Technology and its Impact on the Academy

By Harvey Wolf Kushner, Chairman, Department of Criminal Justice & Cyber Security, Long Island University

As a college professor and administrator for many decades, I have lived through a number of technological tipping points in higher education. In the last century, I put away my slide rule to learn all I could about computers. By the early seventies, I was writing programs in FORTRAN IV for the IBM System 360 and 370. I could often be seen on Mercer Street in lower Manhattan lugging heavy trays of computer punched cards to the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University to measure voting power using roll call date.

My computer programs created initially to assay a variety of phenomena studied by my fellow political scientists at the university even began to pique the interest of researchers within the hard sciences who were better acquainted with the technological advancements of the day.  For example, I was contacted by scientists at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center operated by Stanford University for my VOTEPOW and PARSUPPORT computer programs to see if they could enhance their own research. Endocrinologists doing post graduate work at New York University even asked me to teach them the value of my computer programs for their own medical studies.

As the millennium was coming to an end and we headed for the possibility of computers malfunctioning during Y2k, computers were becoming integrated into all facets of university life. They would eventually come to be used to register and grade students, enhance classroom pedagogy and heuristics, and aid faculty in their development and research. Their use had a salutary effect on the workings of the 20th century academy.

In order to conduct business during the pandemic, colleges and universities needed to immediately adopt a variety of video conferencing platforms such as ZOOM and Google Meet.

With the coming of the 21st century, however, universities entered a new era where other space-age technologies such as the internet where gaining popularity. The cyber age would begin to create a tipping point that would eventually call into question the university as we knew it. The internet along with a variety of corresponding cyber age items such as search engines, email, smartphones, and other technologies slowly became integrated into all aspects of university life. They enhanced the paradigm that was the university of the first two decades of the new millennium. More importantly, however, their gradual introduction allowed them to gain acceptance with the usual naysayers of new technologies within the academy.

For the most part, college professors not engaged in the hard sciences are notorious for adhering to maintaining their old ways of doing business. They need time to ruminate about the practical use of a new technology. Consider, for example, the introduction of email. Many of my humanities and social science colleagues as well as my own staff in my professionally oriented department baulked at its use. Those that failed to adopt the new technologies were not punished by not being rehired, promoted or tenured. Retirement, not punitive actions, would be the way to replace those not interested in adopting technological advancements. In short, the cyber age at the beginning of the 21st century fit the very definition of a tipping point in that it represented the point at which a series of small changes became significant enough to cause a larger, more important change. The latter being the adoption of the new technologies such as search engines, email, smartphones, and other technologies into all aspects of university life. And these changes did not call into question the university as we know it but COVID-19 was another story.  

COVID-19 which was declared by the World Health Organization a public health emergency of international concern on January 30, 2020 and a pandemic on March 11, 2020 ushered in a tipping point that has impacted institutions of higher learning like no other in recent memory. As societies across the globe began to lockdown to reduce the spread of SAR-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, so did most educational institutions. Never in our history when similar control measures were implemented was the scale of the lockdowns at these institutions so widespread. After more than 18 months of public school closures, our nation’s K-12 schools reopened with the hope of going back to were they were before the pandemic.  Institutions of higher learning must realize that they cannot.

In order to conduct business during the pandemic, colleges and universities needed to immediately adopt a variety of video conferencing platforms such as ZOOM and Google Meet. Through a computer desktop or mobile app, these platforms connect online for video conference meetings, webinars, and live chats. They quickly took the place of traditional synchronous education where communications are scheduled in person. Virtual learning environments (VLEs) such as  Blackboard Learn and Brightspace were also employed to further enhance the new synchronous learning experience.

Instead of just merely enhancing the synchronous learning experience, these VLEs worked to  rapidly convert much of synchronous education into true asynchronous communications that would never have to meet face-to-face. As a result, students began to learn how to better use cyber age technologies to fend for themselves. Absent the importance of social interaction with your peers, classroom learning during the pandemic quickly saw the internet along with smartphone capabilities make many aspects of the traditional classroom and university experience unnecessary. Take, for example, the university library for doing research. No longer do students have to wait until the library opened for information when their Google App is accessible all day every day from the comfort of their home.

The pandemic with its lockdown of college and university campuses demonstrated just how quickly cyber technologies can be used to supplement the way institutions of higher learning do business. The switch to and successes of online asynchronous education during the pandemic should illustrate just how rapidly cyber-age technologies can adapt and grow.  Academia can no longer slowly integrate new technologies as they become available. The hallowed halls of academia must put aside its staid ways of operation and learn to quicky adapt to cyber technologies as they grow exponentially. Failure to do so will surely call into question the relevancy of the academy in our technological age.