IT Management

6 Ways to Bridge the Gap Between Faculty and IT

Finding your own "unicorn" and other ways to create healthier relationships between academia and the IT department.

The relationship between academia and technology is notoriously complicated. Faculty often view IT staffers as gadget-mongers eager to roll out new tech regardless of its value to teaching and learning, while technology specialists are certain they could make life easier for those on the other side — if they'd only listen!

"We're talking a similar language," said Rovy Branon, vice provost for educational outreach at the University of Washington, "but sometimes we're talking past each other."

In some cases, people with conflicting goals and world views manage to coexist peacefully. However, as technology permeates society and becomes more accessible to more individuals, as Big Data, massive amounts of information, becomes available to researchers — largely because of the advent of advanced technologies — the need for professors, researchers and IT professionals to work together becomes more urgent.

Many of the problems the two camps have in working together are rooted less in any unique characteristics associated with academia or technology, but derive simply from the fact that human beings, with all their foibles, are involved. Indeed, professors and researchers often are as stressed about their workloads as anybody and don't always see the value of investing time in learning a new technology, even if they're told it could make life easier for them.

"Faculty members are busy," said Paul Kim, chief technology officer at the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. "They are pressured to produce a lot. It's difficult for them to spend a lot of time learning something new."

Complicating matters is another very human problem: poor communication skills. Users of technology everywhere often find it hard to explain what they want and technology providers can't always read people's minds. There is also the tendency to worry that the use — or non-use — of new technology may threaten one's job security.

"People ask themselves, 'Does this eliminate my job?'" Branon noted, "or change my job to the extent that it's not what I signed up for?"

Finally, there is often just a clash of priorities.

"On the academic side, the priority is teaching and delivering learning experiences," said Andrew Feldstein, associate vice president of the Learning Technologies group at Fort Hays State University (KS). "On the technology side, there are infrastructure issues that have to be taken into account. What's expedient for the academic side may not be expedient for the technology side and vice versa."

But there are workarounds and strategies — and sometimes just tricks — that colleges and universities have found to make the interaction between the academic and technology worlds more comfortable. Here are six suggestions from faculty and IT professionals who have worked to resolve the dilemma.

1) Educate the IT Side

Before Branon took his current position at Washington, he had experience as both a faculty member and a technology professional. He'd also worked in business. He said the academia-IT gap is not always caused by intractable faculty and, if IT were able to understand a bit more about the larger goals of the university, it might be easier to offer and explain what it can provide.

"I'm increasingly saying to IT that it has to not just present solutions, but to understand the business of what we do and not just say, 'Here's the solution,'" Branon said.

2) Appoint an Official Go-Between

That's what Fort Hays did when it hired Feldstein late last year, with the specific charge to help academics and IT understand each side's needs and priorities a bit better. "The Learning Technologies group is where learning and technology intersect," he noted.

Of course, somebody with the skills to talk to both sides is not always easy to find. "They're the academic version of the unicorn," Branon suggested.

He pointed out that the business world has the same challenges and when a person comes along who can represent the interests of both sides at once, it's often at their professional peril.

"People get trapped into that role because somebody else doesn't want to lose their translator," Branon said.

So sometimes you have to find informal "translators."

3) Use Your Own Homegrown Talent

Certainly, nobody trains to become a professional translator between academia and IT, but that doesn't mean the role is impossible to fill. Oftentimes, it will be a faculty member who seems to have a natural proclivity for technology that others may not share. It's just a question of identifying the right individuals.

Maybe they come to the technology presentations that the IT department holds and wishes were better attended. Maybe they are frequent winners of awards for innovative uses of technology in learning. Maybe you even need to initiate that kind of awards program at your institution if it doesn't already exist.

"When you see some of those same faces popping up, that's where you might find your unicorns," Branon said.

4) Recognize Those Who Are Reaching Out to the Other Side

Kim even jokingly called it a "form of pressure." His department publishes a regular newsletter in which it holds up as examples certain faculty members who do outstanding things with technology.

"We write about Professor XYZ who did this or figured that out," he suggested. "The hope is that others will read it and think, 'Oh, if I don't do this, I'm going to be left behind.'"

5) Employ Students in the Effort

Kim also pointed out that often students are professors' primary link to the outside world and can communicate with them in a way the IT professional can't. At Stanford, he directs much of his outreach efforts to teaching assistants who are often "digital natives" anyway and already have good rapport with their instructors.

"Leverage the students," Kim suggested. "Since they interact with faculty more than you, it's always good to use them."

6) Talk About the Problem

As a last resort, tackle the issue head-on with a frank conversation. But, "Take a step back when it gets to finger-pointing," Branon suggested.

As is the case with every human interaction, there will be disagreements and occasional miscommunication that must be worked through. However, when it reaches the point where either side is using terms like "never" or "always," it's time to sit down at a table and patiently hash issues out.

"Both sides have to work at it too," he said. "You may be doing brilliant work in the server room, but you are going to have to reach out across the business. And on the teaching side, sometimes you have to say that you are willing to find ways to do things differently."

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