Challenges for the Digital Era of Higher Education
As more higher education outlets fully integrate digital tools and resources into their routines, challenges have begun to emerge. The primary issue is the lack of examples to follow in the early parts of the digital era. While virtually all schools have developed departments or teams dedicated to advance technological infrastructure, there is no clear path to dictate where the focus should lie or how these teams should be organized.
Studies show common digital era challenges are found in the following areas:
- Content delivery.
- Utilizing the increasing amounts of available data.
- Securing the data of all stakeholders.
- Ethical dilemmas raised by the collection and utilization of data.
The digital era and content delivery
When addressing content delivery for higher education during the digital era, distance learning tends to be the focus. Finding appropriate tech tools to distribute lectures and class content to a larger number of students without hiring more professors or bringing more people into a classroom is a challenge, but it is not the only one.
According to a survey conducted by Pearson Education, 64 percent of students surveyed reported delaying a purchase of course materials – including books – because of cost concerns. This put them at a substantial disadvantage in their studies.
A report released by Student Public Interest Research Groups indicates the cost of textbooks has risen by 73 percent during the past decade. It further shows about one-third of responding students used financial aid – which usually goes toward tuition, fees, room, and board – to pay for books and that this necessity is greater in community college students where the number is 50 percent. In part, this is due to professors choosing textbooks regardless of price and assigning books that sometimes aren’t used in the class.
One of the solutions to the affordability issue for students is to transition to digital content delivery. In part, this means choosing textbooks that are available as digital books. While the initial cost of funding the research, and writing necessary to create a high-quality book remains the same, the subsequent manufacturing costs are greatly diminished without a physical product, which allows publishers to distribute the material for less.
The challenge lies in encouraging professors to seek out these types of sources and in finding publishers actively engaged in producing them for students. Unlike the K-12 public school system, university textbooks are not standardized and bought in bulk, which has made it more difficult for individual professors, departments, or universities to use this leverage to push for changes.
Nevertheless, forging partnerships to bring digital textbooks to most classes and campuses could ensure students have access to the materials they need at affordable prices.
Big data utilization and security
Universities have been collecting copious amounts of data about students for decades. However, it has only recently become feasible to process this data and use if for specific purposes.
A paper published in the British Journal of Educational Technology outlined the opportunities and challenges of big data analytics in higher education. It identifies the following issues as key to optimal utilization:
- Consolidation of data from different departments and from differing systems.
- Secured databases.
- Increased institutional transparency.
- Clear policies on the purpose of the accumulated data.
- User friendly analytic software.
- Standardized data formats.
Benefits of optimal big data utilization include:
- Reductions in bureaucratic redundancies.
- Increased procedural efficiency.
- Increased recognition of struggling students.
- Tracking historic trends to predict outcomes.
- Learning analytics to support student outcomes.
- Data driven academic intervention.
- Reduction in classes that do not advance the student on a degree path.
One of the greatest challenges facing the big data era of higher education is the ethical use of the accumulated data. The International Review of Information Ethics published an article on this topic raising the issues of personal autonomy and privacy but also the risk of developing scientism – defined as “an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation (as in philosophy, the social sciences, and the humanities” – in regards to the data.
The danger of scientism in the accumulation of big data is that the data will replace the human component of higher education. While the data itself is of immense potential value, even with proper understanding of the limitations and flawless methodology, it is still possible for data to be misleading.
As schools increasingly rely on big data to drive their day-to-day operations, student services, and content distribution they will need to find a balance between using the data and letting it rule them.