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Mission-driven Future for Education Technologies

Posted by on Friday, July 6, 2018 in News.

When I have conversations with people in analogue positions at other universities -and this happens quite often – we tell each other stories about the seemingly endless stream of third party vendors who approach us in the hopes of being chosen to “enhance” our online digital offerings. The variety of companies that exist – and the number of services they offer – is broad and innovative. From full service firms to online marketing and proctoring firms, companies are trying to find a niche to help university partners find an economic way to highlight successful online programs and courses.

To me, the most interesting part of my conversations with these companies is when the salesperson asks me their version of “Well, what are Vanderbilt’s plans for the future of online education?” While it’s true that the evolving landscape changes each time I answer that question, the answer I give, because it is true and a must for the start of any conversation, is to simply point them to Vanderbilt’s “Mission, Goals and Values” statement. In effect, every decision always comes back to this, in part:  Vanderbilt will “be a leader in the quest for new knowledge through scholarship, dissemination of knowledge through teaching and outreach, and creative experimentation of ideas and concepts.”  And while our statement on educational technologies in the strategic plan gets a little specific in outlining that Vanderbilt will build upon our international reputation by both using and studying cutting edge practices that “foster innovation in learning, teaching, and discovery,” it really comes down to the same thing: we are pursuing education technology and digital learning not for specific material reasons but instead for the more abstract but very powerful purpose of working to discover new ways to teach, new ways to learn, new ways to share that information and therefore, new ways to increase Vanderbilt’s reputation.

As a result, when I’m asked a common question like, “Would you like to begin new programs in order to create new revenue streams,” I can honestly and firmly say “No.”  While we of course have to be fiscally responsible, and while new revenue is certainly a tool that allows us to pursue other projects, that has never been the point of departure. Instead, I have been encouraged repeatedly by Provost Wente and others to consistently refer back to the overall mission of the university and its refinement in the strategic plan. As a result, when we pursue new MOOCs or when we teach an online course to our undergraduate population during the summer, or when we make Adobe Creative Suite licenses available to faculty and students, we make these decisions depending on if the initiatives support our mission. I may sound a bit Pollyannaish about Vanderbilt and its leadership by saying this, but it’s a nice moment when I am talking to a colleague at a different university, and they begin to talk about how all the decisions are driven by questions of revenue. Not only am I proud to say that our leadership keeps education technology focused on our mission, but I would also point out that a sole focus on revenue would at times work directly against the academic mission as a whole.

In short, while our experiments and attempts to alter online education and digital technology are broad in one sense, in another they are very narrow. Every idea, every new direction is considered in terms of how it completes the mission of Vanderbilt University and its strategic plan. That’s a nice thing to be able to say.