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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 students.
  • 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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. See

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.

Watch for more information about how you can participate in these collaborative efforts—both online and at selected events.

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