Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Digital Resource Use

Last night, I made my way through this article on the use of digital resources by humanities and social sciences faculty. There was a considerable amount of food for thought, some good, some not so good. I was reading it with an eye toward finding a clue as to how to improve our own services. The study generally asks the question "What do faculty want?"

One finding that bears out my personal experience is the presence of personal collections. Many faculty have a huge collection of slides, digital images, maps, etc. that sit in file cabinets and boxes in their office and which they dig out when working on their classes. Often they add to the collection as they're working, making it even larger. On the one hand, I totally understand why they have these. They've been built over years of teaching. On the other hand, these collections tend to be disorganized, poorly labeled and available only to the one faculty member. There's likely duplicated effort across the discipline with several faculty at several institutions holding similar (or the same) materials. There's possibly even such duplicated effort within an institution. It's not a sustainable model for the faculty member to simply continue developing their own collection, often using resources (such as several staff members) that could be used to develop an institutional collection. There's no easy solution for this, but this is something I'm really interested in working on and am still looking for possibilities.

The reasons for faculty non-use of digital resources is also interesting. Most cite some form of lack of time and a feeling that using these resources does not fit with their methods of teaching. The time factor I've heard over and over again, but no one has fully articulated the idea that digital resources don't fit with their teaching style though I certainly sense that much of the time. The quotes in this section are interesting, with faculty saying that the Internet is dumbing down our culture, that students need to learn to read books, etc. There is a sense that many feel these resources would substitute rather than supplement or complement text resources. There's some work to do here, I think, to educate faculty on how such resources can be used to teach the very things they're afraid they inhibit: critical thinking, argumentation, and reading and writing skills.

Some of the barriers, too, are familiar: lack of access, equipment or software not robust enough to use certain resources, fear of breaking something or something not working in the classroom. I certainly think there's a role for us to play in helping to provide appropriate resources or find funding to do so. I also think we need to do a better job of providing training and support. Problem is, we have to do so in a way that meets faculty needs and schedules.

In general, I found this report enlightening and hope to use it to help me think about ways to provide resources and support for faculty. One section of the conclusion, however, rubbed me the wrong way, perhaps because it painted us techies with the same broad brush the authors had accused us of painting faculty with:
The fact that the most-cited reason for not using digital resources was that they simply do not mesh with faculty members' pedagogies is an important finding that has implications for those who want to increase technology adoption in the academy. Should faculty—who we can assume know more about teaching their subject than nonspecialists—shoehorn their approaches into a technical developer's ideas of what is valuable or what is the correct pedagogical approach?
That last question is a doozy. On the one hand, yes, faculty know more about their subject area than we techies. On the other hand, they may not know much about pedagogy. Sure, they may have developed through trial and error, workshops and their own reading, good pedagogical skills. But most faculty are not trained in pedagogy. They've picked it up along the way. Many technologists are trained in pedagogy, and keep up with current research. I don't like the idea of shoehorning either. It's why I don't like course management systems, which tend to shoehorn. Most good technologists don't apply a one-size-fits-all approach. I'm a little taken aback that the researchers would make the assumption that they do. And I think that most try to help faculty in whatever way they can, but often faculty don't take advantage of the support and resources that are available to them. As I said above, perhaps we need to rethink how we provide that support, but faculty need to meet us halfway. It's a challenging problem and one I'm happy to be wrestling with.

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