Why is U.S. Higher Education Underusing Technology?

By Amanda Debenham, Communications Officer, Edmonton

If there is an abundance of technology available to professors, and it is known to be helpful in the classroom, why aren't more professors using it to its full potential when teaching? Larry Cuban, Professor Emeritus of Education at Stanford University, United States, provided his thoughts on this question during a talk at the University of Alberta's TELUS Centre yesterday. One of the great things about having an office on campus is being able to take in some of the great events that happen here. I had the pleasure of attending Taste of Technology 2.0, hosted by the University of Alberta's Centre for Teaching and Learning, which focused on promoting excellence and innovation in teaching with technology.

Keynote speaker Larry Cuban kicked-off the event with a talk on 'Change without Reform: Technology Access, Use, and Outcomes in U.S. Higher Education'. He explained the differences between change and reform in university curriculum and instruction, and how these apply to the puzzle of abundant access to technology on campuses, with still limited use of these resources in teaching.

According to Cuban, many U.S. professors feel a "tug of war" between their duties to teach, and their requirements to conduct research and publish. This pressure, he suggests, comes from the higher level university administration. "The dominant beliefs among top Stanford administrators and most higher education officials across the United States is that there should be no conflict between research and teaching," says Cuban. This is despite there being no real evidence showing a relationship between being a top ranked teacher and a top ranked researcher. As a recent Stanford University president (who was not named) noted:

In an age when technology can deliver information, if not teaching, to everyone's home by videotape, cable or the internet, perhaps the only thing about a university that is irreplaceable is the link between teaching and research in the laboratory and the classroom, the working environment that both requires and makes possible a brand of camaraderie between professors and students.

Cuban argues that despite many people's beliefs, the two central tasks of a professor (teaching and research) are, in fact, in conflict with one another, leaving them with hard choices to make. "Professors calculate trade-offs and time and energy, and invariably choose those tasks that advance their research agenda," says Cuban. "And why shouldn't they make those kinds of choices? All university incentives, rewards and prestige goes to those researchers who are nationally and internationally known, and who publish in top ranked journals."

Now, how does this conflict relate to the use, or under-use, of technology? According to Gerhard Casper, a recent Stanford University President, "Appropriate use of information resources can increase faculty productivity; help retain, and engage the brightest students; and enrich students' learning experiences and faculty teaching methods. Technology may enhance income opportunities for the university and potentially reduce costs of delivering education."

"This rationale for using new technologies at Stanford connects the quest for efficiency, and faculty productivity and research, to the goals of better teaching and learning," says Cuban. "But what they often overlook in their enthusiasm is that these new devices both change, but also preserve, a primary way of teaching in universities."

How is faculty using electronic devices? Based on a number of surveys, almost all faculty members use computers for research, publishing, and classroom preparation. However, when asked how often they use other kinds of technical devices for collaborative classroom projects '€” perhaps like Cybera's Cyberports for advanced videoconferencing '€” four out of five professors said they never use such technology. This, Cuban continues his argument, is because most professors don't have time to learn new technologies and investigate how to apply them to their teaching methods.

"Faculty cannot do it all given their own interests and available time and energy," he says. "They construct compromises that ease their conflicts between the institutions demands for doing research, producing scholarship and teaching courses effectively. So it comes to no surprise, then, that expecting faculty to improve teaching [through learning and integrating new technology] and student learning competes with the professorial and institutional preferences for doing research and publishing articles and books."

What do you think the future of technology in the classroom looks like? Will it continue to be underutilized, or do you think universities and professors will alter their way of thinking to give teachers more time to teach through advanced technology? Leave your comments below.