Wednesday, April 09, 2008

More on "Get out of my way"

The quote came in response to a question from the audience about how to create more faculty like Michael Wesch. Michael said, "Get out of my way."

This is just my perspective, based on my 5 years' experience in this specific role and my over 10 years' experience in higher ed. Many IT people and by IT here I mean the truly technical folks, the ones who do user support, server support, programming, etc., have no idea how the academic side of the house works. The policies and procedures that they often propose or implement are often driven by a need to reduce workloads or make systems more efficient or reduce costs. Often these decisions create unintended consequences that affect faculty in ways that prevent freedom and innovation.

For example, I've seen places try to restrict use of "external" software, some not even allowing use of curricular software outside of the course management system. At one place I worked, I could only have my own web page if I used FrontPage. There was no way for me to create pages at home (I had no office and thus, no access to "college-owned" software such as FrontPage) and then upload them to the college server. I ended up going off-site. We almost implemented a similar system out of the good intention of making managing web sites easier for both us and the web editors until I recalled that faculty don't use the software tied to this system and thus, we would have inadvertently cut them off from creating and editing course web pages.

Another thing I've seen and heard a number of times is FERPA being raised as a reason for faculty not to use social software of any kind. And while it's important to respect certain student information--grades, personal contact information--it's not a blanket reason to not let someone use a particular teaching method. It's often a fear tactic. And this is bureaucratic rather than technical, but because they often get spoken in the same sentence, it becomes the IT people's problem. And it often comes from the IT people, not the academic side of the house.

Putting these kinds of restrictions on faculty only keeps those with trepidation about technology from trying anything new. For the Michael Wesch's of the world, it means they turn to other resources--netvibes, Google, Wordpress, etc.

For me, this response and discussion raises the question of what role the Instructional Technologist should play. Is our role to cultivate innovation for the cutting edge faculty? Is it to get those middle of the road faculty to go to the next level? Is it to help the folks stuck in the age of the typewriter find their way in this crazy world?

I would lose my mind if I had to spend all day helping faculty use Blackboard. And though I'm always happy to move some middle of the road folks a little ways up the road, it's the innovative faculty who really make my day. These are the ones who often find things on their own, but often turn to me for ideas about how to use things or for other possible tools. Conversations with them are often about education and learning, not about how to use things. I can often get the motr folks to this point but it's work, work I'm willing to do, but work nonetheless. The typewriter people wouldn't be an issue if they didn't take up soooo much of my time. If I really felt that I could just ignore them, I would, but they're quite in my face. They have a tendency to panic more so than either of the other groups. So it takes a lot of energy to manage the panic as well.

I asked Michael after his talk what we should do to create more faculty like him. He had some good ideas such as bringing in speakers, providing a page with resources, etc. Although I think there's a fair amount I can do to serve as a catalyst for change, I think there are things that need to happen that are institutional (changes in tenure and promotion, work loads, etc.) and changes in attitude (gatekeepers of knowledge, blogging is bad, etc.) that need to happen that I have very little control over.