Friday, September 16, 2005

Strategizing about Ed Tech

It is hard to get perspective on the issue of whether America is dissipating its strategic advantage over the rest of the world, through the complacency of its youth, the corruption in the highest places in the business world, and the bad decisions of the White House, or if instead the feeling of malaise that many of us seem to have about the direction of the country is only a temporary blip and we’ll be off to the races in the not too distant future – stiff upper back, stay the course, chin up. But I do draw some parallels with that and my job, which is to provide some direction for learning technology on the campus. And with that I ask myself when we advocate for a big system (Course Management System, ePortfolio System, Institutional Repository, Portal) whether we are making mistakes similar to Bush’s mistake with Iraq – the case seems self evident so why do the hard headed analysis that might dissuade us from going down that path.

At the TechForum conference earlier this week, there was a session on ePortfolios and two of the four presenters were my colleagues from the
CIC Learning Technology Group, Steve Acker from Ohio State and John Harwood from Penn State. (The other two presenters were from different campuses in the Minnesota system.) Both of them said things that are worthy of note and reflection.

Let me begin with Steve, who remarked that early adopter faculty seemingly have tired of the Course Management System, which appears ho hum to them, and are looking for new environments in which to experiment and to express their approach to teaching. I think that is right. And while Steve didn’t say it, I think it is also true for the staff that supports the course management system. They run a brisk business helping faculty to cope, but none of that is cutting edge and none of that expands their own personal horizons. It is a work that is utilitarian, clearly, and good for the campus. But it is also a work that places limits on the individual creativity of the staff.

Steve offered this up as a reason for campuses to be exploring ePortfolios. It is that conclusion where I’m beginning to struggle. Let me preface this with the observation that in our academic computing organization at Illinois, we don’t have a big R&D group with lots of pilots most of which we never expect to see the light of day but which collectively provide us with a sense of what to do next. Instead, we have a negotiated process with internal and external committees through which we vet our plans about next steps. If a proposal survives that vetting process and secures some initial funding there will be a pilot. But unless that pilot turns up some obvious tripping points that we find hard to remedy, the pilot constitutes an implicit commitment to moving forward with the service.

So the first big issue is whether campuses such as ours, big public research universities, should be embracing next directions with their learning technology infrastructure to please and placate their early adopter faculty. It is worthy of note that Steve, John, and I are each early adopter faculty ourselves. Thus a different way to frame the issue is whether our approach to learning technology is to satisfy the hopeful side in ourselves about where we’d like to see our campuses move in the near future.

Let me turn to John’s characterization of why, from the students’ perspective, we want ePortfolios. This was the most uplifting part of John’s presentation. In essence, John argued that we want college to be a place where students develop a strong sense of self. One way to achieve this is for students on an ongoing basis to create reflective pieces about their own learning. This should not be restricted to classroom learning. Students have their eyes opened through many and varied co-curricular and social experiences. It is important for the students to acknowledge, perhaps even to concentrate on, this aspect of the college experience in their own reflections. In turn, the institution has an obligation to encourage students in this direction. I couldn’t agree more with this argument.

However, it is a different matter to argue that the best way for the institution to provide such encouragement is via providing an online container, an institutional ePortfolio environment, to enable the students to readily make these reflections and to locate the electronic “artifacts” (I think we need a different word) in which the student self expression is embedded.

In a different part of John’s presentation, and some of the other speakers confirmed this position, the point was made that the integration of the ePortfolio software into instruction and faculty acceptance of this software has been slow going. Of course there are natural pockets for the software in Education, English and the Fine Arts, but elsewhere a portfolio approach in teaching is still a novel if not alien concept.

And now an aside, though I think it is related. There is an article on The
Value Proposition in Institutional Repositories in the most recent Educause Review. IRs are another environment that have witnessed very slow uptake by the faculty. And to the extent that we are now seeing the notion of an Institutional ePortfolio, IRs and ePortolio environments seemed tied at the hip. At present, the sense in the profession seems to be we need to slug through this initial lethargic period because there will be good things coming later from doing the pioneering work now. Perhaps that is true but has that conclusion been subject to hard analysis? I don’t think so.

It is obvious to me that there are other possible online environments in which students could engage in reflective activities. Indeed, with the blogging craze that we seem to be in now, I would argue that blogging has reached commodity service status and the blogs are good vehicles for reflection. Similarly, the market has done a very good job in providing individuals with ways to archive and distribute their digital image content, which seems to be the way most of us are producing digital artificats.. (The service manager for our Xythos instance here told me that jpeg is the number one file type in our environment.) Google has Picassa and Yahoo recently acquired Flickr. That is a slick piece of software.

Basic Web space is also a commodity service. Many ISPs provide it as part of their bundle of offerings, along with email. So I think we need to ask where the incremental value lies in the university “shell software” that we are providing.

We in the educational technology arena would like to think that incremental value is in advancing teaching and learning on our campuses. That is the hopeful view. But I’m afraid that value more frequently is in supporting the various regulations we need to respect – privacy and security, copyright, and accessibility. In other words, were those regulations absent, the market provided commodity software environments might do quite well for instruction. And in some cases they may be sufficient, even considering the regulations we need to respect.

So I wonder whether we have thought hard enough about our position with enterprise software applications. Can the commodity tools that are out there now help us advance our teaching and learning mission? (This was the original question I had when I started this blog back in February.) And, might we be able to take a lower cost and more flexible route, one that will engage the early adopters without locking in the institution into “dinosaur technologies,” by having these instructors and their students play with the commodity software that is out there?

We do lose some branding this way and we may confront other, non-predictable issues here. But one must point out the obvious – Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft each has a much larger installed base than we do in Higher Ed. Their size and the competition between them (and with other providers) is likely to produce much better software than we can produce. So it makes sense to me to refrain from replicating what these commercial providers are already doing and instead leveraging that, perhaps by using it straight out of the box and perhaps by building on top of it.

Is that what we’re about? It doesn’t seem that way to me.

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