A Portfolio of Change Strategies

No institution can afford to embrace every attractive combination of teaching approach, technology application, instructional materials, and educational objective. No single strategy for improving teaching and learning with technology will be effective for every university, college, division, or department. No single set of strategies will be uniformly appropriate for all kinds of institutions. And more attractive options keep arriving.

Each institution needs to develop its own “portfolio of strategies” for improving teaching and learning with technology. Each college or university should develop an affordable, explainable combination of strategies built on a solid technological infrastructure. Each should publicly describe the process by which the initial portfolio can be changed to take advantage of emerging opportunities, use information gained from experience, and enable the newly interested to participate more fully and effectively.

Each portfolio should include elements that offer something useful to almost everyone. Each should include strategies that enable smaller groups to explore more expensive and risky combinations of technology and educational approach—with the hope that what they learn will prove useful to others. This mixture can eventually produce results that involve almost everyone in making significant improvements.

The following stories suggests why and how such portfolios should be developed and publicized. On a campus visit a couple of years ago, I was talking with the college president, who had been at the same institution for more than 20 years. He told me that when he began there as a junior faculty member, he was puzzled by responses to certain events by several more experienced members of his department—people he greatly respected. They explained that some of the actions by the administration were the result of a hidden plan, one that was undoubtedly aimed at undermining the goals and good work of the department.

As the years went by, this young faculty member heard many similar comments, but he grew more skeptical. As he was promoted and moved closer and closer to becoming president, his skepticism grew.

Finally, after years as president, he was quite certain that the stories of the nefarious hidden plans were wrong. His conclusion: Most academic administrators have neither the time nor the subtlety to develop secret strategies. Moreover, most of them are working so hard to deal with the crises of the moment that they rarely have the opportunity to develop any plans at all!

This story may have been exaggerated for my benefit, but I have seen the moral demonstrated over and over again. In the absence of a clearly stated, credible plan—and in the absence of visible efforts to implement it—most faculty (and other human beings) will assume the worst. In fact, their fears will almost always be worse than any realistic possibility. Almost any clear, publicly described strategy is better than one that is well-designed but not communicated—and certainly better than none at all.

A few years ago, I was invited to give a keynote speech to launch a plan to advance the use of information technology throughout a college. The board had recently made a major commitment to fund the program, and I was part of a consulting team to help plan and lead the effort.

Top administrators were enthusiastic, and a major company was providing project management expertise and some staffing. I was excited to be describing my vision of academic progress and how to achieve it through a Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable.

When I was finished with most of my presentation slides, I paused to invite questions and comments. A faculty member stood and began to speak. His voice quavered, and he was almost shaking as he said, “I don’t want to hear any more of this ‘vision’ stuff. I’m not going to participate in any new program until my e-mail starts working right.” Most of the faculty members in the room immediately applauded.

I managed to exit the session without responding defensively, and we immediately began to rethink our plans. Obviously, I hadn’t asked some important questions, and no one had told me how shaky the technology infrastructure was.

We didn’t launch the roundtable until we could point to progress in the availability, reliability, and ease-of-use of faculty e-mail. In the end, we succeeded in rebuilding faculty and staff confidence in the role of technology and in developing one of the more successful local roundtables.

I was reminded of this story by several recent visits to campuses, where I discovered that key elements of the technology infrastructure were not working well or weren’t even in place. I knew that any conversations about more advanced, instruction-related uses of technology would have to wait until we could demonstrate progress on the basics.

So the lesson is: Before trying to develop a major program for improving teaching and learning with technology, always check to see that people’s expectations for a basic technology infrastructure are reasonable and are being met. And the corollary is: Make sure everyone involved has a similar understanding of what “reasonable” expectations are.

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