As an information technology administrator and former web site developer for Sauk Valley Community College in Illinois, I have very limited direct contact with students and instruction. I do, however, have significant opportunities to impact learning environments and access for current and potential students.
I have dedicated my career to using technology to improve efficiency and enhance collaboration. While technology does not hold the answers in and of itself, I sincerely believe that the improvements in productivity and collaboration technology affords will allow educational institutions to better face their challenges and find ways to thrive even in the most uncertain of times.
Unequal access to educational resources is certainly not a new problem in education, it is not a lost cause, either. Unfortunately, the trend may be moving in the wrong direction. Opportunities most advantaged continue to increase combined with small increases for the lowest income brackets, while opportunities for those in between have decreased (Dahill-Brown, Witte, & Wolfe, 2016). Ethnic minorities continue to be underrepresented as well; for example in Illinois, black men in 1999 were about seven times more likely to be released for prison for drug offenses than to earn a bachelor’s degree (Alexander, p. 190). While many good efforts are in place to provide everyone access to quality education, a great many are still left behind.
A contributing factor to unequal access to education is likely dramatic increases in tuition costs due to decreases in per student public funding. Since the 2008 recession, nine states’ per student funding is down more than 30%, and two states’ funding is down by more than 50%, which has required institutions to radically increase tuition while also reducing services (Mitchell, Leachman, & Masterson, 2016). Even where public per FTE funding has rebounded slightly from its 2011-12 low, it appears that rebound may be due to decreased enrollment as opposed to increased funding (College Board, 2016).
In Illinois, which has been operating without a state budget since 2015, the funding situation is especially dire. Even community colleges, who pride themselves on access and low cost of attendance have had to make draconian cuts coupled with large tuition increases. Decreasing enrollment–due in part to rising tuition costs and uncertainty about the future of colleges–further exacerbates the problem (Rhodes & Thayer, 2016).
Many states, including Illinois, have adopted performance-based funding as an answer to this problem, theorizing that tying funding to completion rates or other metrics will incentivize colleges to improve performance. Studies, however, have repeatedly shown that this approach does not actually improve those metrics (Hillman, 2016). Instead, institutions are essentially forced to “teach to the test,” regardless of whether those tactics are most effective for their context.
High-Stakes Standardized Testing
Again in efforts to ensure that public funding is directed to the most deserving recipients and desired results are being achieved, standardized testing has risen dramatically in recent years, particularly since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act, even though studies have shown the negative effects, including reductions in subjects taught, quality of education, and even increased segregation based on ethnicity and income (Knoester & Au, 2015). Though some decision making was later moved back to the states (Layton, 2015), standardized testing results still largely dictates the level of funding educational institutions receive.
While standardized testing–and perhaps even government-mandated testing–serves a purpose, it also consumes increasingly valuable administrative and instructive resources and makes it more difficult to adapt the learning experience to local contexts and individual learners. Finding a balance between complying with federal and state regulations while also providing excellent, adaptive learning experiences will become increasingly important and difficult.
As discouraging as the challenges can be, I would not be in the field of education if I did not believe the opportunities were as plentiful as the challenges. We live in an amazing time when technology is proliferating at a rate never seen before. The Internet has made information available to nearly everyone, mobile devices put that information at our fingertips, and social media allows us to broadcast information instantly. I believe technology, properly applied, can help educational institutions adapt and thrive in the face of these and other challenges.
Never in history have we had access to as much information in as many different formats as we do today. Anyone can watch a how-to video, take an online course, or ask a digital assistant for a trivia answer. The role of teacher is shifting as a gatekeeper of information may go away, but the role of coach for how to seek, process, and analyze that information has never been more vital. This also “evens the playing field,” giving low-income and minority easier access to information that had previously may have been only available to the more privileged.
Information technology also assists the prospective student with access to higher education. Institutions have for many years used their web sites to provide prospective students information about college. More recently, however, large data sets and application programming interfaces (API) allow institutions to provide up-to-date career information, success and completion rates, and more, with relatively little effort. For example, at Sauk Valley, I redesigned our program information pages (e.g. Economics) in 2016 to include related career profiles from careeronestop.org. Our new home page design (to be released in April 2017) will contain a tool allowing users to compare colleges on cost, debt, retention, and earnings with data from College Scorecard.
Technology also plays a vital role of improving efficiency, so responsible application of technology resources will enable institutions to continue to offer excellent educational opportunities even in the face of decreasing funding. Innovation and competition often even make it possible to access new opportunities while reducing expenses. As an example, increased innovation in the phone sector have made new features such as videoconferencing and virtual extensions available at a fraction of the cost. At Sauk Valley, I am exploring systems that can connect our students with faculty and staff in ways never before possible while reducing expenses by 90%.
Finally, collaboration is enabled by technology in many ways as well. Whether in a traditional or virtual classroom, collaboration tools allow students to apply creativity to learning environments and to hear diverse thoughts and experiences. At Sauk, we are exploring turning some lounge and information display areas into collaborative spaces, allowing students a places gather and work together on projects. In addition, we are exploring online meeting software in conjunction with our communication platform and learning management system to allow students to communicate with one another and with instructors for discussion.
While these examples may not seem like the most exciting examples of educational innovation to many, I truly believe that my role on the administrative side of the institution helps enable the institution, instructor, and learner to be successful.
- Dahill-Brown, S. E., Witte, J. F., & Wolfe, B. (April 4, 2016). Income and Access to Higher Education: Are High Quality Universities Becoming More or Less Elite? A Longitudinal Case Study of Admissions at UW-Madison. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 2(1). Retrieved from http://www.rsfjournal.org/doi/abs/10.7758/RSF.2016.2.1.04
- Alexander, M. (2010). The new Jim Crow: Mass incarceration in the age of colorblindness.
- Mitchell, M., Leachman, M., & Masterson, K. (August 15, 2016). Funding Down, Tuition Up. http://www.cbpp.org/research/state-budget-and-tax/funding-down-tuition-up
- College Board (October 2016). Total and Per-Student State and Local Funding and Public Enrollment over Time. Retrieved from https://trends.collegeboard.org/college-pricing/figures-tables/total-and-student-state-and-local-funding-and-public-enrollment-over-time
- Rhodes, D., & Thayer, K. (September 8, 2016). Illinois public universities have fluctuating enrollment after difficult year, Chicago Tribune. Retrieved from http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-illinois-universities-enrollment-met-20160908-story.html
- Hillman, N. (May 25, 2016). Why Performance-Based College Funding Doesn’t Work, The Century Foundation. Retrieved from: https://tcf.org/content/report/why-performance-based-college-funding-doesnt-work/
- Knoester, M. & Au, W. (December 28, 2015). Standardized testing and school segregation: like tinder for fire? Race Ethnicity and Education. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13613324.2015.1121474
- Layton, L. (December 10, 2015). Obama signs new K-12 education law that ends No Child Left Behind. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/obama-signs-new-k-12-education-law-that-ends-no-child-left-behind/2015/12/10/c9e58d7c-9f51-11e5-a3c5-c77f2cc5a43c_story.html?utm_term=.0d0fe5a32cda