may have led us down this path.