Learning to Teach with Technology: Is it an Individual Activity?

A couple of days ago I met with a new cohort of VCU faculty members in the CTE’s Exploring Tablet PCs in the Classroom program. This is the third year the CTE is running the program, so there are a growing number of faculty members who are engaged with using tablets in their teaching. It is a small – grassroots program, and this year we have sixteen folks from a range of disciplines.  We will be meeting once a month during the academic year to explore software tools, share instructional uses, and discuss what seems to be working and not working. This represents a significant commitment on the part of faculty members in the program.

One of the things we attempt to do in the design of some professional development opportunities at the CTE is to build programs that sustain engagement over a longer period of time, in many cases a full academic year. Past experience has shown, as you might suspect, that interest ebbs and flows as faculty participate in these programs. There is the initial excitement of getting a new toy – in this case a tablet PC – and learning more about its functionality. Then comes the challenge of using it as a tool to support teaching and learning, and this needs to be balanced with other demands of working in the academy.  What often happens, is that we tend to use technologies in ways that reinforce our existing teaching practices. Technology integration gets translated essentially as “old wine in new bottles.” Innovative instructional uses of technology often mean that we must change our practice to do something new or different, something we would not be able to do without the technology. Changes in teaching practice tend to happen slowly over long periods of time…if at all.

At the beginning of the program I ask faculty members in a survey whether they think that learning to teach with a new technology is more of an individual or social activity. Responses vary a bit, but for the most part faculty members in this program have tended to hold the view that learning to teach with technology is an individual activity. The current cohort of faculty members is mostly split in their views, a change from previous groups. I’m not sure this really suggests anything, other than perhaps subtle preferences for learning in general.

At the same time, I think there is a dominant model of learning to teach with technology that is often implicit in the ways we talk about / promote technology, and in the default expectations for using technology in higher education that are rarely discussed. The message is: learning to teach with technology is a rather uncomplicated activity you do on your own, an isolated endeavor.

Maybe there is nothing wrong with this approach; it seems to work for innovators and early adopters who are often more inclined to play with technology on their own, and seem more comfortable with the inherent risks . However, I have questions about whether largely individual efforts can work for the majority. There seems to be too much time and risk taking involved for solo efforts to result in broad-based adoption.

I continue to think about ways to engage higher education faculty more generally in the use of technology to support teaching and learning. How do we get beyond the low-hanging fruit of working with early adopters? To what extent is the individual learning model a dominant one in higher education? Is a more socially engaged and collaborative approach to learning to teach with technology desirable? If so, why, and how might such an approach be promoted and supported? I’d be curious to hear other experiences and perspectives, as well as thoughts about whether the individual v. social learning view I’ve presented is a false dichotomy.

In any event, during the orientation meeting of the tablet PC program, faculty began to explore the use of their tablets as I provided an initial tour of the hardware and software tools that support digital inking. It was encouraging to see them working together, helping one another and sharing their views about what was interesting and how they hoped to use the tablet in their teaching. I find this kind of work and learning – energizing. I think it builds networks of support and collegiality that do not seem to be a part of the silo systems that define much of higher education. My hope is that the faculty in the program will find collaborative learning valuable, and contribute to some shared understandings about what it means to learn to teach with technology.

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Twitterpated…well, maybe.

I guess I’ll throw my hat into the already overfull ring of people who scratched their heads for months wondering about the value and function of Twitter, and then somehow took the leap to engage in the Twitterverse. Seems like a rite of passage, or perhaps a rite of absolution.

What is Twitter? Do you get it? Why would anyone want to use it? How do you use it? What are the applications in the classroom? These questions ran through my head for nearly a full year, until recently, I – like many others have recounted – took the Twitterplunge. I’ll try to provide a little insight into what finally kicked to put me over the edge.

The first time I encountered Twitter was nearly a year ago at the University of Mary Washington’s 2007 Faculty Academy – a wonderful event put on by the UMW folks at DoIT. At this conference I had the pleasure of seeing Alan Levine talk about Twitter and share some uses as well as his own head scratching journey to take the Twitterplunge…it seems everyone has that story. There was also a TwitterCamp set up for folks attending the UMW event where participants could tweet at each other and engage in some exchange…I watched in confusion. I continued to lurk – inconsistently – at the fringe of Twitter for several months…uncertain and already overwhelmed with more information streams than I could manage. Why did I need this…? I couldn’t answer the question…it continued to stew on the wayback burner.

The second significant encounter I had with Twitter was at the recent 2008 ELI Annual Conference, where Twitter was again featured prominently. The ELI folk had set up a TwitterCamp that could be “followed” by any participants, as well as others not attending the conference. Twitter became a medium of exchange – in the moment – that allowed people to comment and share thoughts on what they were experiencing and thinking about in sessions during the conference. This got my attention. There was an entire stream of ideas flowing among participants that was visible, informative and most importantly…generative. It was a valuable back channel of information and it was here I think I turned the corner on Twitter. I began to “follow” people on Twitter who I saw at the conference, and slowly over time began and continue to build a network.

So what makes it worthwhile for me? Right now there are a few things:

1) I have come to see Twitter as a piece of a much larger conversation. Blogs, YouTube, podcasts…these are all part of a conversation I am attempting to participate in, and Twitter is an interesting complement.

2) Twitter somehow seems to let me learn and get to know a little bit more about the folks I follow. It builds a sense of connection, and for me represents a bit of community building.

3) The network you build on Twitter becomes a resource to support learning and exchange.

4) It allows me to stay loosely connected to folks that I have a relationship with that I might not get to talk or communicate with as much as I’d like.

Yet Twitter still represents a very real challenge for me.

I am valuing the participation as a learning support and a process for connection. However, I’m still thinking that the adoption curve on this one is pretty wacky. Every faculty member I have introduced to Twitter, albeit casually and with hesitation, has rolled their eyes. “Twitter, cute! What do I need that time sucker for?” Perhaps they sense my own uncertainty. No matter how you slice it though, arrival at valuing participation in a networked community is something that takes time and belief that it will be a resource that can pay learning dividends in the future. Part of the challenge – seems to me – lies in creating a context or need where participation in the network becomes a necessity. Are we there yet?

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Instructional Technology – Does it Really Matter?

The conversation that continues to be carried forward by Martha Burtis and Laura Blankenship surrounding their recent Fear 2.0 preso at ELI, has encouraged me to reflect on similar thoughts and experiences I have been having recently. Many thanks to them and their co-presenters who put together a session that continues to send out important ripples for us to think about.

The questions about relevance and “does what I do really matter?” are perennial and shifting, especially when it comes to the notion of the role of the instructional technology[ist]. To be honest, I’m not even sure I can say what an instructional technologist is anymore, short of being a container that means lots of different things to lots of different people. But I don’t think that is the point of the conversation that is unfolding here…at least not for me.

I have been fascinated, as many folks have, over the last few years with the seemingly endless emergence of new web-based tools that permit new forms of social exchange, knowledge creation and sharing. It has been easy to share our excitement for the tools.

But, as others have echoed, its not the tools that really matter.

Over the past two years I have had the amazing good fortune to collaborate with a group of five colleagues in a faculty learning community (FLC) at the university where I work. The focus of the FLC has been to explore the ways technology might enhance teaching and learning. The early days of our work found us exploring several web 2.0 technologies – blogs, wikis, podcasting, screen recording, social bookmarking tools…you know the drill. Some of the faculty members attempted to integrate these into their courses and teaching practice. Interest would run high on the new tools from the popular buzz surrounding them, and I certainly felt excited because I had a group of faculty who seemed very interested in what I had to share. Excitement can be hard to sustain, and the glamour of shiny new tools wears off when you are not sure about learning impact, and if you are “doing the right thing.” As our first year wore on, I started to have doubts about the value of what we were all getting out of the FLC endeavor. They had learned about some new tools and experimented teaching with them. Perhaps there was greater support for risk taking through group membership, but I found myself asking questions about what had really changed?

Change is not always obvious, and it often happens in places we didn’t previously consider.

As facilitator of the group, I had hoped that the change would be in the committed adoption of these technologies, and that teaching and learning would begin to be transformed in the classrooms these faculty members taught in. I was wrong. I’m happy that I was.

I think what changed was that we began to respect each other more, to grow in a trusting collegial way that allowed us to feel a little less vulnerable about the uncertainty surrounding what we were trying to do – to be a little less isolated and a little more connected…and perhaps to be a little less fearful about not really knowing. This is the kind of dynamic that the environment of the academy might well benefit from having more of.

We are well into our second year of this FLC, and we haven’t spent any time learning about new tools. I think we have realized that it is not ultimately the focus. We have instead begun to tell our story about our learning and the change that is often slow and circling as we attempt to make sense of technology and practice.

The members of the FLC worked collaboratively to draft a paper describing the work of the FLC and our learning, and have submitted it for publication. In the Fall of 2007, we designed and conducted a survey study exploring student / faculty expectations for using technology, the first study of its kind ever conducted on our campus. Most recently, several members of the FLC attended and presented the early findings of our study at the 2008 ELI conference. Like many who attend this conference, we came away full of new ideas, and energized by the people who make ELI what it is. These activities have confirmed a sense of value for continuing our work in the FLC.

In a recent meeting of our group – post ELI – we excitedly discussed several opportunities for next steps. As a group, we are beginning to ask hard questions about the real impact of technology on learning. Individual FLC members want to examine their own practice as they attempt to use technology in their teaching. They are beginning to critique how technology is shaping their work in the academy. Arriving at the point where this line of inquiry becomes valued and important in the lives of faculty members takes time, patience, the development of trust, and endurance to get through the wondering if it is even worth it.

Engaging in collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship about the impact of technology on teaching and learning has served as an impetus for our group to start a larger conversation – one that has been missing on our own campus – about learning and the role technology should play in it.

So does the technology really matter? I’m not convinced yet, but what we do together in search of an answer certainly does…

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Technology innovation and the adoption dilemma

One of the things I have been paying more attention to recently is the extent to which much of the IT professional development we offer to faculty, primarily attracts the early adopters. This is both a blessing and a curse. It’s nice because we receive early confirmation that the ideas, tools and practices we are putting on the table are actually of interest to someone else…albeit the numbers of folks is usually rather small. It’s a curse, because it leaves us at a loss for taking the next steps to attract and engage the next wave of potential adopters…faculty who may be sitting on the fringe, interested but unsure about what the new technology or practice might offer them.

We tend not to think about this until the numbers of faculty showing up for a particular workshop dwindles to almost zero. Then we start scratching our heads, wondering why more folks don’t “see the light” that we see. Workshops often work well for the early adopters. As a group, they are easy to work with because they are already interested in learning and exploring, and come to the table with a strong dose of being self-directed when it comes to technology.

For those of us involved in faculty development, I think early workshop success can be misleading and can lead to a false sense of success, reinforcing the perceived need to run workshops and training sessions. Don’t get me wrong, workshops are a necessary evil. They serve an important function of providing initial introductions to new tools, act as conversation starters, and provide faculty with the important opportunity to network with colleagues. But these are largely hit-and-run events, and can’t sustain adoption of new practices on a larger scale.

At the same time, the world in which we live, teach and learn in is becoming increasingly complex. Change is rapid and the sheer amount of information generated is overwhelming. Early adopters of technology innovations – instructional technologists included – often pick this stuff up quickly and then move on to something else. The question becomes how we can sustain our enthusiasm and interest in a particularly useful technology while it takes time –sometimes several years -for the second wave and late adopters to also find it of value? Bill Buxton, a Principal Scientist at Microsoft Research and the author of Sketching User Experiences: Getting the Design Right and the Right Design, recently talked about the concept of the long nose of innovation. In this piece he describes how much innovation is often of low-amplitude and takes place over long periods of time, sometimes as much as 10 years.

I think this creates a bit of a practice dilemma for the instructional technologist working with faculty members interested in exploring technology to support learning. As we take the time to learn about the next emerging tool – Twitter, Ning, Facebook, blogs, podcasting wikis, etc. – we forget that the vast majority of faculty we encounter in our work will not likely adopt these tools for years, if at all! By the time the long nose of innovation runs its course, entire new chapters of internet history will have been written. From this perspective it seems that most technological innovations in education are limited to the early adopter, constraining potential change on a wider scale.

With the mad rush to the “next best thing” how can we pay more attention to and provide more support for the deliberate consideration of the instructional value of these tools to the folks who don’t see it the way early adopters see it? It takes more time. Change is slow. Workshops and online tutorials are not for everyone. The idea of “bringing it to scale” may not have a logical and linear progression, that includes a neatly designed workshop series, or community of practice, or whatever, that will bring along others to engage in similar practices.

Has the pace of innovation outstripped our capacity to exist simultaneously at multiple points on the adoption curve? Perhaps we need to slow down a bit ourselves, find a balance. A balance between engaged participation, deliberate reflection, and importantly a continuous and embedded critique of what we are exploring. I guess it’s that last part that seems to come late in the game…usually just before we head off exploring the next greatest tool that will change education and learning…forever.

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