Mar 07 2017

Embrace the Unexpected: New Tools Transform Teaching and Learning

Effective partnerships can help faculty integrate technology solutions into the classroom.

I recently read a column giving tips to instructional designers seeking to partner more effectively with faculty who are reluctant to embrace educational technology. This notion — that “faculty resistance” is so pervasive that instructional designers would benefit from advice on how to overcome it — speaks volumes about this relationship. Faculty and technical staff have great potential for collaboration, but there’s a decent chance that friction may occur instead.

Bridging this gap may require more than simply teaching faculty to use new tools. For some instructors, adopting significant changes to the teaching profession requires a deep shift in thinking and in culture. It’s worth understanding where faculty may be coming from. It’s also worth remembering that everyone on campus has the same objective: giving students the best education possible and preparing them for rewarding futures.

The 2016 “Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology” from online media company Inside Higher Ed uncovered some interesting disparities in the attitudes of faculty and technology administrators toward the effectiveness of educational technology. For example, faculty are less likely to believe online courses are as effective as in-person instruction. When faculty do teach online, however, many say the experience gives them new skills they can use in face-to-face classrooms, such as thinking more critically about engaging content and making better use of learning management systems. This finding suggests that exposure to new methods can shift educators’ attitudes.

Understand the Dynamics of Changing Technology

That finding is important, yet not surprising. According to the old adage, familiarity breeds contempt, but the reverse is often true. For many of us, resistance to change is reflexive, and it’s only when we grow accustomed to something new that we finally accept it. To educators who began their careers 20 or 30 years ago, today’s classrooms might seem almost unrecognizable. Students wear virtual reality headsets to explore distant cultures, aspiring sculptors create art using 3D printers, and mobile devices deliver everything from video to digital textbooks. Even the trusty blackboard has been replaced, in many places, with whiteboards and digital displays.

In addition to learning to use new tools, faculty also must adjust to a new dynamic — one in which they may feel far less autonomous. Traditionally, instructors enjoyed a great deal of independence in managing their curricula. Now, many find themselves in partnership, voluntarily or not, with instructional technology experts. A sense of losing control, alongside the discomfort of feeling less like the “expert” and more like the “beginner,” can be challenging.

For professionals in IT and instructional technology, one way to ease this changing dynamic is to prioritize changes. Rather than overhaul an entire curriculum at once with a wave of technology, introduce changes slowly, giving faculty time to learn new methods. Reassure instructors that technology is an additional resource, not a wholesale replacement of their preferred teaching methods.

Work with IT to Create Conditions for Success

Hank Lucas, an IT professor at the University of Maryland and the author of Technology and the Disruption of Higher Education: Saving the American University, believes the impact of technology on higher education will be a function of how well faculty, administrators and students use it to enhance learning. He also suggests that traditional reward systems may impede faculty adoption of technology. As an example, he says, assistant faculty are so busy trying to fulfill the “publish or perish” mandate that they don’t have time to learn new tech. Yet by the time they attain tenure, faculty are expected to contribute service to the institution outside the classroom, which also leaves them short on time.

Within these realities, Lucas says, administrators must take the lead to incentivize faculty and, often, to advocate for tech-supported pedagogy. As Lucas writes, “They have to encourage adoption and organizational change in as many ways as possible: appointing associate deans for classroom innovation, investments in technology and instructional designers, and by rewarding those who step forward to participate.”

There are many ways to ease the transition from traditional pedagogical approaches to new strategies that blend the best of both worlds. Instructional designers, faculty and IT would all do well to strive for a blended approach, leveraging the deep expertise of faculty while also putting them in the best position to take full advantage of new resources.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.


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