The Technological Avalanche

The ubiquitous ID sweep, this one at DePaul University

I recently visited a college nursing program that has an entire suite fitted out as a hospital ward, with the standard array of oxygen and electrical and data infrastructure provided to each bed, the standard array of bedside intravenous pumps, blood-pressure cuffs, and heart monitors. In every bed was a medical mannequin, more than a few of which were computer-controlled and responsive to student actions. Nursing students could be presented with breathing complications, convulsions, or seizures; they could inadvertently create those conditions themselves by incorrectly administering medications. They could assist with a vaginal or a cesarean-section birth, could listen to the mannequins give self-reports of their presenting conditions to aid in diagnosis.

In an adjacent set of rooms, control centers had been set up for the observation of students by a nursing instructor. The instructor could see and hear everything in the simulation studio, could videotape the events, and could have a record of the mannequin’s simulated body functions during the students’ intervention. All of this could be used both to assess students in the moment, and to review performance alongside students later on.

As much as I’m in favor of nursing students injuring mannequins instead of me while they practice, it’s important to recognize what an investment that simulation suite represents. And then to multiply that investment across dozens of campus locations: the computer-imagery rendering studios of the graphic design and film departments, the big-data analytics systems in marketing and geographic information systems programs, the supercomputer employed by scientists and engineers, the giant databases in use in the digital humanities. Every department on campus is a computer science department.

Individual faculty, and groups of faculty, also have research equipment of remarkable sophistication. The science departments have increasing arrays of spectrophotometers and ultracentrifuges, microfurnaces and cryofreezers, ultraviolet transilluminators and phosporimagers—tools of science once reserved only for elite researchers, but now increasingly made available to students as well. Even the model shops of architecture schools have become “fabrication labs,” with 3D printers, computer-guided routers, laser cutters, and robotic-arm milling machines.

This array represents another unspoken conflict between safely tenured faculty, who get to advocate for the teaching and research tools they want, and the adjuncts who are marginalized at least in part because of the cost of the TT’s toolkit, and who themselves never get access to the best parts of it. So let’s be blunt: Would faculty and students be better served with more tools, or with more colleagues? Who would benefit differently from different balances of those variables?

Then add on all of the nonacademic computing. The thousands of desktop computers and printers, the classrooms with their multiple LED projectors, instructor kiosks, and smartboards. The wireless network covering every building and the entire grounds besides. The email server. The faculty and staff smartphones. The learning management system, facilitating the global university archive of every course handout, every reading, every out-of-class conversation, every quiz taken, every homework submitted, every midterm and final grade, every instructor evaluation. The sweep cards that control building, room, and parking lot entry, and also record today’s lunch purchase against one’s prepaid meal plan. The academic records-management system coordinating financial aid, advising, registration, and transcripts for hundreds of thousands of a college’s current and former students.

It’s easy, in the face of this technological avalanche, to be curmudgeonly, to talk about how simple things were when one was a kid, to remind everyone how millions of people got trained to be pretty effective nurses before simulation labs. And I don’t want to go there. I recognize the power of all of this technology, and I also recognize that students are being prepared to enter adult life in technologically mediated careers. All true, all important. But there are industry estimates that the annual worldwide expenditures on educational technology are approaching a quarter of a trillion dollars a year, and dollars spent on technology are dollars not spent on faculty. If we’re going to make the choice, we need to know that we’re making the choice.