Monday, August 21, 2017
Several years ago, when I was at Holyoke, the internet on campus went down for a few days. (Phone service went with it.) But electricity and water were unaffected, so we reported to work and tried to carry on as normally as possible.
It was bliss. No emails! If you wanted to communicate with someone, you had to figure out where they were, walk there, and speak to them.
When the internet came back, we were less excited than I would have initially predicted. Suddenly, there were all those emails, complete with multiple long attachments and strings of replies. The time-suck vortex had returned.
Tech can improve productivity, but sometimes it doesn’t.
Email is an especially egregious case, of course. I’m old enough to remember when it was unusual to have email access on the road, which had the salutary effect of keeping the volume of emails down. Now, anyone can send anything anywhere at any time, and they do. Unfortunately, with that convenience has come increased expectations for speed of response; it’s hard to disconnect for any length of time. (And yes, I’m aware that I’m saying this as a blogger…)
My kids tell me that email is for institutions and old people, but they’re as tethered to their various group texting apps as I am to email. The details are different, but the basic issue is the same. There is no escape.
“Productivity” in a higher ed context is a tricky word to define. Economists use it to refer to the number of widgets produced in a set amount of time, and/or the dollar value of said widgets. That doesn’t map cleanly onto what we do. We measure education in units of time -- credit hours, “four-year” degrees -- which rules out one version of productivity increase by definition. Dollar value is a difficult measure because we charge far less than what we’re worth, as measured by labor market outcomes. When you underprice already, the incentive to increase productivity isn’t as strong.
We can raise the dollar value simply by raising prices, and much of the sector has been doing that for years. But it’s increasingly clear that we’re at the societal limits of that.
There’s also a basic “wag the dog” issue with taking throughput as the sole measure of success. Many for-profit colleges produced plenty of degrees by watering down their content. That temptation always exists, whether by dropping unsubtle hints to certain professors about their grading standards or by treating outcomes assessment as a meaningless afterthought.
More basically, though, we often adopt technology not because it helps us do better what we’ve been doing, but because the outside world has adopted it, and we need to prepare students accordingly. When restaurants went from paper pads to computerized point-of-sale systems, colleges with hospitality programs had to invest in those systems, too. As computer science advances, we have to keep upgrading our equipment and retraining our people, even if the previous stuff still works. Our job involves preparing students for the world as it is, and as we foresee it being in the near future; to do that reasonably well, we have to expose them to current technology.
Much of the tech we’ve adopted has allowed us to improve quality, rather than to increase the dollar value of our time. Adaptive learning technology for students with auditory or visual disabilities has done wonders to open up options for students who were effectively excluded from classrooms a generation ago, but that doesn’t save us money. That lack of connection between improved performance and improved institutional income shows up in the statistics, and some low-information critics seize on that to score points. But what shows up in the stats is more of a measurement error than a failure of performance. If we do better by students who were previously ignored, we’re doing our jobs better, but our budgets look worse. In the private sector, performance and budgets tend to be more closely connected.
A new study shows that the gains to productivity in higher education from technology are laggy, partial, and uneven. I’d say that’s probably right, but not because anyone is doing anything wrong. It’s because the tech we’re adopting wasn’t built for our purposes. That, and we’re too busy catching up on emails...