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Technology Adoption | Viewpoint

Faculty 'Buy-in'--to What?

The phrases “faculty resistance,” or the “lack of faculty buy-in” to adopting information technology for the core teaching/learning paradigm, have become by-words in academia. Yet both phrases are empty and lead nowhere; they are phatic, having a social purpose (bonding among technology advocates) but they contain no useful information. Technology advocates urge faculty members to go away from what they’ve been doing but don’t explain what they should go toward.

It is not enough to go toward a set of new teaching and learning practices--such as “high-impact learning practices” (George Kuh)--because a set of practices does not a coherent theory make, nor do they alter the institutional zeitgeist that places strict limits on change. The goal cannot and should not be just to use technology.

The current practice (the institutional zeitgeist) is centered in the belief that disciplinary knowledge is content--some say a “set of facts”--that has been built by the best minds in the field over time. Students then need to have that content interpreted for them. Through a lock-step process, this content is meted out in chunks built into a sequence from simple to complex. The process by which new knowledge is added to the set of facts has been generally off limits to undergraduates, but open to graduate students. Undergraduate students, in this paradigm, undergo a series of treatments in a system that seems more influenced by behaviorism than by any more recent learning theories.

Therefore, undergraduate students in general hear a dumbed-down version of disciplinary facts. The knowledge is not theirs, and it is finished, done, inaccessible, authoritative, and fixed. Making testing more strict with higher stakes and somehow making the university more “accountable” does not address the central and most fundamental of all facts: Our current paradigm (as has been said numerous times) is out of step with what we know, now, about how adults (people over 18) learn best.

Why would we design higher education as if our undergraduates are children? (“Pedagogy” is, after all, the study of how to teach children.) The actual average age of undergraduates has steadily increased and, if we design education as if our students are adults, won’t they likely become more adult-like?

Truly Integrating Technology

First, the institutional zeitgeist must begin changing, ranging from expectations of incoming students and their parents and what the campus tour guides tell prospective students, to dropping the credit/seat time business model. As part of this change, faculty members can begin to alter their courses, their programs, and the entire curriculum.

As the situation is now in terms of game-changing use of technology, we are asking faculty to take on all the risk of change, but without the effort to make that change work. It is like encouraging faculty to use automobiles in 1910 at a time when there were no roads to drive on.

To create a system of roads, our society had to make a commitment to a profound alteration of the landscape and of the social fabric. But, without roads, cars would have never become more than oddities. Does academic society believe enough in the value of information technology to improve teaching and learning to build out the conceptual and practical “road system” to enable the change?

Why Go Down That Road?

First, what is the value of building that academic road system? Showing that technology improves results is not building a road, it’s just another encouragement to go it alone and jump off that cliff. Academia needs a coherent learning theory, or set of theories, that provides guidance for building the road system so the cars can operate. Without a coherent learning theory to work within, academia goes off in all directions, trying to find “best practices,” but then finding there’s no way to transfer those practices because they are not embedded in a generalized theory.

Amazingly, a number of campuses have been able to expand the use of information technology department by department or program by program, developing a philosophy along the way. Others were fortunate enough to have built their road system long ago: A curricular understanding and organization that anticipated the advent of information technology. [Web 2.0 will be following several of these developments in future articles.]

We can continue incrementally to find our generalized theory as a national and international enterprise if we are willing to wait decades and waste enormous energy and time on failed experiments. Or, we can make efforts to bring together the learning theorists and researchers with those who understand the capabilities of the technology.

At conferences of learning theorists and researchers, we hear about useful new ideas, research results, hopeful new ways of framing what we have gleaned from a century of careful thought and work about how humans learn. But, we don’t find that these learning theorists understand the dynamics of the new technologies sufficiently to recommend a path toward implementation of the theories.

At conferences of technologists, we hear of successful work in innumerable contexts across the country. But the technologists are not aware of learning theory in most cases, or they do know about learning theory but are not active in a learning theory research field. The innumerable technology implementation contexts, then, remain just anecdotal as they are not tied to a developing new theoretical construct.

This bifurcation cannot continue. We cannot continue to so caustically point to “lack of faculty buy-in” as the reason for our failure of imagination. There are no roads, no vision, no understanding of what we are doing. We understand that, somehow, learning can be distributed, that active learning is now easier to manage, that social learning has become a fact of life, that authentic learning opportunities are all around us, that information is all around us, that archiving and examining student work produces a whole new harvest of learning--we understand all this and we understand “high-impact learning practices,” but we have yet to put it all together.

What does all that mean? And, bottom line, are we only saying that these new practices are contrary to lecture? Are we simply talking about an optional alternative path? Do we still accept current practice as the default and this other technology stuff as just icing on the cake?

This is not good. We are at the nexus of a different epoch in human history. Information and knowledge based in electrons presents a universe we have never known before. Knowledge freed of the anchor of the atom is on a par with language acquisition in terms of altering human possibilities. So, let’s not be so tentative and precious about this new era.

The challenge is to build a cultural theory that guides academia to re-imagine itself in every tiny bit of being. Who is taking up this challenge? Where is our theory? Where are our theorists?

I hope our community will move away from the simplistic notion that somehow information technology can be “bolted on and not built in” to quote a colleague from last November’s ePortfolios Australia Conference in Melbourne.

Academic transformation is under way. Don’t put the technology first; put understanding of the technology implications first--the unifying learning theory. Second, start the changes on campus that will provide the road system for academics to use in our new landscape.

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