Thinking Bigger

Over at Geeky Mom, Laura has a wonderful post up that extends some of what she, Barbara Ganley, Barbara Sawhill, Leslie Madsen-Brooks, and I spoke about during our presentation on “Fear 2.0” at ELI last week (I have a long post in me about the presentation, but I’m saving it for another day). Right now, I want to respond to Laura’s post, in which she explores her own fears:

How important is my position, really, to the institution as a whole? If my position disappeared, would anyone really notice?

So why do instructional technologists exist? Are they really needed and what is their role within an institution? How could they be more effective? Should their role change? Could we envision them teaching or doing research? Or do we want them to shift to be more tech support and be less concerned about the big questions?

First, kudos to Laura for being brave enough to ask the questions that I think keep all of us up at night occasionally, whether we’re instructional technologists, faculty, administrators: “Does what I do matter, really? Do I only think it matters to the institution because it matters to me?” And then, “How can I imagine my role differently? Am I thinking big enough? Am I thinking too big?”

It’s hard to confront these questions. I have trouble asking them of myself, privately, in my own head. It’s even harder to do it publicly.

Personally, I’ve been struggling with the concept of “instructional technology” and the scope of it’s impact a lot in recent months. Nine years ago, inspired by work I was doing then at the Folger Shakespeare Library, I decided I wanted to explore how technology could help people learn. I was working at the time for the Folger Institute, an amazing organization which brings scholars together for intensive seminars, workshops, and conferences on early modern studies. At the time, in the mid-nineties, the Institute (and the faculty it worked with) was becoming increasingly interested in how they could promote and share the work coming out of the programs by posting parts of them online. I became involved in helping to set up some of these early Web sites. For the most part they were basic sites, hosting pedagogical materials (texts written by participants and faculty and images, primarily of scanned materials in the Folger’s amazing collection).

But, I was pretty sure we were just scratching the surface of what was possible, so I decided to go back to school for a masters degree in instructional technology. Which is exactly what I did. And then, I got my first job as an instructional technologist, here at Mary Washington. After a brief interlude as a Web director at another institution, I found myself back here. At that time DTLT was in a state of intense transition, under Gardner‘s inspired leadership. The role of the instructional technologist was changing dramatically from one of glorified technology support to one of creative partner — working closely with faculty to re-imagine how technology could help them improve their teaching. Our work with using third-party Web hosting began around the same time, providing us with an amazing sandbox to really push the boundaries of what we were doing with faculty.

I think we’ve continued to make tremendous progress, both in the work we do with faculty as well as in our own thinking about where the tools and technologies we’re experimenting with could take us. However, I’m often afraid that we’re not thinking big enough. I fear that when we focus too much on “improving teaching” we lose sight of the much larger (and much more complicated) landscape of our institutions and the way technology is (or could be) affecting those landscapes.

Perhaps, part of my concern is that I think as institutions we fundamentally define and think about “teaching” too narrowly. One of Gardner’s latest posts about a student who took her learning and her involvement in the course into her own, extraordinarily capable, hands is a great example, I think, of what happens when classes and professors push the boundaries. How many faculty at our institutions see what they are doing as a kind of professional modeling and coaching? Or, do they see teaching as merely imparting and sharing knowledge?

I’m not trying to disparage the notion of experts sharing knowledge. I know, from my own experience, that this is a fundamental aspect of the process of learning. But, what beyond that?

When a faculty member comes to me and says I want to use technology to do X in the classroom, I feel a little sad. I don’t want to just think about technology as a means to an end — a useful solution to a problem. Sure, it can serve that purpose, but, fundamentally, digital technologies are about so. much. more.

How many of our faculty are considering how technology is altering their disciplines? Their own professional practices? The traditions of their institutions? How many of us are considering these issues?

I fear we’re going to wake up one day and discover that in every other sector technology has resulted in a re-imagining, and we’re going to be stuck thinking about how to help someone function better. Everyone else will have moved on to stochastic calculus and we’ll still be dealing with basic arithmetic. Everyone else will be driving around in jet cars capable of crossing dimensions, and we’ll still be trying to figure out how to break 40 MPG with a traditional petroleum engine.

Alternatively, I fear that other sectors won’t push as hard and as deeply as they could, because they’re not invested in the horizons of thinking, learning, knowing, and understanding the way that academia and higher education are supposed to be. I fear that seeing into the great unknown is our responsibility and instead we’re just trying to keep our heads down and be incremental.

I love going to conferences like ELI, but I must confess that I often come away from those events wondering if enough of us are thinking big enough. At last week’s conference, I heard colleagues at other institutions suggest that instructional technologists have no business discussing or trying to impact the processes of promotion and tenure at our campuses. I was disheartened. Don’t get me wrong: I have no (dis)illusions of grandeur. I know that I, personally, can’t change these long-standing traditions. But I am quite sure that someone better be prepared to talk to our administrations, our boards, and our state legislatures about the real crisis in higher education: our failing to take ourselves, our future, and the possibilities that are unfolding around us everywhere in digital technology seriously.

It’s not about smart boards. It’s not about course management systems. It’s not about analyzing student data to improve retention. It’s not even about getting more students or faculty to blog or use wikis or to experiment with virtual worlds.

Or, perhaps I should say it’s not just about these things. There is something more fundamental, more urgent, and more important below those surfaces. We need to find it, and we need to define our roles at our institutions so that when we find it we can help to make change happen.