Diana G. Oblinger

Aug 04 2014

Q&A: EDUCAUSE's Diana G. Oblinger Reaches for the Future

EDUCAUSE CEO reflects on the ongoing evolution of technology in higher education.

Since beginning her tenure as president, Diana G. Oblinger has become known for her outreach to ­international institutions and members, as well as for her support and growth of several new products and services, including the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative and the Next Generation Learning Challenges program (in collaboration with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation). Through her service, EDUCAUSE has grown to include more than 2,400 colleges, universities and education organizations among its members, as well as 325 corporations.

Much of her career has been dedicated to technology and education. She began as a faculty member and academic administrator, then moved into IT, serving as the CIO for the University of North Carolina system, executive director of higher education for Microsoft, and IBM's director of the Institute of Academic Technology. She recently spoke with EdTech Managing Editor Tara E. Buck about her work and the ongoing evolution of technology in teaching and learning.

EDTECH: You became a professor in 1975, and have experienced the gradual evolution of technology in the classroom, as well as broader changes in how higher education leverages these technologies. Has that informed how you've chosen to lead EDUCAUSE, or perhaps set priorities?

OBLINGER: Having been a professor, adviser and university administrator has been hugely influential in how I think about technology for higher education. One of the phrases we have at EDUCAUSE is, "It is not just about the technology, but what you do with it that counts." Having worked on the mission side of the institution made it possible to understand what we should do with technology. Over time, it's become easier to use technology. Today our uses are much more sophisticated than in the early days because we go well beyond delivering content to deepen learning and improve student success. When I started teaching at the university level, the PC wasn't born yet. One of the reasons I left my academic career was to figure out how you could use technology for teaching and learning. Our options are much richer today than at that time.

Many of my faculty and administrative experiences motivated interests once I joined EDUCAUSE. I had the challenge of teaching a very large freshman undergraduate course, for example. How do you keep hundreds of students engaged, motivated, and on the right learning path? Today we know many ways technology can help. In advising, I worked with students who were self-directed, others who needed encouragement and support to stay in college, some for whom English was not their first language, and many who were the first in their family to go to college. You experienced the uniqueness of students and how no single solution or pathway would work for all of them. Again, that experience influenced how to think about technology.

And in working with university presidents, provosts and trustees I experienced how many of them are confused and frustrated by technology. While they feel it is important, they wanted help in understanding the strategic issues and decisions they could make, rather than focusing on the technology per se. Perhaps more than anything, I have seen how IT can help us think differently about really challenging and important problems. That is why EDUCAUSE uses the phrase "uncommon thinking for the common good." We believe technology can catalyze new ways of thinking and working that can help all of higher education. Those experiences and my time working with technology came together with EDUCAUSE.

EDUCAUSE is perceived to have its core business around content and conferences. Over the last several years we've developed that to "do more, think more," where the profession is going next, and the tools and skills IT professionals will need. EDUCAUSE helps higher education optimize the impact of IT. Some of that is by encouraging the use of technology, but our strengths are in building the profession, connecting people and ideas. We provide important analysis and data so institutions can make better decisions, so we can anticipate what comes next. We also convene thought leaders and influencers from a wide range of fields to understand the overall landscape, and also advance the mission of higher ed.

EDTECH: What would you like to see more of when it comes to classroom technologies that are now available for instruction? What needs remain?

OBLINGER: I'd like to see learning goals drive the use of technology, whether it's in the classroom or outside the classroom. Of course, people don't learn just in the classroom, and thanks to wireless and mobile devices, any place can be a learning space. I hope we continue the move toward tools that serve to deepen the engagement process. Engagement is a powerful predictor of success. It creates a sense of belonging, and it expands and enhances the vibrancy of the community. Higher order learning comes from complex challenges, which we can present with simulations or game-based learning. Practice helps develop expertise — again, something that can be enhanced using technology. These technologies can capture complex interactions for feedback and assessment, whether to the student, the instructor or the institution. And, when we collect large amounts of data, it can be used to personalize the learning experience.

The future is more than a replica of today's classroom. We should go beyond "classroom" technologies to all those that support students. It is not just about teaching or learning environments, but also ensuring that students have the confidence, the motivation and the support to succeed in college. Today we are seeing the emergence of a set of tools based on analytics that help students with early alerts, letting them know if they are at risk, and others that help with course selection, degree progress, links between college and career, and more. Other tools help students manage their complex lives, ensuring finances, transportation, child care, elder care or other things don't become a barrier to their success. Technology lets us provide information, but more important, it can personalize and individualize student support and services in ways that we just never had before.

EDTECH: Is that one of the primary changes you have seen in your career, in terms of technology's role?

OBLINGER: The power of personalization and individualization is quite striking. We used to think about technology as the way of reaching more students, but it was still pretty homogenized — the same material for everyone. Now, thanks to analytics and adaptive learning tools, you really can have a one-of-a-kind, just-for-you education. Similarly, the growth in prior learning assessment and competency-based education is fantastic.

The scale of this capability is growing. It is more possible than ever for institutions to serve learners with a higher quality, more targeted approach. The degree to which things have scaled up and scaled down, or are being made more personal, is striking. Virtually everything lives in the cloud, which can alter what is possible. The scale of technology is changing delivery systems, business models, economics and expectations. It is pretty inspiring to imagine where IT and higher education will be in another decade.

EDTECH: It's really a balance for institutions and their IT leaders, who are trying to make difficult choices as far as what to deploy and what to integrate and what's critical at any given time. How are you advising your membership in that regard?

OBLINGER: We try to help people to understand the strategic value of IT, and how it can be used to support an institution's mission. To do that they need to help people understand not the technology per se, but what it can do and where the long-term value is. That's difficult for people to articulate sometimes. We try to help our members see the big picture of higher education and what institutional leaders — whether they are presidents, provosts or chief business officers —need, and then how IT can address those challenges.

EDTECH: EDUCAUSE must be very agile to stay abreast of these changes and inform the membership, and provide the information the membership is looking for when the next things come along so quickly.

OBLINGER: We try to keep our eyes open all of the time—in all directions. When I started in the profession, IT was pretty much IT. Now IT is a part of everything—administration, research, instruction, facilities, for example. As a result IT professionals don't make all the decisions, whether it is purchasing, implementation, or policy. Just because it involves IT doesn't mean IT is in control of things. IT professionals are supporting and enabling a lot of work outside IT. So you have to talk to many people become IT does not operate in a vacuum. If you understand others' language, what they are trying to achieve, the overall mission of higher education, it makes it a lot easier to pick up issues and opportunities that are just on the horizon.

EDTECH: How did you first learn about EDUCAUSE, and why did you want to be part of this organization's work?

OBLINGER: I started out by attending conferences—it was before the merger of EDUCOM and CAUSE. I attended both the EDUCOM and CAUSE conferences because it was pretty obvious that both of those organizations were going to be critical to building the profession as well as connecting people and ideas. With an academic and corporate background, it seemed there was something that I could contribute to an IT organization that is part higher education and part small business—a non-profit one. With the growth of IT, it was pretty clear that there was need for professional development as well as for research and data. My first non-volunteer work with EDUCAUSE was working to develop ECAR, the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (now the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research). The goal was to provide higher education IT with research and analysis so institutions could make better decisions. Then, I was asked to lead the teaching and learning program. When my predecessor retired I was asked to lead the organization. So, I went from being an EDUCAUSE attendee to being one of the people who serves the attendees.

Over the course of my career, I've had the opportunity to work with a lot of types of institutions--research universities, community colleges, regional institutions and institutions outside the US. That turns out to have been really, really helpful. One of the hallmarks of EDUCAUSE is that it's a large, diverse organization that spans the breadth of higher education both in the United States and other countries.

EDTECH: I am sure it wasn't all easy. What kind of obstacles and challenges have you overcome in order to realize success in this current role?

OBLINGER: One of the challenges for all of us and for EDUCAUSE was to take risks. When you are responsible for an organization, you want to be sure that it and the employees are safe and sound, right? Yet part of my responsibility was stepping out of our comfort zone to try different things. A number of years ago, we did our first online program. That was new for an association, just as it was new at one time for higher education. Today we reach thousands of people online even though initially we were not sure how best to do that. We've also moved beyond our traditional audience to help non-IT people understand IT. A third example is students. Several years ago we focused on students and their use of technology. The student perspective was critical in helping provosts, presidents and others see technology in a different way. It wasn't really about the technology, of course, for the students — technology was just how they got things done. So, we have challenged ourselves to take some risks.

EDTECH: In a way it mirrors what your membership is going through at their local levels, as they implement new technologies and try new things. It's a similar story. What do you think about the current state of technology-supported and enabled research and instruction in higher ed?

OBLINGER: Occasionally, people make it sound as though higher education doesn't change, but it's changing all the time. A change I believe we are moving to is thinking about information technology in a combinatorial way. It isn't about computers vs. people—it is the best of technology in concert with the things people do best. The last couple of decades our thinking has been focused on using technology to speed communication and store information. But you can also use it to extend your mind, to visualize things that you had not been able to do. If we can combine technological capability with human capability in ways that are really complementary and fundamentally different, we will see substantial positive changes.

EDTECH: So going back to your earlier comments about what's possible as far as leveraging the analytics and that level of personalization, is that assuming that these institutions have access to the highest and best technologies available? What about those that don't have the budget? That's a problem when it comes to accessing the technology that is available in order to make those strides.

OBLINGER: I think the place to begin is institutions understanding what they need to achieve, their risk tolerance and then looking at the tools that are available. No institution can do everything all at once — analytics, student success systems, CAVE environments. There is only so much that can be done at once. When resources are tight — whether that's money, expertise or technology—it is important to prioritize and think about optimization not just doing more. And remember, achieving a goal is not necessarily technologically intense or expensive. Email is one of the most transformational tools that we have ever had. But also remember that a lot of what goes on in education happens outside of the college- or university-controlled infrastructure. We call it consumerization—or bring your own device. So much is possible with mobile devices and apps. It doesn't have to be costly or complicated to be transformative.

Of course institutions can achieve a lot through collaboration and by sharing resources. We are seeing more and more of that. Many times we fall into the assumption that ownership is what is important when it's really access. You don't necessarily have to own a resource to be able to access it.

EDTECH: Overall what do you think the institutions' goals should be when it comes to deployment and when it comes to making these priorities?

OBLINGER: I think it comes back to the core mission of colleges and universities. At its heart, it is about education, and education can happen in many different ways. We have talked about the classroom. The students in that classroom have different backgrounds, different goals. The point is to make the student successful whether that means they need help with the course or seeing a pathway from the course to a career. And "learners" are not just students who are enrolled in the institution; higher education serves the entire community. Colleges and universities can extend what they have to people, literally, around the world.

EDTECH: It's so much a part of every aspect of almost everyone's life today. Do you envision a time when it's not something that's talked about in a kind of separate way, where we have a groups like EDUCAUSE that advocate the use of technology where it doesn't need to be advocated? That it's just not something that you think about, like drinking water?

OBLINGER: I think it's getting to be more like that—that technology is part of what we do, not something different. Organizations help us have a lens on things that are important, like post-secondary education. EDUCAUSE focuses on how technology can advance higher education. I think there will continue to be a need for that and for us to be interconnected and help members and the public.

It has all changed very much in the time that I have been in the field, and we probably can't imagine what is going to happen next. The core mission of higher education really hasn't changed. However, the context we find ourselves in — with different types of students, the growth of higher education and its globalization—has changed. There will always be a new set of tools and challenges that we can address. But it is critical to stay focused on higher education's core mission and enable people to do the things that are best for higher education and for society.

Brian Gomsak

Become an Insider

Unlock white papers, personalized recommendations and other premium content for an in-depth look at evolving IT