So You've Got Technology. So What?

Chad Hagen for The Chronicle

April 29, 2012

Some of us are still waiting for higher education's Nicholas Carr moment—the point at which it becomes clear to everyone that technology doesn't matter. Carr's 2003 Harvard Business Review article, "Why IT Doesn't Matter," threw sand in the gears of the information-technology industry by pointing out the obvious: Building strategy around a competitive necessity is simply a bad idea.

In 2003, the very notion that information-technology investments—the revered centerpieces of ambitious plans to differentiate products and achieve lasting market advantage—could be bad investments contradicted everything that forward-looking corporate leaders thought true about the digital revolution. These were the same CEO's who had reshaped their industries around the strategic value of information. They led companies that aimed to gain unfair advantage over bricks-and-mortar competitors by automating their business models. Armies of consultants stood ready, as Carr wrote, to "provide fresh ideas on how to leverage their IT investments for differentiation and advantage."

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Simply put, Carr argued that rapidly commoditized technology diffuses so quickly that it becomes a business necessity, like water or electricity, that is used by everyone, innovators and risk-averse followers alike. Like it or not, the data underscored Carr's point: Business performance was not correlated with IT spending.

When it comes to higher education, it seems to me like 2003. The same drums are beating for increased technology spending for the same reasons. The insistence that information technology is a strategic advantage in higher education is apparently having an effect. Spending on information technology for education is growing at about 10 percent per year in the United States, far outpacing other technology spending, and higher education accounts for most of it.

Everyone seems to be counting on information technology, but the lesson that we should have learned from 2003 is that all this spending probably will not matter. The case I presented in my book Abelard to Apple: The Fate of American Colleges and Universities (MIT Press, 2011) is that higher education is in for big changes, most of them due to the competitive pressures of an expanding global marketplace. It is a case that is made nearly every day in Chronicle reports of skyrocketing prices, poor quality, and a public that is increasingly skeptical of the value of a college degree. University leaders have not been blind to these trends. Many presidents, provosts, and deans have turned to IT with the hope of finding a competitive advantage by distinguishing themselves from others.

Five years ago it was hard to find a senior official at an elite institution who believed that online courses would be an acceptable mode of delivery. Today the majority do, according to recent studies. Technology is now the centerpiece of hundreds of strategic plans, providing a road map for institutions that want to expand access, improve completion rates, reduce costs, and empower students with online courses, learning-management systems, administrative portals, and wireless infrastructure.

It is investment on a breathtaking scale, but most of it will not matter. Here is why: Most of this investment is for commoditized technology in the service of the classroom. Squandering strategic investment in improved classrooms fundamentally disadvantages those colleges that are most in need of change. Here is how to rewrite Nicholas Carr's message for higher education: "You are making a strategic investment in a commodity that will soon be freely available to everyone. Worse, you are using it to automate a business model that will soon be irrelevant."

The classroom is the handmaiden of a factory model of higher education, and the colleges that are truly strategically focused are already abandoning that model. Their technology investments will be aimed at reinventing education. Traditional universities are incumbents in an era of rapid change and new competitors, and the future is seldom bright for incumbents. Simply adopting the trappings of new technology has seldom been enough to save incumbents from marginalization and eventual extinction. Borders and Montgomery Ward were both technological innovators. But they were also incumbents. Their technology investments continued unabated until they shuttered their stores.

Amazon stole market share from Borders, Montgomery Ward, and other incumbents whose leaders argued fervently that their customers valued the special, in-store experience even as those customers were choosing always-on, hassle-free, online shopping. A 1999 Hewlett-Packard commercial parodied this kind of incumbent groupthink: A car pulls up in front of an obviously closed shopping mall and the driver peers into the darkened stores. Clearly disoriented, he mumbles "Weird!" A police car cruises by as a bystander says, "It's closed!" The words " changed the way people shop" crawl across the screen. In another commercial, a record-store customer asks a befuddled clerk to recall a purchase she made years before. The viewer is helpfully reminded that Amazon never forgets your favorite artist or last purchase.

There is a lesson in this kind of technological change, and it is likely to rock higher education. Technology like this is ubiquitous. It is capable of providing a personalized experience to its users. It is a lesson that is mocked by traditionalists (the incumbents), who, like those Montgomery Ward executives, cling to a belief in the innate superiority of their relationship with their customers. But their critiques ring hollow. It is within the power of technology to deliver personalized experiences on a massive scale. Mass personalization has already fomented revolutions in health care, government, manufacturing, marketing, and dozens of other human endeavors, and it would be a strange quirk of the universe if somehow education were exempt from what seems to be a fundamental human dynamic.

My book Abelard to Apple documents the march of higher education toward increased personalization. It is a march that paused about 50 years ago when a great upsurge in enrollments pushed college administrators toward more bureaucratic, process-centered, depersonalized approaches. But it was only a pause. The rapid appearance of massive online courses, online-learning communities, and open courseware points to a renewed quest for a more tailored, individualized approach to higher education. These are all developments that undermine the idea of the university as a factory. No large IT investments are needed to take advantage of them. No new bureaucracies are needed to administer them.

The data that predict a successful trajectory for these trends has been with us for a long time. It has been known for 30 years, for example, that one-on-one tutoring is such a vastly superior mode of instruction that virtually every student's performance can be moved two standard deviations on standard achievement scales. Incumbents have inexplicably read this data as a call to invent a classroom that has a similar effect on learning.

Disruptors look at the same data and say, "This has nothing to do with classrooms. Why not use the technology for personalization that matches the performance of a human tutor?" That would not involve new classroom technologies or better learning-management systems. It probably does not even require fundamental technical innovation. Instead, it would involve abandoning a business model that overly values selectivity, investment in physical infrastructure, and ineffective use of human capital in favor of a culture of sharing and accessibility in which students are able to use the technology to develop deep and personal ties to instructors and fellow learners.

A Nicholas Carr moment for higher education would cause us to look at what increasingly capable and ubiquitous technology can accomplish, and to conclude that there is nothing strategic about it. Such technology is a competitive necessity, like water and electricity. We should stop arguing about it and concentrate on what will make universities great, because without a fundamental change in the business of higher education, technology doesn't matter.

Richard A. DeMillo is director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and formerly dean of computing there.