Thursday, July 24, 2008

Colleges Left Behind?

My students and I reading some articles and blog posts focused on the issue of technology integration into courses. We're also interviewing several faculty to find out what they use, why they do or don't take advantage of technological resources, etc. It's been interesting so far. Today's reading includes this blog post by James Farmer on distributed learning. His argument is that the publishers are investing lots of money in creating online resources and, instead of marketing and providing them to the faculty and their institutions, they're marketing them to the students. The problem with this is that many students can't afford to buy these materials and that there's little evaluation of the effectiveness of these materials. Good or bad is determined by market forces, not by considering whether students are learning. What struck me most about the post, however, is the following comment by Farmer on the lack of investment most colleges have made toward developing online course materials.

Creating effective course materials is expensive. So far few colleges and universities have been able or willing to allocate those resources.

It is unreasonable to ask faculty to create such materials because (1) they likely do not have extensive background in pedagogy and instructional design and multimedia authoring technologies, (2) they likely do not have the production experience to produce professional level learning materials, and (3) production takes a lot of time and effort.

For the next decade or so we can expect the costs of production to increase even those the cost of the technology may decrease. Student expectations, as with motion pictures, are constantly increasing. Game-like student/learning system interaction is both very effective and very expensive.

Forthcoming research will show how few resources are available to faculty. Preliminary estimates show a educational technologist supports more than 100 faculty, or less than 12 hours per academic year per professor.

I think Farmer is right on. Faculty aren't going to do this and in many cases, they shouldn't. On the other hand, the people who should be doing this work--technologists--are not plentiful enough to develop enough materials to compete with the investments made by the publishers. From my position in a small liberal arts college not interested in distance learning or much of online anything, what the publishers are producing doesn't necessarily meet our needs. They meet the needs of large state schools, community colleges and/or distance ed programs at various places. While many faculty at schools like mine might say, we don't need those materials because of the kind of institution we are, I think we can't simply dismiss the idea out of hand. What I think is needed is a close analysis of what's out there and to think about what might be appropriate for our institution. We may not need online tutorials on grammar, but maybe a peer-reviewed online undergraduate journal would be interesting. Many faculty here are creating these materials anyway, in an ad hoc way, stretching themselves way too thin in the process--and sometimes losing their jobs as a result. Most faculty, I think, really do recognize the value that some software and online resources provide, but no one is thinking about how to make those materials for themselves or how to fund that effort or how to organize and evaluate it. Which is too bad, because we might find ourselves struggling to keep up or being left behind entirely.