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10 Dubious Claims About Technology and Learning
June 23, 2013 - 9:00pm

Following along the lines of Arthur M. Hauptman's excellent essay 10 Dubious Claims About Higher Ed Decline, I offer a similar list for technology and learning.

1) The quality of courses has remained more or less constant over the past decade. Untrue.

When I first started teaching in the late 1990s I was given the the days, times, and building and room number that my class would meet. Instructional technology was limited to PowerPoint. I had learned almost nothing about how to teach, or how people learn, in my PhD program. It was assumed that I would teach the way that I was taught. Not many people were talking about active learning, or questioning that there may be an alternative to the lecture and exam structure.  

Today, all that has changed. With the growth of Teaching and Learning Centers, the emergence of online and blended programs, and the hiring of instructional designers - our campuses have become laboratories for teaching and learning.  At every conference that I attend there is talk about initiatives, programs, and efforts to improve learning and reduce attrition. The effort to move residential courses to an online format was one area where a window was opened to examine how courses are constructed and supported. The move towards large scale course re-design using a blended learning approach, particularly in gateway courses with traditionally low completion rates, was another. MOOCs will prove another catalyst to examine teaching and learning. Today, large classes that feel like seminars are no longer a rarity. A whole generation of college educators are excited and energized by new possibilities in teaching and learning.  

2)  Campus investments on technology have been focused on equipment or software rather than teaching and learning. Misleading.

Yes, it is true that higher education has had to devote significant resources over the past decade or so on networking, server, and application infrastructure. Creating and maintaining a robust, stable and secure campus network is not cheap. Storage, processing, and server needs are always increasing. What is less understood is that higher ed is starting to follow other industries in moving towards a model of renting computing services, a SaaS (software as a service) model that will change how we think about academic IT.  This move started with e-mail and calendaring (think Google Apps for Education or Microsoft Office 365), and has started to move into the realm of the learning management system (LMS), media management, storage, and eventually student information systems (SIS). 

What is so important about this transition from a provider to a consumer of technology services is that these initiatives free up people and resources to move up the campus teaching, learning and research value chain. Technology folks are moving from server rooms to the classrooms, from provisioning and monitoring server applications to collaborating with faculty and librarians on flipped classrooms and blended learning.   

3) People who work in academic technology are primarily technologists. Untrue.

The people who work in academic technology are educators first, technologists second. We use technology as a lever, as a tool, to help our faculty colleagues reach their teaching and learning goals. We start with the educational objectives, and only then work to suggest and help implement appropriate technologies. Often these technologies may be no more sophisticated than a white board, or the re-arranging of desks in a classroom away from tiered seating to moveable tables.

4) Tenured faculty are not innovative in integrating technology into their teaching. Untrue.

Tenured faculty are, in my experience, the most willing to invest the time, resources and energy to re-design their courses to take advantage of new teaching options afforded by emerging technologies. Re-designing a course from scratch takes an enormous amount of time. Tenured faculty have the ability to devote the time to engage in creative course design and teaching.  

It is because I have collaborated with so many tenured faculty on innovative courses that I still see the value of the tenure system. The real problem with tenure is not once tenure is achieved, it is in the disincentives for spending time or taking risks on teaching along the tenure track that make the system so problematic.

5) Non-tenure track, part-time, adjunct and visiting faculty are less innovative in integrating technology into their teaching. Untrue.

Some of the best college teachers that I have ever collaborated with are those outside of the tenure track. Those who teach on an adjunct, part-time, or visiting basis are doing so largely because they love teaching. (It is certainly not for the money). They love their disciplines, and they want to share this passion in the classroom. The fastest and most effective method to improve the quality of higher ed teaching would be to give our adjunct and part-time faculty long-term contracts and pay them a professional salary. Want to leverage our campus investments in learning technology? Invest in our adjuncts, part-time, and visiting faculty.

6) The demand for new methods of teaching, such as flipped classrooms and blended learning, is coming from the students. Untrue.

The quiet revolution in postsecondary teaching, one driven by the growth of blended/online learning and new collaborations between faculty / learning designers / technologists / librarians, is not being driven by student demand. Students are, for the most part, perfectly happy with traditional lecture courses. They know what to expect from and how to navigate courses that put no more demands on them but to reflect back the knowledge transmitted from the front of the room.   

Any faculty member looking to transcend the limits of the large lecture format, say by introducing online elements and requiring more small group work and active learning, may (at least initially) face resistance from students. Any class built around a model of students co-creating knowledge with the faculty requires more work and time on everyone's part. I am hopeful that as students gain more experience with blended courses, and they understand that knowledge transmission can now be had for a price of zero via any online MOOC, that they will start to demand courses that demand more of them than listening to lectures and taking infrequent high-stakes exams. We would all be better off if students demanded more from us.

7) The learning management system (LMS) has been a negative force for student learning. Untrue.

Progressive educators and learning technologists love to complain about the LMS. The LMS is accused of sins ranging from disempowering personalized learning to bolstering an instructor-centric (rather than learning-centric) course paradigm. I do not dismiss any of these critiques, and in fact I think the push back on the LMS will help us evolve better learning platforms.

What the critique of the LMS largely misses, however, is that learning management platforms have allowed a generation of faculty to focus on teaching rather than spend their energy on any number of administrative tasks that were common before these platforms emerged. We forget the days when we spent a significant portion of time printing out and handing out documents, including the syllabus.  

The LMS, even when used with its most basic functionality, is a time saver for distributing class materials, collecting assignments, keeping track of grades, and providing an easy way to give quizzes and tests. Many argue that all these tasks can be done without the need for an LMS, via a web page and the use of existing free web 2.0 tools. This is all true, but writing HTML or integrating web 2.0 platforms is a skill not shared by every instructor. The LMS lowered the barrier for integrating technology with teaching, allowing many more faculty and courses to bring the advantages of the web-supported teaching to our students.
 
8)  Mobile learning on tablets or smart phones will displace learning done on laptops by 2020. Half true.

Yes, mobile learning will be ubiquitous by 2020.  No, smart phones and tablets will not replace laptops. Mobile learning technologies and platforms are complements, not substitutes, for the computer with the keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard, that 1878 invention, has proved more durable than almost any other aspect of communications technology over the past 135 years. We have learned to express our thoughts by typing. Physical typing remains superior to voice-to-text systems as re-writing (an essential element of writing) works much better with a keyboard. As more and more education migrates to blended and online formats we will see a growth, rather than a decline, of computers in higher ed.

Isn't it likely that the computer and the mobile device will merge? Think ever-thinner and lighter iPads with thinner and lighter keyboard attachments (or perhaps laser virtual keyboards). No doubt that our laptops will take on more attributes of the tablet (touch screens, longer battery life, less weight), and pure mobile devices will get more powerful. But there is a physical limit to how small technologies designed for creation can shrink. The keyboard needs to be big enough to fit our hands. For my money the 11-inch MacBook Air is about as small I'd want to go, and still retain a usable creation (read typing) device.  

9) People who work in academic technology do not understand the motivations or constraints of faculty. Untrue.

There is sometimes an idea amongst people who teach and research for a living that the technology folks are more interested in pushing out the "latest and greatest" technology than in helping faculty more effectively do their jobs. Every new update or change in learning platforms may be met with resistance, as these updates require new methods and time away from core missions of teaching and research.   

The truth is that any and every technology change that we roll-out is done with a high level of awareness of any pain points that this change may cause, and with a commitment to do everything possible to minimize any disruption. To put it simply, we feel your pain.  

Often the need to update technologies is driven by a requirement to stay reasonably current to continue to have our technology platforms stay reliable and robust.  Out-of-date hardware or software tools used for teaching or other campus administrative work may no longer be supported by the vendor. We need to strike a balance between consistency and staying current with our campus technologies, a balance that is often very hard to achieve.    

10)  Residential education and face-to-face learning will largely be replaced by online learning by 2020. Untrue.

Face-to-face teaching is not going away anytime soon. A personal and deep relationship between a teacher and a student is still the most effective way to learn. This sort of relationship between educator and learner can best be formed in a seminar or small section setting, where ideas and concepts are discussed and wrestled with in a supportive and nurturing environment.  

Online learning complements and adds to face-to-face learning, as the ability of online platforms to deliver information (and encourage learning via frequent low-stakes formative assessment), frees up more time for conversations between faculty and students.  

It is in these conversations, these less formal interactions, that the most authentic and long-lasting learning occurs.  And conversations are still best had face-to-face. 

What will be going away are face-to-face or residential classes that are not built on two-way communication and student / faculty collaboration. Courses that are primarily about information transfer can and should be done online.  

The future of higher education is blended learning. 

We will be gathering on campus to learn together, at least sometimes (and in perhaps different ways than we do today), for many years to come.

 

 

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