Wednesday, February 15, 2006

The Learning Technologist as Elmer Gantry

Very early on in my exposure to online learning, I believe this was late fall of 1994, I attended a presentation that may have been meant for those candidate faculty who would participate in the first round of the SCALE grant. I was there (a “smart classroom” on the first floor in Lincoln Hall) with my colleague in Economics, Larry DeBrock. He was the one plugged into innovative campus efforts in teaching and in this case I was his sidekick in the role of Festus playing off of Larry as Marshall Dillon. (We ultimately got a big bucks internal grant from SCALE for doing ALN in our respective Econ courses.) There was a fabulous crew of presenters starting off with Burks Oakley, whom at that point I believe I had met once before, and including Bob Jones who at the time ran something called the Advanced Information Technology Lab which had done a lot with hypermedia and provided a lot of support for faculty in the humanities, and Joe Hardin who at the time was at NCSA, one of the pioneers involved with Mosaic, and who now is at Michigan running their Sakai efforts. There was electricity in the air. Technology seemingly held such promise and these stars gave a really wonderful show to emphasize the point.

The idea that learning technology needs a show person, somebody who has charisma and knowledge of the technology, somebody who gets ordinary faculty excited about the prospects, who can with fluidity and depth speak of the benefits in terms of student learning but also speak of the technology itself and what the potential is or of the methodology that the that the technology enables, certainly was a prominent part of SCALE when I was brought into the administrative side of the project since Burks was such a master of it, and it became a big issue for the rest of us, who were not quite in Burks’ league in making presentations. Here I talk not just about myself but also the other SCALE staff as well.

For my own part, I’m not a bad presenter and can give a good and coherent talk and on occasion rise a level or two to bring the requisite level of excitement into the presentation. But I was brought up to view salesmen as pretty far down on the social totem pole, and have an aversion to being placed in a situation where I feel that there is a sales job being give to my friends and colleagues, especially when there seems a paucity of quality ideas behind the promotion. And as I’ve become more experienced in management of learning technology, where influencing the expectations of the instructors we support is a primary consideration, I’ve learned (perhaps I've been conditioned) to take a longer term view and hence am less inclined to represent the promise of an emerging technology or method without also discussing the possible pitfalls. That is argument, not promotion. It is what I’m personally comfortable with, but it does not do nearly as much to “sway the masses.” I’ll come back to this point. I think it is important.

Let me fast forward a few years later, say six months or a year into my next big administrative foray with learning technology, our hard money Center for Educational Technology, which supported early offerings of both Blackboard (then CourseInfo) and WebCT, in addition to some other offerings. While I had wanted each of my support people (here we call them CAIS, which is short for Computer Assisted Instruction Specialist, a holdover title from the Plato days) to be reasonably proficient in all the applications we supported and then to develop their own group of faculty clients who would then have a personal support person they would know and could rely on (we’ve since moved away from this model in a significant way because it is less scalable), it turned out that the staff concentrated on one or two applications, in large part because mastering any single one took a good deal of effort, and then something happened that I had not anticipated. The staff began to view adoptions by the faculty members as an indicator of their own personal performance. Of course, uptake was a key measure of the success of the Center as a whole. But it was a surprise to me that some of the staff would take this view at their own individual level when I had not imposed it from above. (At the time I was in no position to attribute adoption by a particular instructor to the efforts of a specific staff member.)

This is not a surprise to me anymore. I believe support staff rightly see their good efforts manifest in what the instructors whom they have helped do with the technology. A very cool implementation is an object of pride and so is getting many instructors on the bandwagon. For the latter, this gives the staff member a reason to be a sales person. In my opinion, some of them embrace this role because they see it as synonymous with doing a good job. They want to be a latter day Burks Oakley and get the faculty excited about the technology.

And now a related point and the real reason for the post. A big deal has been made of late, not in the learning technology arena but rather in the world of politics, that it’s not ideas that are important but rather ideas the way ideas are framed. Ergo the furor over George Lakoff’s book, Don’t think of the Elephant, and how that influenced Democratic Party politics as described in this article by Matt Bai from the New York Times Magazine last summer. (You must subscribe to the Times Select service for that link to work.) So let’s ask the question, what type of framing sells, especially in the case when the recipient of the sale is a faculty member?

The answer to this question that I would like to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but I suspect is not, is that reasoned argument sells, especially when the argument is supported by empirical evidence. Perhaps that answer is correct for some (small) fraction of the audience. Suppose, however, that one assumes the faculty are not that much different from the rest of the population and what sells to the rest sells to the faculty too. So what is the answer then? Well, it’s obvious. It’s sex. Sex sells and any promotion we’re talking about has to be made sexy if it is to catch on.

Ok, so what of it? This alone doesn’t seem like a terribly novel proposition. Here’s the related point. Think of Web 2.0 or for that matter any other comparatively new technology. Does it offer potential for improving teaching and learning? Sure it does. Do we who support learning technology know the details of how that improvement is likely to happen? Well, we might if we tried to use it in our own classes or if we worked it through with some instructor who was going to give it a try or if not that then having a serious conversation with that instructor who did it on her own and wanted to share what she learned from the experience. So it is possible that we know. But it is also possible, and I think in many cases it is likely, that we don’t know this way. But we believe. We believe in the potential for the technology because at our core we got into learning technology because of the potential for it to transform teaching and learning. Part of our essence in what motivates us in doing our work is this belief in the power of technology to transform.

So, based on our belief, we promote technology as sex because that sells and we substantiate that approach by the hope that the technology will transform the teaching. We could go the reasoned argument route and accumulate evidence about effective practice with the technology, but that is a much slower way to diffuse things and after all, doesn’t it create a chicken and egg thing with new technology? How can we know in that case?

This sounds like Elmer Gantry to me.


Burks said...

Lanny - Thanks for the positive comments about my presentation style (I think....)

-- Burks (from Syracuse, NY)

Lanny Arvan said...

Burks - I think you are an excellent presenter and because we also have lots of side conversations, I know in addition that you prize innovation in teaching approach that takes advantage of the technology in a creative way.

But I think others get caught up in the technology for its own sake and that some fall into that trap on occassion even when they know better. That's the point I was trying to make with this piece.