One thing I did notice at the NITLE meeting is a big variation even within the universe of small liberal arts colleges about the level of interest and investment at an institutional level in collaboration through digital media. I’m willing to wager that some of the most interested or engaged institutions are spending about as much as some of the least interested in raw dollar terms on information technology, but that in some cases, all of that money is just going to keeping the basic core services up and running rather than into innovation in instruction, research, publication or library services. That difference doesn’t necessarily have to do with IT or library staff and their level of engagement and knowledge, though in some cases it might. I think in a lot of cases, it’s a difference in the local faculty culture and in the extent to which senior administrative staff care about or even know about information technology. The more that senior staff see information technology as an expensive obligation rather than a place where interesting and open-ended innovations in the core mission of higher education are happening, the more that the money spent is likely to be largely a matter of making the hamster wheels continue to turn.
It has to be about internal motivation because there is not a lot of external pressure for innovation. As I noted in my comments in the NITLE panel that was devoted to some really interesting work that Wesleyan University has pursued in the last eight years, students don’t really know what they’re missing if faculty are teaching well with traditional materials. I think most of the stuff about the current generation of college students being “digital natives” is complete hooey, to be honest. Yes, they’ve grown up with computers and online media being natural presences in their lives, but for most of them, their use of digital tools is pragmatic and limited rather than exploratory and creative. Students at elite liberal arts colleges may be even less oriented towards digital tools and media than most in their generation: these institutions seem to me to have a vaguely antiquarian appeal that draws students who imagine their intellects and avocations in slightly “old-fashioned” ways.
So the students are not going to complain if there are cobwebs growing on the IT infrastructure and the pedagogy of most professors until and unless that gets in the way of core functionalities like email or accessing digitized readings kept in a content-management system. Via 11D, I read an interesting article that suggests a slow change in the prestige professions in upper-middle class life, but I think mostly parents are not going to push educational institutions to make creative, assertive use of information technology. Certainly most faculty are not going to build an institution’s use of IT into the way they calculate reputation capital.
So an institution like Wesleyan can make an expensive, interesting, and very skilled push into innovation in this area and find itself out a lot of money and with zero external recognition of what they’ve done. They can end up making resources that K-12 and community college students around the country (and their counterparts around the world) make productive use out of that go practically unrecognized at their peer level. (Hey, all you people into social justice: that strikes me as a bigger achievement than kicking Coke…)
But at the same time, the tipping point that maybe moves one institution with comparable resources into a much more forward-thinking and creative profile strikes me as very easily reached: it really only takes a small number of people in several staff areas, a small number of faculty, some appreciative students, and some support at the top to get things rolling.