Where Do Technology and Liberal Arts Meet?
Earlier this month in Arlington, VA, the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE) held its annual summit regarding technology's role in a collegiate setting. However, given some major economic problems that liberal arts schools now face, the conference ended up having almost nothing to do with technology at all. How does technology fit into the world of the modern university?
What Happened to Technology?
If you want to know why an education conference sponsored by a technology group barely touched on technological issues, you can blame the economy. In the face of a so-called 'unsustainable' business model, attendees at the 2011 NITLE summit spent most of their time talking about how liberal arts institutions can remain financially viable. That left few moments to brainstorm new ways to innovate a digital presence in the classroom.
Why not include technology in that financial discussion? As education publication Inside Higher Ed points out, technology's rarely implemented as a budget-cutting measure. In fact, one might imagine that often the opposite is true - new technology costs money and requires manpower, two things liberal arts universities are looking to cut back on.
More on NITLE
NITLE was founded in 2001 to help liberal arts universities integrate recent technologies into their curricula. Previous projects of the organization include helping bring multimedia assignments into school classrooms and introducing technology that maps and interfaces students in study abroad programs around the globe. How, then, did their conference end up focusing on a debate about how best to deliver a liberal arts education and whether or not students count as customers?
Well, maybe that's not a very big leap to make. The same conversation's been going on in all sorts of industries lately. When there's a breakdown in the central structures that help keep an institution afloat, it's difficult to consider essentially extraneous elements. Put another way, how can schools talk about putting the latest technology in their classrooms when they're not even sure they can operate those classrooms to begin with?
Technology's Place in the Liberal Arts
Clearly, liberal arts educators feel their livelihood's reaching something of a crisis point. A debate about the best way to structure and support a university education could just as easily arise at an academic technology conference as it could anywhere else that educators gather.
However, just because technology took a backseat to economics at the latest NITLE summit doesn't mean it has no place in education going forward. NITLE was probably wise to cede their event to other matters this year; technology can't solve every problem in education. But the existence of organizations like NITLE testifies to the fact that technology is an important part of a liberal arts education, if not the central issue. Whatever business model liberal arts schools end up adopting, classroom technology will certainly play some part in it. Our world is constantly becoming increasingly digital, after all. The trick for educators is to figure out how to handle that digitalization in whatever economic model they employ going forward.
Learn more about the digital mapping phenomenon in which NITLE takes part.