Why Higher Ed is Always a Step Behind

May 06, 2009

Posted in Higher Ed and Web Industry.

Higher education is often a slow beast, lumbering forward amidst a fast-paced world of technology and innovation.

Karine Joly asks, Why don’t we talk more about the mobile Web and its possibilities for our field?

But it’s not just mobile Web, is it? Why is higher ed so slow to adopt new ideas?

The wrong people are in charge

Higher ed is very hierarchical and bureaucratic. The purse strings (not just cash, but resource management, prioritization, innovation) are held by people who didn’t grow up with cell phones in their pockets. They don’t text, so they don’t get that it’s the number one way millennials prefer to communicate.

Things change too quickly

When I give presentations on social media, I make sure to show The Conversation Prism by Brian Solis. I do this to demonstrate just how much there is out there, and how we don’t have to do everything. Many (most?) of the tools out there didn’t exist five years ago and many (most?) won’t exist five years from now. So it’s understandable that people are skeptical of these new “next big thing” sites and technologies… it’s hard to pick out the ones that really matter.

The usage is sparse

On our campus, less than 50% of mobile users have the ability to even browse the web on their phones. Almost all of them use SMS, but from the limited data we have it’s clear that mobile browsing represents a very small number of users. In the grand list of priorities, it’s hard to place this very high.

How to Move Forward?

Start by looking for case studies from other schools and show what the competition is doing. Don’t make it a project, make it part of your culture – set aside time for trying new things. You don’t know for sure what you’ll need to do, so you need to build it into your work.

If you want to be a leader in anything, you have to take some risks. Be willing to fail quickly, cut your losses, and move on. Fortunately, web tools don’t always require much financial support so there’s less feeling of a sunk cost.


  1. chas — May 07, 2009

    Definitely. ND can be a very decentralized place, as are many schools. Change has to happen on the ground level, not necessarily as an administrative edict.

    Of course, the dramatic shift is already happening – as millennials and Gen-Xers take on leadership roles they are bringing the change with them. Our generation grew up with the technology and can more easily see the value of social media. I’m trying to accelerate this process by educating campus groups – they’re eager to learn and understand and start using the tools.

  2. Mike McCready — May 07, 2009

    These points are so true. I’m a Gen-X and in a new role as the Web Services Manager at Lethbridge College. I think it also, as chas said, has to happen at the ground level. This is quite often more difficult to sell as many people just are focused on their world, and not the larger picture.

  3. Garrett Kuk — May 06, 2009

    Hi Chas,

    I like your points here, and wonder if a possible solution is individuals stepping into the mix to provide those connections via social media? I recently spoke to ND Club leaders at Alumni Senate about implementing Facebook groups and LinkedIn profiles to connect with locally with students and alumni. This somewhat bypasses the central/official channels and takes steps toward connecting the right people with one another.

    In the absence of a dramatic shift in higher ed culture, are there other, more effective steps we can take?

    Shameless plug: you can view my Alumni Senate presentation here http://garrettkuk.wordpress.com/2009/04/22/connecting-alumni-via-social-media/

  4. Jess — May 12, 2009

    I’d also add: priorities. People seem to want to do the next best thing, the cool new toy, but focus needs to be put on things that need to be up to speed before that. For instance: your web site.


  5. Gilzow — May 12, 2009

    Excellent points. One hurdle/reason I would add to the list, especially for larger schools, is legal.

  6. chas — May 12, 2009

    @jess – Priorities are important. It’s easy to get drawn in by shiny toys, but it’s more important to have the basics down first. And more than anything, we need all of these tactics to be strategy-driven.

    @gilzow – good point. That’s something we battle at Notre Dame. It’s especially tough since the legal world hasn’t kept up with the online world and we end up holding ourselves back because there’s no precedent and it seems “risky.”