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Technology demands a delicate balance in higher ed

Purdue’s CIO and UBTech speaker discusses the tension between education and technology
University Business, January 2015
Gerry McCartney, CIO of the Purude University system and vice president for information technology, will deliver a keynote at the UBTech conference in June.
Gerry McCartney, CIO of the Purude University system and vice president for information technology, will deliver a keynote at the UBTech conference in June.

Gerry McCartney embraces technology as much as he rejects it.

As CIO of the Purdue University system, as well as vice president for information technology, he knows that bringing technology to teaching requires a delicate balance. While it can simplify some processes, it still can’t replace what he calls “the learning moment.”

Educators, he says, would do well to learn from history and understand that technology is not a panacea for all that ails education.

“If you look back through history, and I’m talking hundreds of years,” he says, “there are patterns in the way markets develop that you should be aware of if you are going to invest in those markets—not because it guarantees that you’ll always be right, but you can avoid at least the more egregious errors if you are aware of them.”

McCartney will be a keynote speaker at UBTech 2015, June 15 to 17 at the Rosen Shingle Creek in Orlando.

You’ve been quoted saying, “Somewhere in our past, there is a belief that IT can actually make things better through change.” What did you mean?

I was recently listening to the CIO of the Hilton hotel chain. He was talking about how the hospitality industry hadn’t change for hundreds of years. If you had a room available, you hung a sign outside saying so. But by the 1970s, they launched centralized reservations where you could call a number and book a room at any Hilton.

In the last 30 years, though, there has been an escalating series of changes. You can book online. You can check in using your smartphone. And when you check in, you download an app that contains your room-key information. You just go up to the door and it detects your device and unlocks itself.

Higher education is just beginning to embrace some of those possibilities. The early stages of any technology adoption are merely automation of existing processes. There’s no reengineering of processes. You use a $1,600 laptop to replace a $100 book by putting a book on the laptop, which is kind of an absurd thing to do.

Maybe technology has changed faster than education can keep up.

Honestly, I don’t think education has changed all that much. I think we’re still in that early stage. There is a sense that we haven’t really begun the reinvention of higher education.

Just to go back to my hotel example—Hilton doing all these things to automate its processes are exact examples of early-stage technology impacts where they simply automate existing processes. They still have a building with the word Hilton on it and they still have a concierge and a check-in person and a restaurant on the ground floor.

What does that mean for higher education? If it’s just a university with a whole pile of technology in it, well, nothing has actually changed.

You can make a reasonable argument that we already automated a lot of the instructional stuff when we allowed textbooks to come on. That happened a long time ago, I know, but somebody else wrote the books.

As a teacher, all I’m doing is regurgitating the material that’s in the book. Someone else created all this information that I’m giving you, not me. I’m just the weather person. I didn’t think up these meteorological reports. I just read them to you.

You still encourage your team to make these technologies available—not just in research, but also in the humanities and social sciences.

Right. And the people we go to—and this is important—aren’t people that necessarily want technology. We approach the faculty and say, “What can we do to help make your teaching even better? Blank check—what would you like us to do?”

But oftentimes what happens is IT people—who don’t teach—think of something and then try to sell it to faculty.

Then there are faculty that just like to fiddle with technology. They are not particularly good at technology, but they kind of like it.

I think these are both bad test cases. I’d rather have the person who is an excellent teacher, and ask them, “Is there anything…?”

And we get crazy ideas from them. That’s really the beauty of it. Then colleagues take a look at the technology and say, “Well, it must be pretty good if Mary is using it, because we know Mary is a great teacher.”

Whereas if Tom is using it and Tom is just widely known to be this guy that’s got to have the latest everything but maybe isn’t a very good teacher, then, frankly, that sways nobody.

But teaching is a hard thing to move because it’s a tradecraft. You learn how to get good at it over a long time. So you are not going to be terribly responsive to people who are going to do it for you or do it better for you—especially if they are not teachers themselves.

What is IT’s place in decision-making? You have a collaborative relationship with your president, but that’s not the case everywhere.

No, it isn’t. And the executives and the IT people can both be at fault. On the executive side, there may be no acknowledgment that there’s any change under way, which would be a problem right from the get-go. And there may be no real awareness of what IT might be able to do.

On the IT side, there’s lots of people who call themselves CIO who would much rather be directors of computing. In other words, they love hardware and stuff. And they are really uncomfortable in this space of trying to imagine what the future might look like and how they might participate in the general business model, not just in the IT part of it.

I was at an event not long ago where they shared some statistics that I thought were fascinating. A large number of CEOs of all shapes and sizes of companies were asked, “Should the CIO be a strategic partner for you?” More than 70 percent said yes, absolutely.

Then they asked them, “Do you think your CIO is a strategic partner?” Only about 20 percent said yes. I thought that was very interesting. I remember going to a CEO event years ago where the CEOs compared CIOs to the air-conditioning guy—like it’s a necessary evil. They say, “I’ve got to have it. Just keep it cheap and keep it reliable.”

The savvier ones now realize that if they don’t have a digital business, they have no business. They are trying to figure out how you make a business work in a digital environment. It’s likely that some whole classes of profession will disappear as a result. But then whole sets of new ones hopefully will emerge. And that’s true in education as well.

They’re waking up to the idea that we have the technology, but we still have to figure out what to do with it.

Right. In the late 70s, Daniel Bell coined the term “information society.” He observed that everybody was going to become an information worker, and the people who couldn’t do that weren’t going to have jobs, because everything else would just be automated.

Now, of course, we have a more sophisticated view of it than that, but in truth it certainly is playing out. You can even fine-tune his statement a bit by saying everyone will have an information job or a personal-service job.

When it comes to technology, do you ever find yourself saying, “Stop. We don’t need to go down this route right now.”

Oh yes, all the time. I was doing it this morning—and then people get very upset with me. People try to use technology to defeat culture. They say, “If we put this system in, we’ll make them all change.” No, that’s not the way it works. All that will happen is we will spend a whole pile of money on this system and no one will use it.

There are ways to implement technology to make change, but you can’t do it with this kind of passive-aggressive approach—“We’ll get people to change without them even noticing it.” Oh, they’ll notice it, believe me.

So, in fact, you have to say no to a lot of things, because people want to automate all kinds of things.

Too often, we use technology as a hammer. We use it to automate things that shouldn’t be automated. We use it very little to experiment and to change things—but when we do, we call those people entrepreneurs.

But not every shot is guaranteed to hit the target. In fact, very few do. But what can we do? How do we, as educators, participate? How do we take a step here?

It’s still something that needs to be discussed and explored at places like UBTech. Otherwise, everybody just says, “Well, that was a load of guff. I just want to know why my Oracle server won’t stay up.”

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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