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.