Rapid changes in technology presenting challenges for universities

By Maria Saporta

Technology is changing so quickly that even Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson is having a hard time keeping up.

That’s what Peterson, who will celebrate his fourth anniversary at Georgia Tech in 27 days, told the Rotary Club of Atlanta Monday.

“I’m trying to keep up with the rate and pace of change in technology,” said Peterson, who envisioned that when he came that he would be able to catch up with all that was going on at Georgia Tech in his first few years. “Because of the rate of change, I think I’m losing ground.”

Technology has certainly had an impact on universities. In addition to fundamental research, it is expected that research will have consumer applications that will lead to new companies and create new jobs for the state and the nation.

Georgia Tech is the third leading producer of patents in Georgia after AT&T and Kimberly Clark, a good indicator of the level of research that underway at an institution.

“We are preparing our students to be leaders in innovation,” Peterson said, adding that Georgia Tech is helping develop an innovation zone in Midtown and on its campus.

One of the major changes in higher education today is the explosion of online courses. Although Georgia Tech has been providing online education for 30 years, now “massively open online courses” has become a trend throughout the world where people can take classes from the best teachers in the world.

So what will that mean for the future of higher education?

Peterson said that colleges and universities provide three services to students: classroom instruction, laboratory work and student life. While classroom instruction can be conducted online, it is more difficult to do laboratory work in a remote setting.

But the real edge that universities offer is face-to-face interaction with other students and professors. Peterson described it as an “environment that brings people together for a challenging type of experience.”

Still, online classroom instruction will force “dramatic changes for us.” It will require faculty members to lead a class in an in depth discussion on the materials that they’ve already studied online.

“It is an exciting time to be in higher education,” Peterson said. “But it’s a frightening time because of all these changes.”

Then quoting his provost, Peterson said: “The train has left the station. The good news is that Georgia Tech is on that train. The bad news is that we don’t know where it’s going.”

As a side note, Peterson was the only president of a public university from the United States to be invited to go to the annual Davos World Economic Forum in January. He first attended the prestigious conference of international business leaders as a guest of Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent in 2012. And this year, three of his professors actually made presentations at the conference.

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.

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