It is a question often asked during budget season and all too often, it crops up during a conversation that involves the learning management system. I know, I’ve been there and provided an answer to one of my former provosts. But upon further reflection, did I answer his real question?

As a former head of academic computing, I sought answers to the provost’s value question in data. I tracked adoption and utilization of all services I could measure, and not just the LMS. I cross-correlated computing lab logins with LMS traffic, media classroom use with electronic reserves, bandwidth consumption with faculty digital media support volume, and so on. What the data provided was a sense of return on investment: quantifiable measures that reflected short-to-medium benefit. But in terms of value, the data didn’t get to the heart of my provost’s question.

So what was he asking? What did he mean by “the value of learning technology?” To some extent, he was asking about return on investment — all leaders want to know that if you build it, they (students, faculty, alumni, whomever) will come. But he was also asking about transformative impact. What would be the long-term effects of sustained investment in learning technology? Would the investments have a positive effect on academic life and campus culture? How would learning technology affect the day-to-day life of faculty? How would perceptions of the institution change over time? Would investment in learning technology affect student recruiting and retention, or help graduate students find jobs?  Little, if any, of the data I compiled would address value in these contexts.

Years ago, Gartner introduced the concept of value on investment that concentrated on those things that technology enabled.  In doing so, it created significant derivative impacts within an organization. It suggested that connecting intangible assets such as knowledge, social networks, and collaborations have the power to create new products, new services, and new experiences — and this new value would be a benchmark for success in the future. Today, as Gartner predicted, value is not measured solely by an investment in a tangible technology (for example, servers don’t have much value by themselves). Instead, value is reflected in how an organization effectively uses an array of technology options to leverage its intangibles to amplify its reach, message, vision, mission, etc. Google is more than a search engine and Facebook is more than a discussion board — the value of both comes from what they enable by creating connections that bridge people, knowledge and experiences. The same can be true for learning technology.

So what my provost was asking me many years ago was not about the near-term return on investment of a specific technology, but rather what an array of learning technology investments – that amplify the intangibles – will enable over time for the institution.

Or to put it another way, would an investment today be worth significantly more than the technology itself tomorrow?

If you are interested in learning more about value on investment and strategies for amplifying the value of learning technology on your campus, I invite you register for my upcoming webinar, “What’s the Value on Investment? An Approach to VOI and Educational Technology,” scheduled for January 24, 2012, at 2pm EST. To enroll, visit the Blackboard webinars page at http://www.blackboard.com/Contact-Us/Events-Center/Webinars-and-Demos.aspx.

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