Technology and Higher Education – Is it a Flat World?

Several short years ago, the institution I was working for decided to implement a customer relationship management (CRM) tool.  Sales teams in the business world have used CRMs such as ACT! and Salesforce since the 1980s and 1990s but as higher education tends to be a little behind, most colleges and universities were slow to adopt the utilization of CRMs.  Our CRM implementation team introduced the new tool to the admission staff and the faculty that would be using it.  The team excitedly shared the many amazing uses, and how processes would be streamlined, emails automatically sent, and many other tasks, all completed with a touch of a button.  Sheer fear filled the room.  Collectively a question loomed, does this mean some of us are losing our jobs?  Was technology replacing the need for people?

robot-tease-4x3-grid-4x2

Nine jobs humans may lose to robots – NBC News

Nick Bostrom’s discussion on TED titled, What happens when our computers get smarter than we are, speaks to the fears that some have in technology not only potentially replacing the need for humans in the workplace but the prospect of technology spinning out of control.  Bostrom’s discussion self-admittedly reeks of something out of a science fiction film, but in the ever-changing world of technology we live in, it seems believable.  For now, technology mistakes tend to be due to human error and not the error of a computer trying to admit students on their own for example.  As reported by the New York Times in December of 2016, mistakes may be blamed on new software as Tulane University pointed to as the reason 130 new freshman students received congratulatory emails in error.  The truth is, Tulane like many other colleges and universities have in recent years, made human errors with the use of technology.  The fact is, technology has aided higher education far more than it has hurt it.  It has opened doors for institutions and students by expanding reach throughout the globe in recruitment efforts as well as in delivery modalities and learning experiences.

Thomas Friedman describes a world that continues to become increasing more flat in his book; The World is Flat.  Friedman suggested technology, among other things, has created a world that is connected like it has never been before.  At the end of 2015, it was expected that nearly half of the world would have access to the internet.  The forecast for 2017 is there will be 4.77 billion cell phone users in the world.  mobilephilippinesIn 2014, the U.N. reported more people had access to cell phones than they did to toilets.  Cell phones and the internet have made it easier for people to connect and interact.  These types of technology advancements have created greater opportunities for people to advance their education and knowledge regardless of where they are in the world.  My previous institution started with the letter “A, ” and I am willing to bet, it was a significant reason we experienced an increase in international inquiries.  When students went online to research colleges and universities in the United States, the lists are often alphabetical and that put us near the top.

Richard Florida agreed with some of what Friedman offered, but in the article The World is Spiky, Florida offered the idea that globalization, including technology, did not make the world flat but rather the most advanced and thriving areas of the world were concentrated in large urban areas.  While the world of online programs and free online courses such as Coursera, Khan Academy, and EdX have opened the world of education to people all over the world, the schools that have potentially benefited the greatest are those that are near large urban areas.  The alphabet undoubtedly helped, however; the fact that my university happened to be in the second largest city in Illinois and located 40 miles from Chicago may have played as big of a role.  Students want the opportunities both socially and professionally that large urban areas provide.  It is not a coincidence that you can find dozens of colleges and universities in and around urban areas.  I would argue that Friedman’s idea that the world is flat in not accurate.  Rather the world is flatter than it was and is becoming more so as technology continues to advance.

 

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18 thoughts on “Technology and Higher Education – Is it a Flat World?

  1. Good points. In coming weeks, I will be talking about Kevin Kelly’s (2015) book, The Inevitable, which in a positive way forecasts increasing interconnectiveness not only between humans but our machines as well. He suggests that while some jobs will be eliminated, many more will be created…jobs we are not even considering now.

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    • Dr. Watwood,

      Thank you for your comments. I will need to add Kevin Kelly’s (2015) book to my short list. Nick Bostrom’s presentation on TED created those very questions for me. Some positions may no longer need a human presence, but I am curious to learn of new jobs that will be created. The conversations I have had with employees are that our jobs may be different with the use of technological advancements. The fact that I cannot explain exactly how they will be different creates uncertainty and consequently anxiety over the unknown. I am doing my best to put my change management skills to use to calm the fears, but it is an ongoing challenge.

      Jason

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  2. Great job! What an informative blog. Appreciated how you really wove in the experiences of your workplace – including the impact of being at the beginning of the alphabet in terms of search. It seems humorous to initially consider but when we consider that in so many functions many people are trusting search engine algorithms. And as we know they can be fixed and gamed. Thus we trust our knowledge to something which may not be quite as trustworthy. An interesting take on this is highlighted in Metaxas and DeStefano (2005) in a talk they presented outlining how web spam causes disruption in search engines and their ability to provide accurate information. And I think you are right on when you suggest that the world continues to flatten. The iPhone became a reality after both of these works were published. Smart phones have absolutely put access to knowledge in more hands. Now what kind of knowledge and how we use it … maybe AI will be instructing us on that soon … Thanks again for a great blog – Tricia

    Metaxas, P. & DeStefano, J. (2005) Web Spam, Propaganda and Trust. Talk presented at the 1st International Workshop on Adversarial Information. Retrieved from http://airweb.cse.lehigh.edu/2005/metaxas.pdf

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    • Tricia,

      Good afternoon. You bring up an excellent point in regards to search optimization, paid placement and other marketing factors that skew internet searches. My guess is that the average internet user is not aware of the ways individuals and organizations can influence the placement of search results. Do you think that there should be a required statement that would appear, for example, to inform the person searching that not all internet searches display organic results and that the particular search result was due to paid marketing?

      Jason

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      • In my Masters of Ed class on tech, I have my students search for info on a political action committee fo their choice by Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo, and Baidu – 4 different search engines, and then analyze the results. They also use WhoIs and the Wayback Machine to determine who created the website for the PAC and when it started. This activity is always eye opening for them.

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      • Appreciate your question and I am not entirely sure where I stand. I like Dr. Watwood’s suggestion below – to use several search engines and compare. I fear that as you point out – many people are not thinking critically enough about what they discover. So a warning may provide transparency but not sure it would help people become more critical thinkers which we direly need. Hmmm – a conundrum. Regards – Tricia

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  3. Nice post. Something happened to click for me when I read your last couple of sentences. You disagreed with Friedman’s notion that the world is flat, suggesting that while the world is flatter, there is still so much more to be achieved. I could not agree more and it makes me reflect more seriously on how spiky the world may become. As Bostrom described in his TED talk, we cannot begin to understand where technology may take us in ten, twenty, or one hundred years. While we all may have a vision of what a flat world may look like in this context, the unknown of how spiky it can get is fascinating.

    -The Ayes Have It

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      • Jason,

        I guess I should go with my first instinct, as my mind immediately went to Florida’s (2005) article when I read your question. Florida discussed the different realities that exist when resources are concentrated and that innovation can be localized even if information is widespread. I believe the same holds true for higher education and its ability to embrace technology. If we look at the landscape itself and the way in which students consume education, perhaps the argument could be made that things have flattened. However, I disagree. In this field, the rich often get richer. Tuition dependent and cash starved institutions do the best that they can, but cannot afford to make the investments in technology that others might. On the other hand, having worked at a very wealthy institution as well, I can tell you with great certainty that the realities are quite different in terms of an institution’s ability to invest resources in technology and innovation. They can take risks that others cannot and choose to spend on innovation when others must choose deferred maintenance to fix a crumbling physical infrastructure.

        Matt

        Reference

        Florida, R. (2005, October). The world is spiky. The Atlantic Monthly. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/images/issues/200510/world-is-spiky.pdf

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  4. Livingthedream530,

    I really enjoyed your post – so many interesting insights! The story you shared about the fear that technology will replace people illustrates a key issue of job automation. What will people whose jobs are replaced by robots do? This question is addressed in an interview with Christine Lagarde (Reddy, 2106), managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Lagarde points out that fear of job loss from technological advances has existed for hundreds of years, yet new jobs have always been created. We simply do not yet know what these future jobs are. Lagarde proposes that the real challenge is preparing and retraining people to ensure we do not experience more inequality in global economic growth. I think this introduces an important aspect of social responsibility for all leaders.

    By the way, my university has been through a few CRM implementations, and we seem to need more people than ever to manage the systems. I appreciate the discussion!

    Mary

    References

    Reddy, S. (2016, October 7). Will a Robot Take Your Job? How to Tackle ‘Fear and Anxiety’ in Today’s Economy. The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved from http://blogs.wsj.com/economics/2016/10/07/will-a-robot-take-your-job-how-to-tackle-fear-and-anxiety-in-todays-economy/

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    • Mary,

      Thank you for your comments. As the teams, I have been a part of adjust to technology improvements I continuously urge each and every one of the group to be open to the advancements and embrace learning as much as possible. The more individuals and teams can remain trained and knowledgeable the less the chance of individuals running the risk of losing their jobs. If a need for a position either changes or is eliminated, a willing and trained employee can either adjust to the change in the position or demonstrate the ability to learn a new opportunity. It has been my experience that those that are not able to embrace this approach are typically those that do not survive changes within the organization.

      As for the comment regarding different CRMs, I might be reaching out to you. I will be leading the search for a new CRM for our institution sooner rather than later. Thank you again for your comments.

      Jason

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      • Jason,

        You make a great point that those who are willing to learn new skills will likely have more opportunities and be better able to survive change. I think it is important for leaders to encourage followers to develop their skills. Like anything, if it is not a priority, then something else fills the time.

        I’d be happy to connect you with a CRM contact at my univiersity. We are in the middle of implementing Salesforce, and currently use the PeopleSoft Campus Solutions CRM.

        Mary

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  5. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this!

    Your comment regarding access to cell phones as compared to toilets resonated, as I’ve had the privilege to partner with a ministry colleague and friend who lives and works in a small network of sugar cane villages east of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. My time spent there (on several different occasions over the period of the past five years) illustrated this divide…on both accounts. Thankfully (and perhaps selfishly), we have witnessed marked improvement regarding access to toilets there! Regarding access to technology though, my experiences reflect the digital abyss Aleph Molinari (2011) spoke of ( https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kaxCRnZ_CLg ). While his data are a few years old at this point, he suggested (as you seem to also) that while there is no doubt greater digital inclusion today, there remains sizeable exclusion and ample room for improvement. Bridging this gap (or abyss) comes with a host of challenges: access to necessary infrastructure, like electricity; digital infrastructure; financial burdens; digital literacy; etc. While my missionary friend lacks the resources to address these challenges wholesale, I appreciate that his team is sensitive to being resourceful AND responsible in advancing this cause. Even in their baby steps, they seek to pursue the greatest distributive justice and to ensure that increased technologies are leveraged towards meaningful growth (educational and spiritual).

    -EA

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    • EA,

      Thank you for your comments and for sharing your experiences. Your comments led me to wonder if though technology access such as cell phones have undoubtedly spread across the globe, does that economic status of the less fortunate countries such as the one you described in your experience lead to a spiky world? My assumption is the rates that individuals and families pay in these countries must be lower than we pay in the United States? If that is the case, who will pay for technological advances in these countries? Will the cellular companies see value in offering similar services in these countries as they do in other parts of the world that are more fortunate?

      -Jason

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  6. Livingthedream,
    My job is helping companies improve adoption of technology with their end users. It is funny that the biggest concern, and the one most difficult to intellectually counter (at least with IT workers), is the fear of job loss. It is tough because the target is often to reduce headcount. For high performers, it is easier to see workloads lifted, leaving more productive workloads to now spend time on. For everyone else, there is lots of worry – whether warranted or not.
    The alphabet trick is an old Yellow Pages trick (e.g., AAA Plumbing), but I am sure results in “hits”. Which brings up the point of measurement. Getting hits on the internet does not always mean monetizing the hit. There are many tricks to getting your site to score high in search engines. I see a lot of folks debating on how success should be measured now in the world of technology. This is what technology has brought as well.
    I had doubts coming into an online program. Creighton’s name, and that it was Jesuit, allayed some of those fears, but it was the experience that brought it home. The format, styles, and most important, the teachers, made this program one that I recommend to many folks.
    Thanks,
    Peopleologist

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    • Peopleologist,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective. Your job has to be challenging! Has it gotten easier or more difficult as technology continues to evolve at an alarming rate? Your comment regarding online programs is something I also contemplated. I must admit that I was a little concerned that when I submitted an online inquiry on a Saturday morning, I was called in a matter of seconds, not minutes. It was a dead giveaway that the program uses a third party for their recruitment efforts. In a world, that increasingly expects instant answers; not-for-profit institutions have been forced to follow models similar to those the for-profits. Maximizing placements in search engines is not any different. In a way, it is a bit dishearting, but unfortunately, these are things necessary to stay relevant.

      Jason

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  7. Pingback: Eight Days a Week. – Cat on the Keyboard

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