Monday, November 28, 2005

Where are we going with learning technology?

Over the next several days I plan to make a variety of posts on this general question. At the outset, I have to say I have no crystal ball. There are many folks out there on the bleeding edge who see what is coming next better than I see and who might be worth consulting. But I do have some thoughts in the matter and since my normal orientation is from the political economy perspective rather than from the technological side, perhaps some of what I say will be of use to others.

Let me begin by noting that when I got started thinking strategically about learning technology (this was at or around the time that our paper on the SCALE Efficiency Projects got published) I did a lot of background reading from the then Educom site and there were all these papers by Bill Massy and Carol Twigg and others on how society embraces new technology (the examples, I believe, are the railroad, electric power, and the telephone but to keep my writing effort short, I’m doing this by memory and not re-researching the project) and the main message was that it takes quite some time, perhaps 20 years or so, for society to figure out how to reengineer the social system to take advantage of the innovation. Much of the social return, which can be stupendous, comes indirectly from the social reengineering. That effect swamps any direct effect of applying the technology to earlier structures.

This seems common sense to me and on the teaching and learning side, in particular, we used the mantra in the SCALE days – it’s not the technology, it’s how you use it – just to hammer home that point. However, now that I’ve been involved with campus support of learning technology for a number of years, and that includes the smart classrooms as well as the online piece, I have to say the focus is quite different. Most of it is on use, and how the faculty implement with (or opt out of) the technology. Rarely is there a discussion of transformation of practice and where we’d like to be going in that respect.

Further, my university is now going through a strategic planning process where the sequencing is something like: 1) First the University provides a framework, then 2) Each campus provides a plan (filled with place holders) to accommodate the college plans, then 3) Each college submits a plan (which is indirectly an ask for additional funds), and only then will we do 4) Create a campus strategic plan for information technology. In this way of doing things, technology is viewed as an instrument to facilitate already articulated transformation that is desired by the colleges or the campus.

I’m not entirely opposed to the technology as instrument view, but I believe that if earlier stages in the process are not well disciplined by what the technology is capable of, it is quite possible to set goals in a direction that don’t match what is possible, i.e., the colleges don’t see what the technology can enable so they make some ignorant choices about where to set their objectives. In this way everyone acts in good faith, but we get a bad outcome, nonetheless.

The other issue, as I see it, is that many of the big picture concerns on the teaching and learning front don’t get well articulated by this process. The big picture concerns are cost (in most of what I’ve read on the strategic planning this is being “addressed” by looking for additional revenue sources) and on engagement on the part the students, the faculty, and the institution. I’m not sanguine on the engagement issue coming front and center through the strategic planning process. The colleges are very likely to put their research needs first, since that’s the primary determinant of their reputation and there is a fear (I believe the fear is legitimate, not paranoid) that addressing engagement would take resources from the research mission. And there is the further issue that the engagement issue does not line up well with our rhetoric – the University of Illinois is about excellence. That is its essence.

If there is truly an engagement problem (and the documentary Declining by Degrees is but one prominent source suggesting this is a national issue) but if at the end of our strategic planning process it turns out that we want to protect strengths in the main and not invest heavily in our weaknesses, which is how I would bet this will turn out, then it seems a sensible prediction that we will not tackle this issue squarely. (And on the recent demographics of our admissions, where our yields have been continuing to go up, it seems that we can simply raise requirements for admission and not otherwise make major programmatic change at the undergraduate level.)

My sense, further, is that other public research universities such as the University of Illinois are in a similar position vis-à-vis the balance between research and undergraduate instruction and the (lack of) desire to make waves at the undergraduate level. The University Presidents, Chancellors, and Provosts all talk publicly about these issues. But by the nature of the faculty governance process it is very unlikely that any of our sister campuses will make the case for radical transformation at the undergrad level.

So it is in this climate that I think we must consider where learning technology is going and we must anticipate substantial discord between early adopter faculty types, who much more readily will embrace a view that the university must transform to survive, from majority faculty types, who don’t see what the big deal is.

To this I want to add one more point. There may be an increasing number of disciplines where technology literally becomes part of the curriculum, e.g., in architecture the student absolutely has to know CAD, while in journalism the student has to know sophisticated page layout, and so there will have to be adaptation on how to bring the technology into the curriculum in a meaningful way where it is learned en passant and serves as a conduit for promoting critical thinking in the discipline. But not all disciplines have an intrinsic need to embrace technology; do econ students need to learn Excel? I’m not sure they do.

And so absent a push on using technology to solve the bigger picture issues, one might see only incrementalism with technology with the primary driver being the individual instructor’s wish to improve her own teaching or with students laying a guilt trip on their instructors either about not using the technology at all or about using the technology in a poor manner. In many cases, these have been the primary drivers to date.

My heart clearly is in tackling the big picture issues head on and considering the transformations that are necessary to do that. I’ve made many posts to this blog that can be cast in that light. But my head tells me that if you have a campus administrator role in learning technology, such as I do, that you have to recognize that advocating for transformation is unlikely to be successful for reasons I’ve sketched above. So I think it is useful to maintain a dual perspective and talk about where technology is headed from both of those vantages. That is what I will do in later posts on the topic.

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