Schools prepare to face Xbox culture

Burrus, a futurist and founder of Burrus Research Inc., said the upcoming generation of students is not going to want to go to a school that isn’t tech-savvy. “It’s going to be part of their selection process,” he said. “That hasn’t been so much (the case) in the past, but we’re in a different era now.”

The generation currently in elementary school spends its free time in highly immersive, three-dimensional, fully interactive gaming environments where they are learning very sophisticated strategies and collaborating with other players, some of whom are spread around the globe.

“Then they unplug and go to school and go into a time machine backwards,” he said. “They’re being taught the way they’ve been taught for many years.”

Schools have computers, but they haven’t exploited the potential of today’s gaming devices to enhance learning, he said. “The business and the education worlds have not seen the power of the Xbox or the new Sony PlayStation,” he said. “It’s a gaming toy, but it’s also an unbelievably powerful tool that can be used to accelerate learning; it’s a game, so it’s fun and competitive, and when you compete you’re at a high level of focus.”

Burrus also predicts that universities and colleges will have to offer more than just a prestigious name, such as McGill or U of T.

“Whatever your university and brand is, the meaning changes over time,” he said. “A university that has a good brand name today is going to have to reposition itself to make it relevant for the future, and one of the ways is through technology investments.”

According to a recent survey of more than 100 attendees at a recent Association for Communications Technology Professionals in Higher Education (ACUTA) event, most colleges and universities are moving in that direction, despite facing major budget challenges. The survey revealed two out of three schools are evaluating IT such as voice over IP, wireless and cellular, Gigabit Ethernet and advanced security, and will implement at least one next year.

ACUTA, a non-profit association with 17 Canadian members, found that while nearly half of the respondents cited budget issues as a major challenge, almost all – 93 per cent – said they expected to find ways around it, including special funding mechanisms, promotional campaigns aimed at swaying upper management and cutbacks in other areas. Many – 78 per cent surveyed – charge technology fees, either as a separate item or as part of dorm fees.

Jeri Semer, executive director of Lexington-based ACUTA, said university administrations are aware of students’ interest in technology, but they have to balance those demands with funding new buildings or hiring more professors.

For Marden Paul, executive director of strategic computing at the University of Toronto, senior management buy-in is not the greatest challenge he faces in deploying new technologies.

“It’s difficult to determine what your priorities should be, given the scope of the things you have to do. Even if you get buy-in, you still have to implement. You introduce new technology and you’ve got to convince thousands of new people to use it, while there may be alternatives floating around at the local level that work just as well.”

While he doesn’t feel he’s competing with other university priorities for IT dollars, Paul said it would be a different story if IT departments on campus had to compete with each other to implement projects.

“We’re extremely decentralized, so much work is done at the local and departmental level,” he said.

The U of T’s most important IT projects at the moment relate to improving the student experience through a new learning management system (Blackboard), increased portal functionality and an improved Web site. The U of T started the process of looking for a new LMS about two years ago and has been implementing the system since last January.

“It’s probably the most important way of communicating with students and providing a consistent interface to learning materials,” said Paul. “The more difficult part of it is putting this out across the entire university.”

U of T surveys students and faculty and relies on steering committees that focus on future needs, he said. The U of T also turns to Educause, another U.S.-based non-profit aimed to further IT in education.

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