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Feeling Like a Pony Express Rider? Uh Oh, Here Comes the Telegraph

In a recent articled titled The Impact of Technologies on Learning, researchers at the University of Washington reported on substantive focus groups with more than 100 students and faculty through a program called Listening to the Learner.

The results were what you might expect. Students clearly want to see faculty make more use of pertinent technologies, and faculty meet up with a number of barriers, such as lack of equipment, lack of rewards for the use of technology, and culture shock-as one faculty member put it, feeling like a Pony Express rider just as the telegraph comes along. The study recommends a reorganization of technology support, but those recommendations don't affect IT managers much. To tell you the truth, I think the study highlights, once again, academic departments' lack of understanding of what their own mission might be, and the concomitant lack of a departmental strategic plan.

The University of Washington study asked students about their desire for using technology in coursework, and faculty about current approaches/barriers. The results are grouped in several categories: Students Expectations of Technologies in Course Work; Additional Technologies Students Use; Students' Preferred Instructional Methods; Faculty Barriers to Integration of Technology; Integration of Educational Technologies; Development of Educational Technologies; Organization of Technology Support; and Faculty Training.

The authors conclude that their findings "illustrate a need for future research investigating this discrepancy, aiming not only to listen to what university and college communities expect of technologies but also to develop and implement successful recommendations for technology adoption." If I were being particularly cynical, that sounds like "Fund some more research," but it's also reminiscent of what I hear frequently from campus facilities infrastructure planners and designers.

Facilities planners and designers often bemoan the lack of understanding higher education institutions often have about what it is they want to do with their facilities-just like these authors seem to be asking what it is that institutions want to do with their technologies. And, if I failed to mention it earlier, these are not top-end technologies that the students, in particular, want to see more use of. We're talking overhead projectors, spreadsheets, and the like; stuff that can easily be seen as "infrastructure" without offending anyone.

Rather than overall conclusions, however, you may be most interested in what the authors recommend regarding reorganizing technology support. As might be expected, they recommend 'better education"-meaning two things: (a) finding ways to better inform faculty about what they have available and how to use it, and (b) better informing students and faculty about the pre-existing programs and resources that exist right now, but which many of them do not know about.

Their most interesting recommendations, however, are in a category they call "Culture surrounding technology." Those are mostly intradepartmental and have very much to do with the faculty. And these recommendations help emphasize that some basic strategic/academic planning can help most departments with their technology issues without really engaging the IT folks much at all. One of their major findings is that teaching is "an isolating experience" and that some intradepartmental tools can help overcome that. They recommend:

· Departmental Web sites: Better use of departmental Web sites for communicating to faculty, including up-to-date concrete examples of how peers in the department are using learning technologies;

· Personal profiles: Finding ways to help even the least savvy faculty share their experiences with technology;

· Informal events: Perhaps having physical or virtual "brown bag" lunches where faculty share info or hear informal presentations from others; and

· Incentives: That same old bugaboo, faculty who spend a lot of time on technologies don't get the kind of credit for it they need, for their own motivation and for tenure

So, what is there to learn from this for the IT professionals on campus? Well, maybe we have to be "outside consultants" and help the academics with an age-old problem: The problem of connecting the mission of the institution with the design and implementation of the institution's infrastructure is alive and well. Without an academic plan for the institution, or for the department, it's really hard to be sure that resources are being appropriately applied-whether the resources are classroom space or network bandwidth.

Maybe it's time for IT folks to memorize a phrase and use it whenever they are asked to create a new resource, purchase one, or support one: "How d'es this fit in with your/our department's academic/strategic plan? What? You don't have one? Well, we need you to have one so that we can make the best decisions for you." That might not immediately change anything, but it's hard to argue with.

Gustafson, Kimberly. The Impact of Technologies on Learning. Planning
for Higher Education (December 2003-February 2004; Vol. 32 #2) pp. 37-43

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