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Matney: Northwestern fails to offer 21st century academic experience

Lucas Matney, Columnist

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When it was announced earlier this year that Canvas would begin the process of replacing Blackboard this fall, there were few impassioned defenses or whole-hearted endorsements offered in regard to the move. Indeed, most of the fuss related to the switch was simply about the inconvenience and hassle of making the technical transition. That should seem a bit odd and worrisome when you consider that Blackboard was Northwestern’s key piece of education technology.

Canvas has a lot of interesting features related to collaboration among students and conferencing with professors, but the more advanced aspects of the software mean precisely nothing when no one is using them. From my personal experience thus far, very few of my professors have used technology in the classroom in a way that offers a radically changed educational experience. Administrators and individual professors need to ponder what a 21st century education really means if they desire the University to maintain relevance as an institution.

Technology in the classroom has a higher calling than acting as a digital folder for students to pull files from. Even “innovative” features that simply streamline existing academic processes into paperless versions aren’t nearly enough. Have the breakneck advances of Internet connectivity, crowdsourcing technology and big data really only led to my being able to print out a class’ syllabus and email the teacher when I’m not feeling well?

As an institution, NU needs to be at the forefront of creating the future of education in a genuinely radical manner. If producing online courses and massive open online courses are the most innovative developments that some of the greatest minds at NU can produce, then higher education as an entity has serious reason to be concerned about remaining current.

Although plenty of blame can be directed at NU’s administration for staying relatively complacent in terms of shaping the evolution of higher education, it is the professors and academics who refuse to adopt even the most basic of changes who are truly holding us back.

It may seem difficult to blame the professors who have been teaching the same class here for 20-plus years for not being at the forefront of educational innovation. In reality though, it is pretty unacceptable for professors who have most closely witnessed the progress their fields have made at the hands of these same technological innovations to fail to alter their own instruction methods. Many professors are refusing to adopt or even acknowledge the benefits of educational software like Blackboard or Canvas. When this is the case, it may seem like a lot to ask them to drastically reimagine how course material is conveyed in regard to technological innovations. However, that’s exactly what we need from them.

Changing the way people teach and are taught is tough, especially in the context of something as expansive and influential as the institution of higher education. I understand that, but NU and other universities have gotten far too comfortable resting on their laurels and prestige as they grows less and less capable of preparing us for the radically changing industries we will be entering.

Technology is far more than just a word processor or a file folder. It’s a tool that has taken endless forms in altering how we as humans fundamentally process information. If today’s higher education institutions truly can’t learn anything from any of these changes, then soon they won’t be the ones teaching us about them either.

Lucas Matney is a Medill junior. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

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