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Professional Development

Pitch and Woo: Dealing with Faculty Resistance

Giving faculty immediate support, a safe way to try new tools, and a strong sense of ownership can go a long way toward overcoming resistance to new technology.

Tom Trusty has seen a lot of faculty members pulled kicking and screaming into the information age. A professor for 16 years, Trusty says he's seen resistance subside over the last couple of years, although some faculty members still insist on doing things the old fashioned way, without technology.

"There's always resistance to new technology," says Trusty, assistant professor and chair of the department of engineering technology at Trine University in Angola, IN, "just like there are always some people who want it to evolve faster than it can."

Trusty says resistance was particularly high three years ago, before Trine rolled out programs to address the issue. A help desk system that prioritizes calls and addresses faculty issues quickly, for example, was implemented a couple of years ago and has gone a long way in helping individual users deal with their technology problems.

The professor who can't load a software program that she needs for her afternoon biology lab, for instance, can call into the system and expect prompt attention. "When I first got here we would make a phone call and wait to see if the problem was going to get taken care of," says Trusty. "Through the help desk, the school now handles our needs pretty well."

Also helping to break down the barriers between IT and faculty at Trine University is a virtual test environment that was set up in the fall of 2009. Rolled out by CIO Michelle Dunn and her IT team, the setup allows professors to test software for use in their classrooms. Through a virtual desktop interface, instructors can log into a test environment from their office PCs via a firewalled tunnel.

That firewall is a critical component that allows faculty members to test out new software without having to worry about crashing their systems or creating a campuswide security issue. A professor of engineering seeking a new software program to use in the classroom, for example, can use the virtual setup to download several options without compromising the security of the campus network.

"Faculty can sit at their desks and explore their options without giving much thought to the fact that they're using a virtual PC," says Dunn. She explains that the virtual test environment not only gives faculty hands-on experience with hardware and software--on their own terms, in a secure environment--but also minimizes help desk calls.

It has also helped faculty to partake more actively in Trine's $2 million program ("a big investment for a school of our size," notes Dunn) that utilizes tablet PCs, software, projectors, and network connectivity.

To further woo faculty into the ranks of comfortable technology users, Trine has two dedicated academic technologists whom Dunn refers to as "consultants." The pair uses a combination of one-on-one training, workshops, and webinars to teach faculty how to use their PCs, the course management system, desktop infrastructure, and classroom projectors. Dunn says the consultants typically are dispatched through the institution's help desk system, but that they also take a proactive approach to technology resistance (by discussing pertinent technology topics at staff meetings, for example).

Trusty believes that the combination of these efforts has transformed faculty attitudes toward technology at Trine. "The university is working hard to address faculty needs, and in doing so has been pretty effective at making faculty more comfortable with the idea of using technology in the classroom."

The Bottom-Up Approach
Change management experts will tell you that including stakeholders early on in the process can make all the difference between buy-in and resistance. The same holds true in the university IT environment, where involving faculty members in the planning, purchase, and implementation stages can result in greater acceptance of technology innovations.

This kind of bottom-up strategy is working at Montgomery County Community College (PA), says vice president for IT Celeste Schwartz, where the school's 20-member Information Technology All College Committee (ITACC) includes six full-time faculty members (five representing college divisions and one representing a branch campus) and one adjunct faculty member. Other ITACC members include a librarian, counselor, and dean. "Academic affairs represents more than half of our committee," notes Schwartz, who also serves as ITACC co-chair.

Charged with staying up on trends in educational technology and reviewing the college's proposed IT investments, ITACC helps streamline MCCC's approach to technology. Every year, for example, the committee reviews "The Horizon Report" from the New Media Consortium, which focuses on those trends that are expected to be adopted by higher education within one year or less and within two to three years.

In 2010, for example, "The Horizon Report" identified the use of open content as a growing trend within the higher education space. With that research in hand, the ITACC is now spearheading MCCC's new open content project.

"We're developing a cohort of 15 faculty members who will work with us for a half of a semester, identify good open content, and help professors place that content in our course management system in an appealing way for students," Schwartz explains. Acknowledging the fact that some faculty members may be especially resistant to putting their ideas and course design in an online environment for anyone's use, Schwartz expects the example set by this cohort of professors to pave the way for more--and more willing--participants. "We're pretty excited about it," she says.

Curtis Bonk sees technology-related committees as a natural venue for colleges and universities, which have historically used committees to ensure faculty participate in the governance of the institution. A professor of instructional systems technology at Indiana University and author of The World Is Open: How Web Technology Is Revolutionizing Education, Bonk believes that a "ground-up" approach is the best way to overcome faculty resistance, pointing out that technology mandates have a poor track record in academia.

"Look at UCLA in the 1990s, where humanities was told to put its syllabi online," says Bonk. "There were a lot of protests from both the faculty and the students (the latter of whom were expected to pay an additional fee for the service)."

Bonk believes that the institution that respects the fact that faculty have a "fair degree of autonomy" on campus, and that involves those individuals early in the technology acquisition process, very well could be the one with the best campuswide adoption rates. This kind of bottom-up approach helps staffers understand for themselves the value that IT brings to the classroom. "Get faculty involved in these committee meetings," says Bonk, "and they're likely to say, 'Wow, we can no longer ignore this.'"

Schwartz agrees wholeheartedly with the idea of bringing people together. "There are always going to be some faculty members who lead the way, and others who will wait until the technology is more pervasive or easier to use," she says. "When you get both sides to sit down and work together, the synergy can be pretty amazing."

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