3 Things That John Warner Might Find If He Writes His EdTech Book

Shared values, common paths, and skepticism.

September 4, 2014

"The other book is based on the writing I do here, when I question the influence and, dare I say, invasion of technology and algorithmic “thinking” in higher education.”

John Warner, from We Could All Use a Little Tenure (9/3/14).

The opportunity for John Warner to write his edtech book is one of the best arguments for tenure. 

As John says, if writing was part of his job (rather than extrinsic to what he is paid to do), then he would have more time to research and write.  

The fact that an educator and writer as gifted as John is structurally inhibited from undertaking the edtech book that he imagines is indicative of the scholarly challenges faced by those academics working outside the tenure system.  

MacArthur Genius Awards take note, give the award to John so he can write his edtech book.

John writes that if he were to undertake an edtech book that he.. "would need to seek out and interview people who know a lot more about this stuff than me. I would need to go observe some of the things I’m so skeptical about – algorithmic grading and advising, adaptive software, MOOCs, – and see how they work (or don’t) for those that use them”.

What might be some of the things that John would find out in his discussions with folks working at the intersection of learning and technology?

My guess is that he might be surprised by what he learns.  

I would wager that John would arrive at at least 3 (possibly surprising) conclusions:

Possible Surprising Conclusion #1 - Shared Values:

I think John may be surprised that at the level of shared values between those teaching in the humanities and those working in learning technology.  

What would be some of those shared values?  

The belief that learning happens best when an experienced educator is given the resources, time, and space to build meaningful teaching relationships with students.  

That learning can never be reduced to a quantifiable metric; just as any efforts to proscribe uniform teaching methodologies and practices are bound to fail.  

That the development of critical thinking and reasoning skills are the most important aspects of a postsecondary education. The ability to synthesize and evaluate information.  To communicate effectively.  To think and to write critically and persuasively.  To question their own values and assumptions.  To make arguments with evidence.   

Educational technology professionals, at least the folks that I know, hold values that are very much aligned with a model of teaching and learning deeply rooted in the liberal arts tradition.  

We happen to believe that technology can be one tool, one bridge, to help faculty reach their teaching goals.  

If every class could be a small seminar then by all means, throw out every single bit of technology.  

Until that happens (and it is a goal that we fight for), we think that learning technologies can help faculty design larger enrollment classes that feel like smaller enrollment classes.  

That blended learning techniques can free up classroom time, (in classes where it is appropriate to move some didactic material outside of the face-to-face classroom), enabling more discussion and collaboration.  That it is possible to create online classes that enable geographically dispersed learner’s to have the intimate seminar experience.  

Possible Surprising Conclusion #2 - Common Paths:

A second area will be how many edtech people that he will meet will have their roots in teaching.  

People who end up in higher ed tech gigs seldom have linear career paths.  

Many will have begun their careers thinking that they wanted be traditional academics, only to decide for various reasons not to pursue a tenure-track position.  

Working in instructional design or academic technology has been a terrific option for those who see themselves as academics and educators, but are not a good fit (for many reasons) for a tenure track position.  

A surprising number of academic technology professionals have teaching backgrounds.  Many have taught, and continue to teach, at the college level.  We understand the stresses and challenges of the adjunct and non-permanent instructor existence, and I think that we go out of our way to provide as much as possible in the way of resources and attention to our fellow non-tenure track academics.  Many alt-ac technology folks continue to teach and research in the disciplines that they initially trained.

Possible Surprising Conclusion #3 - Skepticism:

The final area that John may realize that he has more in common with the edtech world than he thinks is skepticism.  

It was not the edtech community that hyped MOOCs as the answer to all the problems faced by higher education.  

It is not the edtech community that believes that online learning is any cheaper or easier than face-to-face teaching.  

We understand that people are the key ingredient in learning.  

That no technology can ever replace dedicated educators, and that at best technology can assist in whatever goals teaching goals that the faculty bring.  

Don’t get us started on the failings of the learning platforms that we work with all day long.  

We know the strengths and weaknesses of these platforms all too well, as we have spent thousands upon thousands of hours trying to work with faculty to get the most out of our flawed platforms.  (And we are vocal in pushing for change).

None of these possible surprising conclusions for John’s edtech book research should be confused with an assertion that all is right in the edtech world.

We have plenty of problems.  

Our reality seldom lives up to our rhetoric. (The rhetoric above being no exception).

The edtech community has done too little to challenge the higher ed status quo.

Too little dollars are still spent on academic technology, too much on administrative computing.

We have done a poor job with assessment, largely failing to empirically test our theories and our interventions.  

We are not that great at communicating.  We often fall into the trap of talking too much and listening too little.  We are too much in love with our own solutions and have done too little to solve faculty pain points.

Mostly we have failed to make common cause with the colleagues who should be our staunchest partners; the faculty who care most about teaching and learning.

An educator and a writer such as John Warner, an outsider to our edtech guild, would be the perfect person to articulate our strengths and weaknesses.

To help us charter a better edtech path.

I hope that John finds a publisher to step up to this opportunity.  

In the meantime, let us know how we can be of any help.


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