Monday, November 16, 2009

The Future of Educational/Instructional Technology

Over a year ago, I discussed the shift I was seeing in how faculty use their educational technology support staff. The shift I had noticed (and continued to notice until I left a year ago) was a shift from a consultative mode to a service mode. Instead of faculty coming and asking to sit down and talk about the potential uses of technology in their classes and get help in figuring what to use and how to use it, they started to simply ask that the work be done for them. There are two reasons for this shift (in addition to the usual issues about faculty time). One, the faculty that asked for consultation rather than service were typically the more tech savvy among their colleagues. They are now mostly doing the tech stuff on their own, even the new stuff. Two, the demand from students for more use of technology in their courses has increased so that those faculty who were average to less than average users of technology started using it and didn't get the consultative mode and/or didn't want it. They saw technology as separate from their course and the work they needed to do for their course and therefore, delegated that work to whomever they could.

Now, I know that different schools have probably had different experiences, but I can also say from still being on job lists for the type of position that I once held, that what those jobs are asking for now are not the kinds of skills I have or had. Most are positions for course management support. The position entails teaching faculty how to use the system, providing support (though what support means is never defined). Sometimes the position entails system support as well, which is a whole different skill set from the teaching side, often requiring some programming skills and at the very least, system administration skills (something most educational technology people have a tiny bit of, but not enough to manage a whole system effectively). In addition, because course management systems are increasingly used by other units besides the academic ones, there's often a clause in the description about working with non-academic units, meaning that you're hiring a person whose focus is teaching and learning to help the athletic department put videos online (I'm not making this up).

Another common job is that of instructional designer, a job that varies widely. Sometimes the job entails creating media for courses, such as video, flash, and learning modules. Often the job is described as working with faculty and others to "design, develop, and implement online and hybrid courses." I know people who have these kinds of jobs and they often end up doing the lion's share of the work. Faculty drop off syllabi, images, video, etc. and the designer makes the course. It's production work, and granted, it requires a good deal of thought and likely, the person doing the work is better off having some knowledge of college teaching, but the requirements often don't indicate that such knowledge is useful. Most ask for a master's degree in instructional design, educational technology or just plain education. But I can tell you that those degrees are usually aimed at K-12 environments, often at the teachers themselves and not the support staff. The best jobs include teaching as part of the job requirements, but only 1 in 100 ore fewer include teaching either as a requirement for getting the job or as a responsibility of the job itself.

I'm not the only one who left because the job was shifting to a technical support job and one that supported not just the academic side of the house but the administrative and student services side as well. Several colleagues that I've talked to over the last few months have either quit or wish they could because they're basically being a glorified technical secretary or help desk person rather than someone who provide knowledgeable advice about the best practices in teaching and learning with technology.

All this brings me to Michael Bugeja's article in the Chronicle. He argues that in the current economic situation, colleges need to scale back their use of technology. I agree. It's interesting that he mentions the gadgets, the equipment, the Second Life accounts, but not course management nor the staff that supports any of the above. Perhaps he's being careful and doesn't want to suggest that those who staff Ed Tech departments or who support, for example, Second Life, should be let go. I'm reluctant to suggest the same, but it seems to me that in some cases, a specialized person doing that kind of work might not be worth it, not if a school isn't going to make good use of that person.

I did not see the kind of technological expansion that Bugeja mentions. I struggled to even get faculty to use Blackboard, much less clickers, Second Life, or mobile devices. I didn't see faculty creating new courses around new technology. I offered a freshman seminar on blogging two years in a row, but otherwise, I didn't see courses on Facebook or Twitter or iPhones, nor did I see regular courses making use of those tools. And, at other schools similar to my own that I've done some consulting for, the same is true. Most are still trying to get faculty to use the technology that makes sense to use. There's been no crazy expansion into Second Life.

That said, I have seen a general increase in the use of technologies that are free. Blogs, wikis, Google apps, Twitter have all come to be used effectively in classrooms, but not because an educational technologist was there to make it happen. Most of the uses I've seen have come from the faculty themselves, who increasingly are using these tools in their own work, so it becomes natural to them to try to use them in their teaching. No extra staff needed. And usually, no cost for the tools themselves.

If schools really want to save money, they might consider looking first at the CMS. If one is necessary, then they might consider going open source. But I'd take a long hard look at whether a CMS is even necessary. Not only does the system itself cost money, but the staff to support it also costs money (and the staff cost remains if you go open source). And radically, I might suggest that instead of hiring educational technologist, one might consider having faculty serve in that role, perhaps with a course release to do so. Perhaps there'd be a faculty member in that role in every division (i.e. sciences, humanities, social sciences) or, if your school is large, in every department. Production might be relegated to student workers or lesser paid interns rather than on costly full-time staff. And I know, this sounds bad, eliminating educational technology staff.

The other option for such staff is to take them out of the IT department, and put them under the academic units. The more closely they can be to the faculty they consult with, the better. And if they can teach a course every year, even better, so that they know what faculty face. I think either model I've suggested, could potentially reduce technology costs. After all, sometimes, the IT people (ed tech people included) get wowed by the technology and jump in head first without thinking about whether or not it will actually get used. Even if the cost is only in time, that's still a cost that some can ill afford.

I don't think, as Britt does, that Bugeja casts technology as an evil. Instead, what I think he's saying is that technology is expensive and it needs to be assessed more carefully before spending the money on it. I agree that Bugeja fails to point out many of the positive aspects of using technology in teaching. But we technologists also need to remember what technology costs and make sure it's worth that cost before using it. Technology is not always the answer. Though many of my ed tech colleagues agree with that statement, most faculty think that ed tech people are technology pushers. We have to get away from that. What often needs to change is the teaching method. Sometimes technology can push someone in that direction, but sometimes, we have to start with the non-technical teaching issues first.

I see, then, two potential futures. One is to keep going down the production road, and that is a road that many larger institutions are already going down, since those who do the production cost less than the faculty. They can produce a video lecture that reaches 700 or more students and only have one faculty member, maybe even a grad student TA. The other is to go down a road where there is less technology of the one to many kind like CMS's. And the use of that technology will be led by faculty with fewer ed tech people needed.

I have more disjointed thoughts, but will save them for later. Being away from educational technology for the last couple of months has made me see it differently. I feel like the model we have--ed tech people as a separate entity--just isn't working and isn't creating the change in education that we need. And I see that change happening more and more though individual faculty who are "just doing it."