Advancements in learning technologies have come a long way from the PDFs and early eBooks of just a decade ago, but despite the significant advances in the range and delivery of course materials, and compelling evidence as to its value, some skepticism remains. Last month, Inside Higher Ed presented a webinar sponsored by Barnes & Noble College to uncover what is behind the doubts surrounding learning technology, particularly when early results have shown promise in improving learning outcomes and increasing access, while measurably lowering student costs.
Based on the results of the 2016 Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology, Doug Lederman, Editor of Inside Higher Ed and moderator of the webinar, offered some reasons behind the lingering skepticism among college educators. “Part of it is, perhaps, an antipathy to change and some very realistic worries about the future of their jobs and of the enterprise,” he pointed out, while indicating the positive trend that faculty tend to have more favorable views on technology the more familiar they become with using it.
The Inside Higher Ed survey also pointed to some recurring academic concerns educators have concerning the quality of online education technology, which has been reflected in each of the last five years the publication has been conducting the report. In the case of online learning, for example, more faculty believe that for-credit online courses do not produce comparable outcomes to in-class teaching, while those who actually taught online classes held a more positive view. In addition, 63 percent of technology administrators found online learning to be of equal quality. “Faculty do seem hesitant to veer from traditional texts, with their heavily cited peer-reviewed journals,” agreed Lynn Nagle, an instructor at Penn State Altoona, and one of the guest contributors to the webinar, “but finding some good low-cost, high quality, user-friendly texts takes time to sift through, and many, perhaps, are also hesitant to pick up courseware because of the belief that there’s also a learning curve,” she added.
Nagle is also convinced that faculty are more acutely aware of the cost concerns of their students than anyone had previously thought. “In a controlled market, where publishing houses are retiring editions every three years — and forcing the purchase of new, expensive updates — it means instructors are very cognizant and are trying to move away from that model,” she said. “They also acknowledge the many resources available to them through OER.”
“Getting faculty to adopt more OER resources isn’t one challenge, it’s an ecological problem — even when there’s good preliminary evidence that providing a cheaper text to students provides an opportunity to balance finances,” suggested Dave Johnson, Director of Research and Analytics at Colorado State University. “Universities tend to be conservative in their pedagogy, in the way that they teach and deliver knowledge and skills — and conservative in their structures and governance — so change initiatives have to take a multi-pronged approach,” Johnson said. “You have to really align all those interests to make any change or progress in any way.”
But there’s also another perspective to adoption of technology as Debra Volzer, Vice President for Strategic Partnerships for Barnes & Noble Education, highlighting the need and importance of training. “Oftentimes faculty don’t have access to professional development and training,” she said, “and it’s that training piece, along with ensuring that you have the correct technology infrastructure to ensure you can meet the students” needs, that will really support an increase in the use of open educational resources,” she explained.
Volzer also pointed out there is another important voice to be heard in the education technology debate. “The perspective we’re missing is that of the student,” she said. “There’s going to be an expectation, coming to college from learning environments where you see K-12 investing a lot of time and energy incorporating technology and social media usage in the classroom — so there’s really going to be a very big disconnect there once those students enter into college,” she explained.
Despite its slow beginnings, there’s a growing acknowledgement in the academic world of the overwhelming benefits of technology in the lecture hall. In the Inside Higher Ed survey, 70 percent of instructors polled stated that use of OER has improved student outcomes. Both Nagle and Johnson said their institutions are beginning to create OER resources across several pilot programs, including OER Courseware, and in early initiatives at CSU, Johnson reported significant cost savings, particularly with expensive STEM course materials. “If we can drive those costs down, and get instructors using OER as a trusted source of content, then that’s one of the issues where we can really help the students in those courses,” he said.