Academic Technology: A Leap towards the Future of Education

By Elisha Allen, Director, Academic Technologies and Innovation, The University of New Mexico

Elisha Allen, Director, Academic Technologies and Innovation, The University of New Mexico

“How do you define Academic Technologies?” asked the recently elected chair of The University of New Mexico’s newly-formed Academic Technology Advisory Board. UNM has supported academic technology for many years, but the function of technology governance as a well-defined mechanism was new to the institution, and most members of the board. More specifically, she wanted to know, “How is it distinguished from administrative or research technology and computing?” In other words, “What am I responsible for, and what is my area of oversight?” For a board of Deans and high level stakeholders recently charged with providing governance and oversight for Academic Technology projects, it seemed like a good place to start.

Finding the answer led me through an inspection of service catalogs, websites of peer institutions, and research articles. The definition that I liked best dates back to 1969 by Sterling McMurrin: instructional/academic technology is "a systematic way of designing, carrying out, and evaluating the total process of learning and teaching in terms of specific objectives, based on research in human learning and communication and employing a combination of human and non-human resources to bring about more effective instruction."​ Although this definition was made well before smartphones, smartboards, lecture capture systems, learning management systems, and the gamut of technologies that support the modern university, it still holds true.

“From Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs to online degrees, from classroom technology to flipped classrooms, data analytics, and early alert systems, technologies promise pathways for lowering the cost of education, making it more ubiquitous, and improving student success”

What makes this definition timeless is the fact that its focus is squarely on effective instruction as an outcome and has its foundations in pedagogy research. Academic technology must be about teaching and learning at its core. It is this focus on the use of a technology for instruction that transforms it from technology in the general sense, to academic technology in the specific. Take away academic, and all you are left with is technology. In an applied way, it is the pedagogical focus that engages faculty and students in evaluating the effectiveness of a technology for an academic purpose, and ultimately determining the success of a technical project or service. It is also this definition of academic technology that makes the work of the Academic Technology Advisory Board so critical.

The academic technology landscape is evolving quickly with breakthrough technologies and services coming out regularly. Many of these offer a ray of hope in an otherwise difficult period for higher education. From Massively Open Online Courses or MOOCs to online degrees, from classroom technology to flipped classrooms, data analytics, and early alert systems, technologies promise pathways for lowering the cost of education, making it more ubiquitous, and improving student success. Indeed, it is these promises that have placed Academic Technology at the center of many educational initiatives. However, realizing these promises requires more than straight technology implementations. The most successful academic technologies are implemented as a true partnership between faculty, academic units, and technology support organizations.

Without the human element, including faculty development and support as well as instructional design resources, many academic technology initiatives are bound to go nowhere and the biggest promises of academic technology innovations go unfulfilled. Academic leadership support is needed to identify instructional needs, recognize effectiveness and efficiency gains to be realized by a technical innovation, and provide leadership through institutional changes, accreditation, and compliance concerns related to the impact of technology on the educational landscape. Above that, effective governance is needed to ensure that the right projects are being selected, that they are in line with institutional needs, and that the mission of the technology organization stays connected to the university’s educational, research, and service missions.

Like many institutions, Academic Technology support at my institution came from distributed origins: a combination of services developed within IT, the libraries, distance education, and media centers. By 2016, these distributed origins had grown into multiple mature organizations, with overlapping missions in some areas, and deep chasms between service providers in others. There are good reasons for decentralized support, namely connection to mission and relationships with faculty, staff, and students. There are also good reasons for centralized support, including economies of scale, enterprise architectures, and coordinated support models. Our institution is taking advantage of both through a hybrid model that features centralized reporting while retaining embedded IT support resources in the distributed units.

There were good reasons for the previous structure, including the convergence of digital and analog technologies, and the exponential growth of online instruction. However, new pressures such as falling state support for public institutions, changing national demographics, and new competition from other online providers cannot be ignored. These forces require institutions to streamline administrative expenses and think strategically about how resources are prioritized and services are designed to survive in a new competitive landscape.

Nearly a year into this effort, changes are still incremental but show promise in real dollar terms, including over $900K in one time savings, and an estimated $1.7M (and growing) in recurring savings through centralized buying power, staff efficiencies, and cost avoidance found in centralized services. In a time of ongoing austerity measures, these savings are considerable. Just as importantly, the reaction from faculty, staff, students, and administrators is evolving from skepticism to cautious enthusiasm as they see accompanying service improvements and the excitement that is driving collaboration across campus.

This process is changing IT from the inside out as well as from the outside in, connecting technical work to organizational purpose. Guiding it all is a strong governance charter including three advisory boards (Academic, Research, and Administrative Technology) and a funding committee. The combined efforts of these boards determine what the institution needs to do through priority setting and funding models. The Academic Technology Advisory Board is now providing oversight for technology initiatives as they directly impact teaching and learning. While coordination with stakeholders and advisory boards can create logistical challenges, it is precisely this connection to purpose that makes the future of educational technology so exciting, and its potential so transformative. There is real urgency to transform higher education, and educational technology has a definite role to play. Connect the technology to the mission and start the journey today.