The Beauty of Low Threshold Applications
There is a new imperative for many colleges and universities to engage "almost
all" of the faculty in improving teaching and learning with information
technology. The strategies I described in a previous Syllabus column can help,
especially if they include the development of a collection of low threshold
applications, or "LTAs."
Recent experience suggests that a new, larger group of mainstream faculty members
is more likely to be receptive to what they perceive as only a modest change
in their identity, role, or workload that might be imposed by new teaching and
learning applications. They tend to resist workshops and risks associated with
the most obviously innovative educational uses of information technology. They
also resent—rightfully—the implication that their work of past years
or decades has been inadequate or incompetent.
Many of them have much to offer and welcome opportunities to contribute to
the overall change process—within reasonable limits. They are busy and
do not have a lot of extra time. Consequently, a new approach is needed to meet
the new needs of this different, much larger faculty subgroup. And LTAs may
be part of the solution.
Here are some characteristics of LTAs:
- They have a low entry cost. That means low hardware, software, technological
infrastructure entry cost and no major structural changes. LTAs are characterized
by technology that is already almost ubiquitous, essential for the academic
discipline, and/or inexpensive. In other words, the technology components
of LTAs have low incremental costs for the institution and for individual
faculty members and students who will be using them. Low incremental cost
can result from the institution or individual already having invested in the
necessary resources ("sunk costs"), or from the technology components
having low, fully loaded, fully amortized costs.
- LTAs are easy to learn, and based on using technology applications and teaching/learning
techniques that are already known by or easy to learn for both faculty and
- LTAs are not intimidating. Faculty and students do not perceive LTAs as
requiring major re-adjustments in their roles or in their lives. The LTAs
are based on technology applications and teaching/learning techniques that
do not intrude into the classroom or disrupt the course. LTAs require activities
that already feel familiar within the usual course work.
- Teachers and learners believe that they can rely on the technology underlying
a particular LTA. LTAs usually work as expected, especially when used during
classes that cannot easily be extended or re-scheduled. But reliability depends
as much on the quality and robustness of the technology infrastructure of
the particular college or university as on the LTA technology itself.
LTAs should be able to reflect observable positive consequences; at least anecdotal
testimony and the judgment of colleagues should confirm desirable results from
similar efforts. At best, formal studies should show that positive outcomes
are associated with the activity. Stories and evidence suggest that after a
few years, the LTA is likely to precipitate or at least contribute to desirable
changes in how teachers and learners think and act.
In developing collections of LTAs, we can usefully organize them into three
categories based on the source of the technology applications:
- Almost ubiquitous technology. These LTAs take advantage of the concept
of "sunk costs" by using technology applications that are already
almost ubiquitously accessible within the institution.
- Commercial products. These LTAs use commercial technology applications
that require little incremental expenditure by the institution and little
or no additional training or support for faculty and students.
- Open source/open course resources. These LTAs use items from Open Source-style
collections of instructional and professional development resources. These
collections should require little or no payment from individual faculty members
and should encourage users to contribute to the development of the resources.
No individual faculty member can keep up with the pace of new instructional
and professional development techniques. Nor can any one LTA individually help
"almost all of the faculty." While each faculty member might be able
to use an LTA to help some other faculty members, collaborations among faculty
leaders, faculty development professionals, librarians, and technology professionals
are likely to reach further and more effectively.
By collaborating, these different professionals have a better chance of getting
on top of the chaos, of identifying more effective and useful resources, and
of developing more attractive and feasible programs for the mainstream faculty
members. It may be just the right time to apply some of the "Open Course"
principles, practices, and tools to the improvement of teaching and learning.
for more information about how you can participate in these collaborative efforts—both
online and at selected events.