Having worked in Ed Tech for almost 20 years, there is one thing that keeps coming up on an almost daily basis, a fundamental challenge in the way EdTech is approached and managed, and the philosophy of what technology means in higher education.
When we look to the history of modern technology use in the classroom, and online, we cannot separate the role that an IT department plays in shaping it. When networks and computers started to be used, there needed to be competent staff to manage these. Thus was born the IT department, and by extension the Help Desk. The professionals who worked here were in place to ensure the consistent operation of IT infrastructure, updating computers, servers and network hardware and software to ensure they worked as close to 100% as possible.
Maximum uptime: This is the priority of IT departments.
When we look to the history of modern technology use in the classroom and online, we can examine the teachers and students. Teachers, just as with any technology explore and innovate. Using new technologies for their intended purposes, or for other purposes entirely. Second Life for online communities, Smart Phone GPS location for attendance, and LMS for alumni outreach are all examples of innovation in teaching and learning that flies in the face of intended use.
Almost everything a teacher does in the classroom, including myself, has to go through live testing. We try it out and see if it works. Whether it’s a new teaching strategy, classroom activity, integration of technology or even new subject content, we just try it because the success of what we do requires refinement and feedback from other people — our students.
Teaching and Learning requires innovation through new attempts, revisions, remixes, failures and revisions on a daily basis: This is the priority of Teachers.
Different Life Paths
When we think about technology use in education today, the marriage of Educational Technology and Information Technology plays a very important role and this relationship looks very different at different institutions.
It’s important to recognize that the priorities of IT and EdTech are fundamentally different, and if one party tries to instill their priorities in another, this is can present challenges.
Imagine if you will, a teacher who has little experience setting up a network choosing how to set one up, buying hardware, installing routers and switches, installing Linux onto a server, with multiple SSDs in the same rack-mounted server. I think it’s safe to say that it would not go well.
In many higher education workplaces the exact scenario plays out on a daily basis, except the roles are reversed. Staff who have never set foot in a classroom as a teacher, or have never taught online, are making decisions that impact Teachers, who are in these environments every day. They buy hardware and software, place it, install it, support it and maintain it. I think it’s safe to say that this is not going well.
When the priority of an IT department is to ensure 100% uptime, this is in direct conflict with teaching staff, who on a daily basis improvise, attempt new strategies, remix, revise, fail and hone their craft through this process.
As EdTech professionals find frustration in this unhappy marriage, so too do IT professionals. The tendency to give an IT department oversight over ALL technology on campus is simply a vestige of the initial implementation of computers and networking in education when considerations of usability and accessibility were not as prominent as they are today.
This is not to say that IT Departments are evil, just that they are tasked with a very difficult job, one that many professionals in the area are not trained for, which is to make pedagogical judgements about the technology they are working with.
So what is the solution to this problem? Ideally, the marriage should end, and IT and EdTech should be really good friends once it’s over. This new relationship is predicated on the increase of EdTech Professionals who are both instructional designers and instructional technologists, who have a good pedagogical understanding of tools, what they are, and how they work.
In a previous marriage a long time ago, IT was married to A/V (Audio/Visual) and in many institutions the break was clean and they get along. Staff who install projectors in classrooms and microphones in lecture halls are usually free to operate and make their own decisions, but this is unfortunately not the case for EdTech in general, when the decision making involved in classroom and online technologies is involved.
IT Departments of the future no longer need to make decisions for teachers and learners because for many years there has been other staff in place who have specialized expertise regarding technologies that support teaching and learning. It’s these people, the instructional designers and technologists who should play the primary role in decision-making for technologies involving teaching and learning. Of course, IT Professionals will still need to be consulted, because their specialized expertise is the infrastructure and capabilities at the institution, but the choice of tool should ultimately be made by those with pedagogical expertise.
- IT Departments should move in the direction of supporting operations broadly, including any technologies required to run the institution. This includes computer hardware, maintenance and repair, general software, and network infrastructure.
- EdTech Professionals should form a separate (but linked) department that encompasses everything from instructional design, educational technology, training and support. Banded together, these individuals will have a unique understand of how technology is being used and how teachers and learners want to use it.
This new family dynamic requires a shift in priorities.
- It means that IT Departments will begin to support the needs of teaching and learning more so than they currently do, and defer judgement for technology choices to those with pedagogical expertise.
- It means EdTech Professionals will need to take a larger leadership role when it comes to decision-making for teaching and learning-related tools.
- It means that support will need to be delineated between Institutional Operations (How do I connect to the Wifi? How do I print to X Printer? How do I install Word?) and Teaching and Learning (How do I upload a file to the LMS? How do I enroll students into my online class? How can I create a sense of community in an online space?)
Technology should be allowed to fail
There has been a philosophical discussion within teaching and learning for a few years now that discusses the importance of failure and the iterative process we go through to become experts or masters in any given field. Without failure, without recognizing the understanding that failure and without trying again and refining our practice, we can never grow, and the same is true for EdTech. To make something work well, it has to go through iterations and refinements.
When we think about Technologies that support institutional operations, this is not the case. These technologies should work perfectly out of the box, so staff can send an email or access an online resource. But in the classroom, doesn’t have to work perfectly the first time, because the students dictate its success. When you’re teaching online and want to try a new tool, it’s the technology itself and the students that dictate its success.
The point is that teachers should have to be free to try new tools, knowing full well the technology might completely backfire on them, may not work at all, or may break things that already work both technically and pedagogically. It’s this freedom to try new things that defines the practice of Teaching and when 100% Uptime is the priority over this, it makes sense why many face to face and online classes feel a bit stagnated.
Imagine a world where we, as teachers, were able to add plugins and new functionality to our online classes at will, to bring new technologies to our classes and just plug them in and try them, and to have pedagogical support for all this stuff without having to file a single online ticket.
This brave new world requires letting go of a model that has existed for nearly 40 years, to revise it, to reshape it and to make room for other experts who share the same goals, but just have different priorities.