Viewpoint

Let Faculty Off The Hook

Why is it taking so long for higher education faculty to adapt to the myriad opportunities made available by information technology and Web 2.0 interfaces and functionalities? Instead of trying to find fault, let’s look for causes.

We early adopters, or at least this specific early adopter, believed in the innovation adoption curve. I therefore expected that the pedagogical (actually andragogical) magic I, and others, discovered years ago in using new technologies would gradually be discovered by other faculty members. We expected, as would be normal according to theory, that mainstream faculty would be using technology as we risk-taking early-adopters did within 10 or 15 years. Wrong. At least not in the big numbers we expected.

It’s now more than 30 years since the introduction of micro-computers. It’s almost 20 years since the Web was created and 6 years since Web 2.0 tools swept the culture and transformed communication and social patterns across the board.

I’ve argued, as have many commentators on technology and higher education, that the evidence for needed changes in teacher-student interaction is so overwhelming, why can’t faculty start to make the change?

The simple answer is we commentators and institutional administrators are asking the impossible. It is one thing to use technology to improve on existing processes--such as e-mail being faster than campus mail and easier to send to many people all at once than printing hundreds of memos--but a very different thing to ask people to invent the e-mail system. Because, by analogy, that’s what we are asking faculty to do. In the following paragraphs, an image of the gantlet against change that is laid down before the faculty will emerge.

Still, and this may be true for many decades to come, most college and university classrooms are designed for teacher presentation; the shape of the room, the acoustical design, control of lighting, lack of sufficient technology in the room, the furniture, security, window treatment, and so on, the space itself screams lecture. Likewise, parent and incoming student expectations have the force of centuries of fixed models about what teaching and learning are supposed to be. Such cultural memes (like physical genes), so ingrained, change ever so slowly.

The assumptions built into classrooms and parents’ and students’ minds find their way into instruments for student evaluation of faculty. Faculty are supposed to be in control and knowledgeable and prepared and, in sum, the same as teachers of 50 years ago. “The teacher of the year” brings to mind an entertaining and smart individual who is confident and sensitive, and who can be heard at the back of the room, and who perhaps has a bit of wit. These are great qualities, but what doesn’t come to mind is a person who has designed a great sequence of activities, helps students address important and challenging problems, and who uses technologies in inventive ways. This kind of teacher does not make for great drama and most likely will not be professor or teacher of the year.

Another reason not to move to a course design augmented by technology is the presumption that a lecture, by definition, is teaching. Lecturing and passive learning are, in the short run, the easiest options for both faculty and students. The faculty member can “cover the material” in a predictable way and feel her job is done; if the students fail to learn the material as shown by the usual measures, it is the students’ fault, except that the students think it’s the teacher’s fault.

When I taught using my own alternative methods using technology or collaborative exercises, students asked some odd and embarrassing questions for the first few weeks: “When will the real course start?” Or, after a few weeks of intensive studio-writing in a computer lab, “When will we start writing?” Or, probably the most stunning one, “Look, if you don’t know what you’re doing, can you bring someone into the class who does?” In each of my classes, by the second half of the class, the students were intensely engaged, but I had to face doubt, disbelief, and revolt each semester as I disregarded the expectations of the students.

Another legacy anchor slowing down change in teaching/learning practices is the syllabi on file. Syllabus models are on record in many departments, formally or informally, and traditional expectations are therefore reinforced constantly.

And, let’s not forget faculty review. Faculty review processes do not favor or even recognize, in most cases, innovation with technology, probably because we know so little about which innovations are good and which are not. Some colleges and universities have addressed this issue and it is encouraging to see that development. But, at many institutions, there is often nothing in the review process that would help move faculty toward an intelligent adoption of technology in their teaching.

Importantly, spending on academic technologies is small compared to spending on administrative computing. It would not surprise me, also, if most top administrators in higher education believe that huge expenditures on IT, as in the 90s and 00s, are over.

But even if the will, or the resources, were there to spend, there is no clear path showing administrators what to spend on, except for those technologies that reinforce the teaching-learning systems already in place. In other words, faculty do not generally benefit from intelligent strategic leadership and new systemic designs but are hung out to dry. “Innovate at your own risk” seems to be the message.

And, as faculty are pondering next fall’s classes, an e-mail arrives reminding them to order their books for the fall, as usual, because, of course, you will be using books.

After reading these factors, and remembering other similar reinforcements of the status quo, we could easily conclude that using technology in inventive ways is for the foolish or the tenured.

What, then, is the underlying cause for the slow pace of transition toward new, more appropriate teaching and learning methods? The changes we are looking at now are millennial changes because they require learning completely new classes of skills. And, these changes must replace a system in place for centuries. It is one thing to use technology to improve on current practices, but another, and more challenging thing, to use technology to replace current practices and operate in ways that are completely new and counter-intuitive to us.

We may have a new ecology of learning (we do), but we also have systemic incompatibility with the new ecology. The entire workflow on the academic side of institutions runs against the new ecology. If the institution is ready to question every single process in place, now, to discover how that process works against nurturing the new ecology, then that institution can support faculty in working in the new ecology. Until institutions are ready to do that, however, let’s let faculty off the hook.

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