Wednesday, March 09, 2005

ed tech vs IT

It's a marriage of convenience to have ed tech units, both the online stuff and the smart classrooms, in the same academic computing organization as the rest of IT, with the network, email, and the rest as they are at Illinois. That they are cousins, there is no doubt. But that they are more closely related is something to ponder. I can understand that from the Provost's perch looking down on the campus there are a lot of things that can't receive direct attention and if they are not aggregated in properly, they won't get the attention they need. Nevertheless, there are some issues with this sort of aggregation.

From where I sit, the fundamental difference is that with the rest of IT the principal concern is efficient provision of service, a life cycle costing model, and high utilization. But what the service is used for is of little concern, with caveats about illegal file sharing, sending viruses through email, etc. The management in this area fights the notion that IT is a utility, but it is a utility in the sense of use. Where the fight comes in is on the side of rapid technical change. The service offering overtly varies with time. Just think of email - there is the issue of accomodating larger attachments, perhaps different file formats in messages, and accomodating different form factors - handheld devices in particular. This requires an agility and a dynamic approach to providing an effective service, unlike electricity or (when AT&T was king) the old phone service.
Ed Tech is different. The use matters --- a lot. We ask whether the technology makes things easier for instructors and students. And we ask whether it improves learning. If the technology has little impact in these dimensions then one has to wonder about ROI, even if the use is intensive. Conversely, if the use is intensive and we are perceiving little impact, one has to wonder if we are measuring the right things.

I have my job, in large part, because I'm supposedly knowledgeable about use - adaptation of the technology to promote instruction. Certainly, it is not because I'm smart about Oracle or big production systems. Let me talk about this for a bit. And to begin, let me move from the word "use" to the word "behavior." This is will help clarify on the impact issue. For example, course management systems, Illinois Compass powered by WebCT Vista to focus on the one we support, have been used mostly to distribute electronic documents - syllabi and lecture notes. There is a convenience factor in having these in electronic form so they are accessible any time and any place. But in terms of behavior this is essentially no change from the paper document world we lived in before. Instructors distributed paper documents (perhaps though a copy shop as intermediary) and students accumulated those documents. Behaviorally, there is little change.

I tend to think in terms of the behavior and abstract out the technology issues. I'm looking for changes in the teaching approach and in the work that students do as indicators that the technology is having impact. For example we are seeing the technology being used more frequently for getting ready activities before the live class session. This impact is real. Yet it is being driven by individual instructors. It's not happening due to some "institutional will" creating the change. One of the reasons I'm so focused on putting students in the role of mentor/teacher is that it would represent change at the institutional level and for the time being it seems to me the most important change that the institution could advocate for. The instruction needs more human to human interaction and there just aren't enought faculty to be at the hub of all class discussions.

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