4 Ways My Alt-Ac Interests Have Changed

Sociology -> Technology -> Learning -> Organizations -> Organizational Change

May 25, 2016

How have your professional interests evolved over your career?

What are the factors that have driven your change in focus?

Can you enumerate the challenges, and benefits, to your professional life as your focus has shifted?

In looking back on my ~20 year career in higher education, and my 7 year tenure of writing for this space, I’d say that my interests have changed in the following 4 ways:

1 - Sociology To Technology:

My transition from a “normal” academic to an alt-academic came fairly early - and was the result of 3 factors.

First, in teaching sociology courses I started to become more interested in the technologies that I could introduce into my classes (first residential, than online), than in the discipline that I was teaching.  This was the beginning of the use of the web for teaching (1995 to 1998), and the possibilities seemed limitless.

Second, my shift from pursuing a tenure-track academic career to an alt-ac track coincided with the first dot-com bubble.  There was incredible opportunity and action back then in the liminal space between learning and technology (much as today) - so options for pursuing this passion were wide open.

Third - and I think this is true of many alt-ac people - pursuing a nontraditional academic career made more sense with my family.  The world of online learning allowed me to always live in the same city as my wife, and to follow her through her training.  Many alt-acs are, like me, trailing spouses.

2 - Technology To Learning:

I didn’t learn anything about learning until I was part of a team that started an online program.  Everything that I know about learning theory and instructional design was taught to me by colleagues who went to graduate school to learn about learning theory and instructional design.  Throughout my graduate training I learned nothing about how people learn.

Developing (and teaching in) online programs is the best opportunity to learn about learning.  Online learning programs have been the most consequential faculty development programs of the past two decades.

Like most converts to learning theory, I became (and remain) a true believer.  Technology is always interesting - in the sense that technology is really a code word for change.  People impatient with the status quo tend to gravitate towards technology.

The evolution from a technologist to a learning person involves accepting the idea that technology is never the goal, only the means.  The more you think about how to encourage learning, the more you become skeptical about the claims (and the values) of the technological disrupters.

3 - Learning To Higher Ed Organizations:

At some point, I became less interested in reading the literature on learning - and more interested in figuring out the history, economics, culture, and structure of the postsecondary industry.

Getting one’s head around the world of higher education is a tall order.  There is no single system of higher education.  Higher education is defined more by its variability than its consistency.  We can look for common themes, trends, and forces that impact individual colleges and universities - but how these forces play out for individual schools (or systems) is highly context dependent.

Even after years as an active and enthusiastic student of higher education, I still feel like a postsecondary novice.  My understanding of the world of private liberal arts institutions is fairly strong - but I know far less about the world of community colleges and other public institutions than I would like.

4 - Higher Ed Organizations To Higher Ed Organizational Change:

Getting a handle on the world of higher ed catalyzed an interest in how higher ed changes.  Organizational change is, as you know, a discipline of its own.  There is an amazing amount of literature to read on the theory and practice of organizational change.

There is research that I’d like on the intersection of organizational change theory and postsecondary education, but moving into the world of Teaching and Learning Centers (TLCs) has certainly opened up a new community (and set of resources) on organizational development to access.

A fascination with postsecondary change has certainly aligned with my career development.  If you work on digital learning initiatives, than your job is really about organizational change.

Each day, I wonder about how digital learning initiatives - including online (traditional and open) and blended learning programs - can bring more resources and support to educators.

Each day I think about how we can leverage technology to assist and aid faculty.  How we can avoid the siren song of efficiency and scale as we seek to appropriately utilize technology to improve quality and access.

Will an intensive, relationship-centric (educator and learn), and broad liberal arts education be reserved for only the most fortunate?

Can we figure out how to activate technology to both evolve a liberal arts education, while simultaneously broadening access to a liberal arts degree?

What role will technology play in evolving and extending the liberal arts?

Will people with a background and expertise in educational technology play a role in leading postsecondary organizational change?

How is it possible to move from a technology person to a learning person to an organizational leadership person?

Where is the conversation situated that brings in strands of higher education change, learning, and technology?

How have your professional interests evolved over your career - and how has this evolution impacted the communities of practices in which you participate?



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