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LTAs – Replacements for the Missing “Professional Development”

Remember back in the early days of IT's transformation of higher education? Every IT department was offering classes in "how to" this and that-how to use word processing software, how to use database or spreadsheet software, how to use a Web browser, how to use e-mail, and so forth. But we couldn't get the faculty (or the higher level administrators and managers) into those classes. Some combination of innate stubbornness and a fear of being seen as inadequate kept those classes full of secretaries and administrative assistants. Some universities and colleges hit upon the technique of sending trainers into faculty and managers' offices for not-as-visible, one-on-one sessions, which worked a little better.

Probably most IT managers feel they still lack adequate resources and cooperation with regard to IT training, or what in more general terms could be called professional development with regard to IT tools. But guess what: "professional development" relating to IT, as poor as it often is, is light years ahead of professional development with regard to the other parts of the work life and responsibilities of institutional staff. One initiative to substitute for some of the missing professional development on campus (and of course it d'es more than that) is the collection and sharing of Low Threshold Applications (LTAs).

Here at SCUP, we found ourselves recently facing some unexpected and untimely technical issues with our annual survey of campus space, the Campus Facilities Inventory (CFI). We've built a data collection tool that provides the various campus space planners with password-protected access to provide online information about the amount of campus space devoted to various functional categories. This year, we are building several new features, some aimed at providing last year's users with editorial access to their previous data-but we ran into glitches.

I don't understand the glitches. Not because I am incapable of understanding them, but because I don't have the time to, plus it is someone else's job to do so - a very capable someone else. But I do understand the sever time constraints we are under to get the data collected soon. As I awoke one morning early this week a solution came to me. It was a Low Threshold Application solution, an LTA. Though it turns out we didn't have to use it this time, I'll share that potential solution here along with some great resources for LTAs.

What's an LTA?

Coincidental to our database issues with the Campus Facilities Inventory, Steve Gilbert, of the TLT Group, was scheduled to drop by my office later that morning for a meeting and lunch. The TLT Group is an independent nonprofit organization probably best known for Teachin. Steve, who has been active in teaching, learning, and technology issues for a quarter-century, was formerly with Educom as early as 1983, then with AAHE (the American Association for Higher Education), from which the TLT Group was "spun out" a few years ago.

Steve defines an LTA as "a teaching/learning application of information technology that is reliable, accessible, easy to learn, non-intimidating and (incrementally) inexpensive." The TLT Group has a portion of its Web site devoted to LTAs.

Another good Web site about LTAs is the Low Threshold Applications site maintained by Charles Ansorge, of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Both the TLT site and Charles' Web site collect and publish informative "how-tos" explaining useful LTAs.

Featured on Charles' site right now, for example, is his LTA#36, "Using an 'Aggregator' to Capture RSS Feeds: A Technology for Keeping Up-to-Date." Recently featured are such LTAs as #35, "Monitoring Web Page Changes," #32, "Partnering with Students to Avoid 'Cut and Paste' Plagiarism," and #30, "Screen Captures and What to Do With Them." The TLT Group's site also collects examples of LTAs shared by subscribers to Steve's immensely popular TLT-SWG e-mail list (formerly known as AAHESGIT).

Characteristics of LTAs include:

· Low incremental cost - based on using technology applications that are already almost ubiquitous, already essential for the discipline, and inexpensive
· Easy to learn and access - part of this is ubiquity; everyone already has it and probably already knows how to use it
· Not intimidating - faculty and students do not perceive the LTA as requiring major adjustments in their roles or lives; they're already familiar
· Observable positive consequences - anecdotal testimony from peers and colleagues confirm desirable results from similar activities
· Reliability - they work as intended most of the time, not likely to break down during valuable class time
· May precipitate or facilitate long-term changes - using LTAs can give faculty confidence and instill trust in technology

Now, if these LTAs sound just a little bit like the sharing, from experience, of what really works, well, that's certainly a part of it. In our conversations, Steve more or less suggested that a lot of the work that the TLT Group engages in probably fills in some of the huge gaps left where our institutions simply do not devote meaningful resources to professional development. To me, the reasons behind that are some amalgam of faculty resistance to being subjected to "professional development" that relates to teaching or administration as opposed to the academic subject matter which is their knowledge forte, and the perhaps subconscious administrative realization that with such a highly educated body of employees, we can get away without adequately supporting continuing professional development.

Steve also shared that his observations of LTAs over time are beginning to reveal two major categories, those, which pertain more directly to, teaching and learning and those, which are more widely applicable to general work and administrative, uses. That's why, although the TLT Web site defines them as necessarily related to teaching and learning, I have few qualms about applying the concept outside the classroom.

LTAs also "get around," and in doing so somewhat expose a techie-tendency to want to build new and interesting things, as opposed to perhaps just using lower technology we already have more efficiently, but that's another issue.

My "Plan B" for our Campus Facilities Inventory (CFI) may be an example of a more administrative or research-oriented LTA. For the CFI we've built a very nice online system with good user interfaces, to collect data. It's impressive, it's integrated, and it can be built upon for more functionality later. But if you look at it starkly, with the "high" technology maybe not working and a deadline looming - as I did earlier this week - what we're really doing right now is collecting (a) from each of 200-400 campuses, one person on each campus, (b) about 35 fields of data. It's a very important project and quite useful data, but d'esn't really, imperatively need the application of high tech.

There's no reason we can't do that by creating a simple spreadsheet, sending a copy to each participant, and having them complete and return them by a deadline. Whereupon we simply collate all the data into one place and begin analysis. That's my LTA, Low Threshold Application, otherwise known around here right now as Plan B.

Now, I'd bet there are hundreds of working groups all over my campus that are collecting data that is at least structurally similar to what we are collecting. And I'd bet there are dozens, if not hundreds, of technical tools and procedures created by those groups to do so. Some are probably technologically state of the art; some are probably still sending our paper surveys and then having work-study students key in data. Too bad there isn't some place to go to share lessons-learned, or some professional development class in various data collection techniques that don't require high-level technology.

I'm not talking about a hands-on, computer laboratory class in how to use Access or FileMaker, or SPSS, we've got those. I'm talking about a "here's the problem" and "here's how others have solved it, using various tools and techniques" - what I think much of "professional development" is about. Maybe we're all smart enough and highly-educated enough to not need someone to fund, develop, and teach such a course, or even to collect the various solutions for sharing? Maybe we don't need related professional development? Maybe it's efficient for us all to invent our own wheels? Not really.

So, I urge people to check out the TLT Group's Low Threshold Applications collection, and its links to others, and to share their own LTAs. (Noting, also, that the hundreds of useful articles and resources available on the Syllabus Web site serves much the same purpose!) Maybe we can create an inter-institutional professional development LTA network instead of worrying about intra-institutional professional development programs that no one wants to fund, anyway.

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