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Reimagining Learning via Technology

Introducing higher education to new tools and techniques to improve teaching and learning can be tough, especially if the solutions are tech-based. CT talks to two educators with a proven record of success in fostering change.

Kyle Bowen, director of informatics at Purdue University (IN), and Malcolm Brown, director of the Educause Learning Initiative, have years of experience fostering tech-based solutions to improve teaching and learning on campus. Here, Campus Technology talks to the duo about what it takes to bring about change--whether on the grand institutional scale or classroom by classroom.

This story appears in the July 2013 conference edition of Campus Technology. Click here for a free subscription to the digital magazine.

Campus Technology: How would you describe the approach that Purdue follows in developing learning technologies?

Kyle Bowen: We try to reimagine some traditional piece of the instructional process. For example, last fall we developed and deployed Passport, which reimagines what a grade is. Essentially, it gives us a way to provide additional evidence to students about what they're learning to supplement both their grades and their transcripts.

CT: IT people often talk about identifying a problem and then coming up with a solution. You used the word "reimagining" instead of "problem." Was that deliberate?

Bowen: Yes and no. Traditional instructional problems are often symptoms of something deeper. And we can't begin to assess the depth of a problem until we actually have something to assess--until we're actually doing it a different way. So a lot of what we do is intended to be experimental. We've created models that enable us to develop technology fairly quickly, put it in place, begin to assess its impact, and then scale it from there.

So, instead of focusing on specific issues, we want to look more broadly at common instructional challenges that keep popping up, and opportunities to help students become more successful. If you focus just on a "problem," you often end up with nothing more than a Band-Aid. Instead, you need to ask, "OK, how can we actually improve on this experience, not just stop the bleeding?"

CT: How do you decide which projects to pursue?

Bowen: We develop what we call a theme--essentially an elevator pitch. As we interact with faculty during the normal course of business, we share these themes with them. For many instructors, educational technology isn't their domain of experience--it's in science or the liberal arts. So asking them, "What are your learning technology needs?" is not necessarily a productive discussion. Instead, we use these themes as a way to start conversations. We say, "Here's something that other instructors are talking about as a challenge. There's a lot of potential there. What do you think about this?" Generally, once we identify two faculty in diverse disciplines with the same common challenge, we know a spectrum of need must exist.

CT: At what point do you seek additional buy-in from other faculty?

Bowen: It varies based on how disruptive the idea might be. In most cases, the two faculty are the ones we start with. Typically, we implement with those faculty in a semester. It's very experimental. We want it to fail as quickly as we can--in the smallest and least expensive way possible. If it goes well--if we start to see indicators of success--then we'll continue to scale it up from there. If not, we have to make decisions about whether we want to continue to invest in it. 

CT: Looking back at projects you've done, where have you experienced the greatest challenges?

Bowen: The deepest challenge has been in how a project gets introduced--to both students and faculty. Because the tool is new, we don't necessarily have a lot of things to draw on to help introduce it. When we implemented Hotseat [a tool that uses mobile tools to increase student engagement] for the first time, for example, the first two or three class periods weren't very successful, mainly because we didn't know how to describe it to students in a way that they could understand its value. For the fourth period, we changed the introduction based on what we had learned and it almost instantly resonated. Students got it--they understood what they were supposed to do with it. Sometimes it requires just a very simple explanation in order to secure buy-in.

CT: Have you found any general strategies that work to secure buy-in?

Bowen: We've identified a few things that are indicators of success. Typically, we partner with the best teachers--that's really who we're looking for. It doesn't mean they're early adopters--that's kind of a double-edged sword because everyone knows who the early adopters are. Lastly, we've learned not to prescribe how a new tool is used. The faculty will innovate on their own: They'll develop their own pedagogy, their own ideas around how to use it in class, and they'll do it in ways that we never imagined. That's really what begins to drive a tool.

CT: What level of support do you provide faculty at launch?

Bowen: Our preferred way is to work closely with them--in many cases, one on one--to figure out, "What is it you're trying to achieve, and what is happening inside the classroom?" We've even gone so far as to have developers sit in the classroom while something's being introduced. Again, it's very experimental, so we value any hint we can capture about why something's not working well--and the only way to capture those nuanced hints is often to be right there.

CT: Purdue has a long history of producing innovative new products. How does Purdue's approach differ from that of similar schools?

Bowen: We have been deliberate about taking a different approach. We have focused our efforts around entrepreneurial-style development centered on teaching, learning, and research. These are strategic--core to our institution--and ultimately they're going to help our students and faculty be most successful. And the other part of it is a willingness to fail, which helps show us how we can move forward.

Meet Kyle Bowen

Kyle Bowen is director of informatics at Purdue University (IN), where he leads a technology group focused on creating innovative tools for teaching and learning. He leads Purdue's Studio, a technology initiative that produces new learning tools for students both inside and outside the classroom. Bowen recently cofounded Skyepack, a technology startup that provides mobile platforms for delivering interactive learning. Bowen has coauthored and edited more than 20 books within the areas of web design, development, and usability. His work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, Time, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Campus Technology: It's interesting that you and Kyle Bowen are splitting a keynote that deals with the challenges of implementing change. Is a similar approach needed to tackle major initiatives on campus--different skill sets from different people?

Malcolm Brown: You're talking about a composite of skills that are necessary. It's no longer really sufficient just to ask a programmer to write the code and that's the end of the story. You need not only a composite of skill sets--which poses its own challenges in meshing them together--but, as circumstances change, you need to form new teams, think about new approaches, and try to really identify the significant opportunities. You have this array of possibilities before you: Which ones are most relevant, which ones should you be thinking about, and how do you make those selections?

CT: So how do you validate the need for a particular change, and how do you prioritize what challenges are tackled first?

Brown: Well, there should be numerous inputs. Online learning, for example, is really the hot point right now, and there are lots of opportunities. Most schools are revisiting earlier decisions about how they're conducting online learning and are reevaluating what they should be doing. Making those decisions requires numerous inputs. On top of that, technology is always changing and shifting. In this age of bring your own device, nothing is the same for very long. In terms of deciding which opportunities to pursue, you bring in some rubrics--ways to determine whether it makes sense, for example, to move from a pilot phase into something more oriented toward production.

CT: Securing faculty buy-in is always a difficult challenge. During a major initiative, when should that buy-in occur and how do you go about securing it?

Brown: I'm a fan of a book called Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers [Free Press; 2003]. He cites five criteria that determine whether the adoption of an innovation will accelerate or de-accelerate. One of them is what he calls relative advantage. If I offer you a new type of toaster, for example, you might ask, "Does it work better than what I have now?" My answer to you is the relative advantage. If it's meaningful to you, the likelihood of you adopting the toaster is going to be greater. Other criteria include ease of use, trialability (Can I try it out?), and observability (Can I hear about other people's experiences, much like the reviews on Amazon?). These concepts from Rogers are a good way to start thinking about how to get buy-in.

CT: Is the ability of schools to implement change--get the necessary buy-in--improving?

Brown: I don't know if I would approach the question by asking, "Are people getting it better?" Certainly, everyone is getting used to the idea of change and relatively rapid change. Five years ago, when presented with a new idea, a faculty member might have said, "This is too much, just go away." But nowadays faculty and others are saying, "Well, I understand that things are changing, therefore I'll take a look at it." And in this era of bring your own device--of being able to put together custom environments for yourself and your students--I think this notion of adopting new things is more in the air. There's less friction than in the past.

CT: Do you think some of this willingness to adopt new technologies and approaches might be linked to existential angst on the part of faculty?

Brown: I think so. But I think the people who are experiencing the most angst these days tend to be senior leadership--not only in institutions of higher education but also among providers such as LMS vendors. This is a set of people who typically are insulated from this type of thing. But, with these changes, they now might be saying, "What's the future of my institution? If I have a second- or third-tier institution, [is there a risk] students are going to go to Coursera and get instruction from professors at elite universities instead?"

CT: As colleges start to look at the impact of MOOCs and other educational models, how do you advise administrators to move forward?

Brown: What is critical is that schools do something. When you're scared about your future, it's a natural tendency to be like a deer in the headlights. Now's the time to actually get your feet wet and start doing the experimentation. We're already beginning to see the variants coming out of the MOOC space--consider what's happening at San Jose State [CA] and other schools that are repurposing MOOC materials. There's all sorts of things going on. And this maps right directly into what Kyle and I are going to be talking about: You need to go out, you need to try things, you need to get some experience, you need to find that the water's not too cold and that you're not going to freeze to death if you plunge in. But you also need to be mindful about how you evaluate. You must do the analysis and research, so you can make better-informed decisions going forward.

CT: In talking about innovation, Kyle Bowen espouses the idea of failing fast. Is this an approach you also embrace?

Brown: Yes, it's certainly important. Keep in mind that if a venture capitalist succeeds with one in 20 investments or something like that, it's a pretty good batting average. There's always lots of failure around innovation. These days, you can't necessarily do this ponderous project, take a year to write the evaluation report, and then decide what to do next. I also think that the process of innovating itself--regardless of whether the project ultimately goes forward--provides the whole organization with learning opportunities that serve it as it goes forward. We're seeing this with MOOCs now.

Meet Malcolm Brown

Malcolm Brown has been director of the Educause Learning Initiative since 2009 and has initiated major ELI undertakings including its Seeking Evidence of Impact program. Prior to assuming the ELI directorship, he served as director of academic computing at Dartmouth College (NH). He has been a member of the Educause Evolving Technologies Committee and is currently on the faculty of the Educause Learning Technology Leadership Program. Brown has sat on the board for the Horizon Report since its inception in 2004 and served as chair of the board of the New Media Consortium. He served as editor of the New Horizons column for the Educause Review.

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