Misplaced Priorities: Education’s (Mostly) One-Sided Digital Investment
Guest article written by: Bob McDonald
Year after year, educational institutions continue to pour funding into digital technologies, updating classrooms and curriculums for a heavily digitized 21st-century. While it often seems that each new semester brings another digital arts endowment or emerging technologies grant, very few of these investments focus on actually updating campus-wide technological frameworks. The result, more often then not, is a mismatch between the caliber and expense of a school’s digital resources and the outdated, even byzantine, structures in place for gaining access. As a not insubstantial impediment to use, in effect, older and less well-connected infrastructures directly contribute to a campus-wide permissive culture of copyright violation.
How much money are schools investing into their digital resources exactly? In short, a lot. For medium-sized universities, an Adobe Creative Cloud three-year contract can start at $265,000. That’s in addition to the approximately $50M+ many institutions are fronting to build new digital media centers, innovation labs, and makerspaces. Add to that the cost of time and energy involved in training educators in new technologies, updating campus-wide IT support services, and developing new digitally-oriented curriculums, and it is easy to understand why the digital revolution is effectively rewriting the face and heart of traditional education.
At least, that is what is supposed to be happening. In actuality, many students and educators face a bizarre Twilight Zone of conflicting messages, in which many of the most current and rapidly evolving digital tools—from advanced imaging technologies to high-resolution video assets and equipment—are only provided through antiquated channels, requiring numerous requisition emails or long treks across campus to isolated media labs.
Unquestionably, these tools are essential to education’s future as digital literacy becomes the byword for the 21st century. Yet the efficacy of these tools, and ultimately their return on investment, are harshly undercut by underutilization as students and educators both struggle to access resources in an efficient and timely way. Rather than wade through layers of red tape, teachers and pupils often resort to sourcing content and software ad hoc from the vast array of cheap, quasi-legal resources readily available from every corner of the internet.
The tragedy in this current set-up is twofold. Not only do institutions lose out on the full benefits of their digital investments when they remain unused, but they also forfeit the right to vet the materials their employees and students actually do use. Without the ability to control for quality or review resources for copyright compliance, schools invite a permissive, laissez-faire attitude toward digital education and scholarship, one which flirts heavily with copyright violation.
Ultimately, the educational community must ask itself whether or not digital literacy and technical innovation are priorities. While many institutions pay lip service to the thought—especially when new endowments or specialized programs garner important PR—the truth of the matter is that the lack of campus-wide, quality digital infrastructure belies deeply misplaced priorities within the community.
At first, the alternative may seem radical to many educators and administrators, requiring an essential reevaluation of funding priorities. Rather than investing in flashy (and expensive) media labs that only a few handfuls of students will use before the technologies become outmoded, schools should be investing in media connectivity and technology infrastructures that include the entire campus. Though digital assets and tools will change and evolve as rapidly as Apple can release a new iPhone, the structures designed to render our new digital materials accessible are much more likely to favorably weather the coming innovations of the next decade.
Perhaps most importantly, providing resources within easily indexed and searched, centralized, and universally available frameworks also becomes a matter of campus politics. Now more than ever, debates surrounding gatekeeping and equal access to resources are rising to the fore in the educational community. Institutions are struggling to ensure that all of their students and stakeholders, regardless of field or funding, have the same educational opportunities—digital innovations are no small factor in this. By failing to invest in broader technological infrastructures, schools are indirectly perpetuating double standards for access on their campuses, favoring those programs that directly benefit from new media labs or technology endowments, while leaving the majority of other programs and departments stranded in the Dark Ages.