Stephen Laster is the CIO of Harvard Business School (HBS) and a recognized expert in education technology. In 2006, Ed Tech magazine honored his work developing an e-learning program for his previous employer, Babson College. Laster worked for Babson for seven years. He served as its director of curriculum innovation and technology and as CTO of Babson Interactive, a for-profit venture that develops distance learning programs and business simulations for executives and graduate students. Prior to moving into education, Laster held IT management positions at Stride Rite, Art Technology Group, CrossComm, Advanced Business Technologies and Sapient.
In October 2006, Laster brought his e-learning and education technology expertise to HBS, where he’s charged with determining which of the many rapidly emerging technology innovations will most help students and faculty teach, learn and collaborate at the business school and beyond. He spoke with Senior Online Editor Meridith Levinson about the promises and dangers of Web 2.0 technologies. What follows is an edited version of their phone conversation.
CIO: Harvard Business School is doing a lot of research on new organizational structures and collaboration. What role do you play in that research?
Laster: This is a really exciting time in education and in industry because of the impact of digital media and the Internet on collaboration. At Harvard Business School, we’re looking at how these new technologies influence teaching and learning, and we’re investigating the evolving business norms that are subsequently taking shape because we’re developing tomorrow’s leaders. We need to get them ready for industry, and they still need to understand appropriate ways of communicating. For instance, what news do you share via e-mail?
More tactically, HBS conducts research around the world, so we are actively enhancing the services IT offers to faculty and staff so that making global connections is easier for them. We’re really charged with helping the people we serve on campus make sense of all this new technology while staying true to the goals of their work and without getting distracted.
What specific technologies are you most excited about?
I’m excited about the evolution of virtual communities and the technologies that support them. We’ve moved from the idea of a community as a discussion board to a suite of synchronous and asynchronous technologies woven together that gives you social presence and allows you to find trusted people and content. At HBS, we’re trying to figure out how to bring together a Skype, a LinkedIn, some SharePoint sites, and get really good at integrating incomplete solutions in order to arrive at a very powerful notion of community.
The other thing that I’m very excited about is the rise of self-published video as a means of communicating concepts. The barriers to entry in terms of creating video of a reasonable quality have really come down. The ability to house, find, stream and tag video is here thanks to tools in the marketplace. [Because of this trend] we have the opportunity to take concepts that we’ve portrayed in two dimensions—on paper—and bring them to life in a way that’s economical. Not everything needs to be a Hollywood production. I’ve been involved with e-learning since 1999. An hour of good production then cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Now you can get the same quality for 15 grand. That’s a phenomenal opportunity.
Harvard has a rich history of using video in the classroom and externally. Speaking for the business school, we have a body of knowledge called Working Knowledge that we publish through a website that has video, rich media and flat content. It’s a very effective part of the educational experience.
There’s not one killer tool for the job. When podcasting became big I was suspect of it because people basically said, ‘I can podcast; therefore I’m communicating or teaching,’ when in fact there were a lot of bad podcasts. They’re powerful if done in a thoughtful context. The same goes for video. It’s a powerful tool if done well, and the nice thing is that it’s now more reachable than ever.
What other technologies are you skeptical of?
I worry about the proliferation of blogs and wikis because I think we’re creating a findability problem. So much is being published that the ability to find a trusted source is endangered. But I think we will fall back to balance. Five years from now, there will be fewer wikis and blogs. The ones [that remain] out there will be trusted. Society will decide what’s trusted and what’s not. When I was at Babson, at the undergraduate level, this was an issue: Students didn’t know what was a trusted source, what is information versus propaganda. When they do a search, the results they’re seeing [are] based on the algorithm the search engine uses. What if a person who’s a highly trusted source on a topic doesn’t know how to optimize their page for a search engine? Their page falls to the thousandth response in a user’s query, and the user never finds it. What if the person who’s at the top of the user’s query got to the top just because they paid a lot and is not a trusted source, or is wrong, or is just promoting propaganda?
For that matter, what do you think of Wikipedia?
It’s a fascinating environment. I’m pretty optimistic about how it has done at self-correcting and driving accuracy; having said that, Wikipedia is a controlled and managed environment. There’s a community [that manages it] and a de facto hierarchy in the community, and naturally there’s a bias in it. If an individual edits a page and that individual is not well known in the community, his or her edit can be overruled based on those who have more de facto power in the community. (Of course, you could say the same thing about a textbook publisher.) People who are not sophisticated users of Wikipedia presume it’s highly egalitarian, but it’s not as egalitarian as we think it is. I’d like people to have an optimistic skepticism of it. There’s a lot of good work being done and great contributors, but at same the time, it’s a single source, and shouldn’t we all be skeptical of single sources?
How does Wikipedia’s bias manifest itself?
Without naming specifics, a consulting firm that was not represented in Wikipedia in a very flattering way tried to get the page corrected, but every time it would be re-edited. You could say that that’s the bias of the firm trying to get their point across, but I believe it was the bias of someone in the [Wikipedia] community trying to get their point across. It is a matter of understanding that again, single sources are dangerous.
How do you teach students not to put all their faith into single sources and to distinguish between information and propaganda?
It’s a fantastic question. It’s a little beyond my area of expertise, but as one who’s dedicated his life to technology and to making it useful, I can say that having that conversation and just raising the awareness of that issue is a great starting point.