Technology and Professors

I have been privileged to be witness, and be part of, many of the exciting ways technology can be implemented in the educational process at Penn State.  The major innovations seem to come from two areas.  The first is the  Education Technology Services division.  They have as their mission “to provide leadership and support in the appropriate use of technology for teaching, learning, and research.”  The other major area seems to be faculty that are “tech-saavy” and want to find new ways of integrating technology into their learning environments.

There are some remarkable success stories, but there doesn’t seem to be a groundswell of adoption for much of the technological opportunities the are proposed.  I suspect that there is a disconnect between the “art of the possible” and the wants, desires, and needs of the faculty.

Perhaps the most successful tech solution has been the Course Management System (ANGEL here at Penn State.)  This is a system that allows faculty to communicate electronically with students, make slides and readings available, and even host synchronous and asychronous discussions.  I suspect, through anecdotal evidence, the most used features are the delivery of documents, and the least used are the more interactive features of discussion groups and chat.

In addition, we have blog initiatives, podcasts, and wiki initiatives ongoing at the University. All great stuff, and “spaces” in which I also play.  But each of these comes at a cost. (And often several costs.)

So what keeps faculty from using these technologies?  Are most faculty simply “Luddites” unwilling to step into the 21st Century?  Or is there something else at work here? I suspect that, while some faculty are reluctant to move outside their technological comfort zones, there is something else at play here.

I posit that there are three forces at work here.  Time, ownership, and uncertainty.

I believe that faculty are focused on their disciplines, and pursuing the development of knowledge in those areas, and view these not as technological “solutions” but rather as “technological distractions” that would steal time away from their other honorable pursuits.  TIme is a precious commodity for us all, and for newly hired faculty seeking tenure, nothing is more critical than publishing scholarly research as we “build our bones” and work towards tenure.  This often means that as faculty, when faced with the trade-off of innovating in the course-ware or conducting research, we make the understandable personal choice to maximize our long-term standing with the University (and improve our income earning potential) by focusing on the publishing aspect of academia.

The second issue is just as inward focused, but understandable as well.  As faculty members, we do spend time developing our course content.  That content is derived from our expert knowledge of our field of study, and the materials reflect both our time-commitment, and our intellectual property.  Making that material available in easily-shared media (podcasts, images/videos on and elsewhere, lectures written in blogs) leaves the faculty with the sense that others can “steal” their work.  Even before the advent of all this “tech” faculty members were often incensed over the downtown businesses that would publish notes taken by the “good” students.  Why? Because that was publishing their materials without permision!

Finally, faculty members (rightly, or wrongly) believe that making the materials available to students outside the classroom will result in rampant absenteeism.  In this case, faculty members often believe that part of the learning experience is derived from the personal interactions one gets in the classroom, and that learning goes both ways (well, actually many ways).

  • The students have a more direct opportunity to question the faculty member, and explore more fullly thoughts and ideas in a socratic give-and-take.  And while we can argue that such exchanges can take place in discussion boards and chats, I think we all must agree that only the most advanced typist can type as fast as we speak, and think.
  • Other students learn from the exchanges mentioned above.  In fact, some of my most interesting “Aha!” moments came as a result of pursuing thoughts generated by classmates.  These thoughts often result in follow-up questions, but also in discussions amongst students as they leave the lecture hall, go to lunch, and so forth.
  • In addition, the faculty member learns from the students.  More than once I have found (and seen other faculty who also have found) that a question posed by a student opened up a thought-process not yet explored. In fact, those questions often lead to new and potentially exciting research opportunities.

So, faculty members are reluctant to provide any excuse for students to “leave” the classroom, and instead get most of the materials through digital and technical means.  That said, I personally have found no drop in attendance in my classes even when using podcasts, and other technology, but I certainly understand the fear from the faculty in this regard.

The question is now, how can one make an argument to faculty members, a “business case” if you will, that addresses these needs, and concerns?  Certainly one could present research showing that students retain more information when bombarded (oops, exposed) to multiple media.  But we are left with a disconnect between the current system that rewards research and publication while expecting “adequate” teaching, and one that focuses on improving the quality of instruction while sacrificing (at least in the faculy members’ eyes) the research.

So, short of changing the reward system to place less emphasis on research, how can we convince faculty that it is in their interest as academics to integrate more technology into their instruction? (And remember, this is to be a persuasive argument–that is, one that is persuasive to the faculty, so must appeal to their wants/needs/desires)

That is the question I toss open for discussion.


4 thoughts on “Technology and Professors

  1. Excellent set of questions that do not have an easy set of answers. The truth of the matter is that without a reward structure that merits the integration of technology into teaching, it seems like a moot point with a high price tag. Some institutions have integrated this as evidence of teaching performance and actually research in their faculty d, but this has not been a wide-spread trend.

    My hook was always this with faculty: what are you doing now that we can find a more efficient way to do from an instrumental perspective. As an instructional designer, I used Andrew Feen’s distinction between instrumental and substantive changes that the implementation of technology uses combined with research that clearly indicates that a stronger connection with faculty and student s promotes better learning outcomes. The idea was that if we can mutually find a solution to certain administrative inefficiencies with how you assess student learning, it then frees up time and energy for other pursuits be they research or stronger student engagement. This was the strategy for the “low adopter”.

    What I found was that this initial adoption tended to be somewhat viral. Faculty who could make one or two aspects of their teaching process more efficient were then more likely to try something different using technology. The instrumental change that made something more efficient then became a means for a substantive change that eventually altered their course structure, albeit rather gradually.

    I have never been one to say use tech. just because students expect it, but to use it when it can alter enough variables in the teaching/learning process to improve learning outcomes on some variable (which is always extremely tough to quantify without a control group to measure against). Although, if we improve student satisfaction with a given course, there is a connection between satisfaction and learning that we can derive.

    So I doubt this is a persuasive argument, but I have found it to be an effective process after working with this issue for about 10 years now.

    I will probably shoot this post off to some other instructional designers I have worked with to get their opinions as well – esp. as we move into another academic year.

  2. I read your post with great interest since I really do love to gain insights into different perspectives. Our philosophies differ a bit, and I will try to explain my perspective as well as you explained yours.

    You begin by talking about innovations and faculty who are tech-saavy. I believe that is key here. To many, blogs, podcasts, and wikis are innovations and they’re still considered new technologies (as in they didn’t exist before they were born). I think you’re equating tech-saavy with innovators. However, many faculty are tech-saavy, but not innovators. Perhaps they simply are a bit more risk aversive than you. If you are considered an innovator with technology integration, then faculty cannot easily jump to the conclusion that if Steve can do it, so can I. It’s more of a leap . . . across a great chasm . . . with a high probability for crashing and burning.

    You mention remarkable success stories, and I agree that there are great stories to share. However, these are not widely communicated/presented. Faculty are a tough group with whom to communicate efficiently and effectively. They are inundated with emails, scheduled to the max, and have to manage their time wisely. Many like to hear success stories from within their own discipline, and from peers with whom they think have similar technological abilities.

    I agree that the adoption of the CMS has been a success. I was a part of that adoption process, following and researching it quite closely. I was a dedicated support person charged with promoting that adoption process. We do not have similar resources in place for these other technologies. Most of the support is at a distance. While the posting of documents has been a highly used feature (and expected), discussion forums are seeing a great increase in use as well as the quizzing feature. Chat use is not high, but then I tend to discourage it except for uses that make the most sense (e.g., live office hours). You reminded me that I really need to capture the discussion forum success stories and communicate them – duly noted.

    Part of my research with the CMS adoption included studying the diffusion of innovations (Everett Rogers) and the stages of concern. For brevity’s sake, I’ll just explain the use of the diffusion of innovations. I believe that the diffusion of innovations (DoI) theory will help to explain the adoption (or lack of adoption) of these other technologies. The DoI focuses on five constructs defining the innovation’s perceived attributes: relative advantage, compatibility, complexity, trialability, and observability. A relative advantage means that the innovation would make it easier to do their job, enable them to significantly improve the overall quality of their teaching, or allow them to do things that they couldn’t do before. Compatibility means that the innovation would fit into their current teaching style, support their teaching philosophy, and/or fit with the way they like to work. Of course, complexity deals with the difficulty of learning how to use the innovation. Trialability is based on the number of opportunities they’ve had to try it out. Observability is based on opportunities to see demos, attend trainings, or seeing colleagues use it. The higher the relative advantage, compatibility, trialability, and observability, and the lower the complexity, the better chance of an innovation being adopted. I based my work on the CMS adoption around these five constructs, and our campus has the highest adoption rate within the university. I don’t believe that’s purely by chance. I did not need to make a “business case” because adopting an innovation is a very personal decision.

    I agree that the current system of rewards does not support the adoption of technology innovations. After all, how many faculty sitting on promotion and tenure committees have used them?

    I’m not on board with trying to convince faculty that it’s in their best interest to integrate more technology into their teaching. I don’t believe in technology leading the pedagogy. I advocate for the pedagogy to lead the technology. In other words, how can we best teach and have students learn? If that involves technology, then I’m all for it. However, here’s my caveat – I do not want to thwart the innovators (such as you) who might have technology leading their teaching. After all, without the innovators where would we be with blogs, podcasts, and wikis in higher education? Not very far at all!! So, kudos to the innovators, but also know that others cannot be brought into the –fold’ kicking and screaming.

    I suggest that we work together this year on advertising the relative advantages you have experienced with the technologies you use, provide multiple opportunities for observation and practice, determine how to best support faculty diving into the Web 2.0 pool, and track their interest/adoption. How does that plan sound to you?

  3. Drew, Thank you for your comment.

    Carol–I look forward to working with you this year on that advertising piece, and other initiatives.

    I don’t think we are that far off from each other. I am not advocating tech for tech’s sake. And I certainly don’t want to drag faculty (or anyone) kicking and screaming into doing anything. All that does is create noise and violence, and increased resistance to any innovation.

    My post was really intended to address a (spoken, and unspoken) assertion that faculty should be doing these things, and aren’t. So I was trying to answer one question “Why aren’t faculty more willing to use technology?” (And you have provided a few more GREAT answers!)

    I then tossed out the new question about persuasion. Yes–I assumed that tech was good, and should be implemented, but that really is because that is the assumption that seems to drive/motivate the good folks at ETS.

    Again–I look forward to more discussions!

  4. Steve! I found an old business card with your websites on the back and looked them up. Salutations aside, you might want a students perspective on this. At my high school we have plenty of SMART Boards (if you have never heard of them, then look them up online). They are amazing and every teacher has their own website where they can post anything they want, home work, pdf files, pictures, anything. Wonderful integration of technology into education. Also last year I had my calculus teacher use Wiley plus online, which allowed us to do homework completely online.

    The bottom line is i never used any of those things unless they were required, even with new technology and accessibility of materials. Now i understand that this does not apply to all of the students, but that was the case for most in my class. There was even a time when my teacher came in before school to record himself on the SMART Board for hours doing every single multiple choice AP problem he gave us over winter break. We could bring in a flash drive and he would give us the file. Out of 20 students 2 got the file. Now i do have to admit that i didn’t need extra help in the class outside of the daily lectures and if i didn’t get by so easily i might have checked out the online notes. Even so, as a teacher you have to ask yourself if it is worth it just for the few students who will take advantage of the technology.

    On a side note, i do enjoy all of the free lectures available on iTunes U. I have almost all of the MIT lectures on E&M. But i am a nerd who enjoys learning, just not when its a class i am currently taking.

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