Faculty and web technology: an exploration

I keep hearing the wrong questions. Questions like “how do we get faculty to use technology?” Faculty, of course, use technology all the time, but that doesn’t mean they use computers or the internet for teaching.

The wrong answers then follow the wrong question. Faculty don’t know how to do it, so they need training. Or they are Luddites, and don’t like “technology”, so we’d better require that training. Or they are just lazy, so we need to force them to use what we spent so much money buying (c’mon everybody, all classes must be in Blackboard!).

Another wrong answer is provided by faculty themselves: “I don’t have time”. We all know that time is made, not found. We have time for things that are important to us. (My favorite joke about this is from Gardner Campbell’s No Digital Facelifts presentation from 2009, where he says for people who are into this stuff it’s like “day after day, I have a bag of gold, would you like a bag of gold? And people say, ‘Where do you find time for bags of gold? Oh, no, another currency to master!’)

So let’s try a better question: “why do faculty seem to think that web technology is not important to what they do?”

I propose that the basic use of any technology is to solve a problem. I was taught this years ago by one of my mentors, David Megill (he blogs here), who was always asking what problem the technology we were discussing was trying to solve. So do faculty think they don’t have problems? Hah! Faculty know they have problems — just listen in on any hallway conversation.

But some don’t see any connection between their problems and web technologies. Their primary concerns are often those of teaching and learning, such as student lack of preparedness, misunderstanding of a test question that throws off the whole exam, depth of grading and feedback being greeted with student apathy — these problems don’t seem to have technological solutions at all.

Faculty have instead been drawn mostly to the technologies that help them manage the non-pedagogical problems: keeping track of grades and enrollment (see, among many others, Mott and Wiley, Open for Learning: The CMS and the Open Learning Network (2009) . I know very few faculty who keep a paper gradebook anymore; most at least do an Excel spreadsheet. They use the technology because it does the math for them. Those who are not enchanted with gadgets tend to be interested in those technologies that will do some heavy lifting, leaving them free to do what they care about most — teach.

I don’t think we should spend any time arguing with that. The new questions, then, should sound like this: what teaching problems can be solved with the new tools? would those solutions be good enough to make it worthwhile to invest some time learning the tools?

I have heard arguments both for and against the “pedagogy first” approach. The tools themselves can be inspiring, so it can be argued that if we were all playing around with multiple tools online, we’d see how they could be useful in our work. But the tools most people use (Amazon and Facebook) would not immediately be seen as useful to teaching. Shopping seems irrelevant to the task (learning by shopping cart?), and social networking seems to impact only one teaching area: direct communication with students. If you don’t have a problem with that (students come to office hours, speak up in class, and email you), why bother?

Instructional technologists, technology trainers, and techno-utopians, faced with faculty disregard for what they call simply (and incorrectly) “technology”, get frustrated and start acting like drug pushers. Often the institution creates a technology plan, complete with massive investment in capital improvements and human resources. People with little experience “in the classroom” decide on enterprise-level technologies for all, and are horrified that the systems in which they invested so much money are underutilized. All those servers, and everyone’s just doing email.

For faculty, the conversation must start in the classroom, with our own practice and pedagogical challenges. Perhaps the vocabulary should talk about “resources” rather than “tools”, because that’s the traditional language. A first focus should be on organizing and collecting those resources, as we do with printed matter, such as documents or lab books.

What if we set up a beginners method, and say that we’ll show faculty:
1. how to make good resources available to themselves and their students
2. how to collect and organize these resources
3. how to annotate, edit, adapt and collaborate around these resources, and
4. how to transfer their methods for discussing these ideas to an environment where everyone can work from wherever they are

What would the questions and answers look like if we did that?

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