Inside Instructional Technology

A study of our field.

June 17, 2013

Fritz Vandover, an Academic Information Associate for the Humanities at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN, recently finished his dissertation, Organizational Decision Making Related to Instructional Technology at Small Liberal Arts Colleges and Universities for his PhD program at the University of Minnesota.

I asked Fritz to share the main findings of his research, and to describe his academic career plans now that he is a newly minted PhD.

Question 1.  Give us the quick high points the findings in your dissertation?

First, the 13 participants from the seven liberal arts institutions I interviewed primarily preferred using open source instructional technology tools (such as Moodle) and free web-based tools that can be use as instructional technology tools (such as Google Apps for Education). Building home-grown tools is not preferred because it requires having staff with that expertise, and at a small institution, that prevents those individuals from interacting with faculty members and working on a variety of projects.

Two models for the organization of instructional technology staff members emerged; 1) the Expertise Model, in which each instructional technologist has deep expertise in one type of tool, such as GIS or video production, and 2) the Liaison Model, in which each instructional technologist is charged with supporting a defined group of faculty members, perhaps a grouping of departments.  And there is some tension between these two camps about which is more effective.

I found that resources became constrained when the subject of adding instructional technology staff was broached. Purchasing hardware or software was met with less resistance, if any.

The technological infrastructure (ie, the campus network) and the staff members who maintain it garnered high praise from the participants.

Instructional technology teams are largely left to their own means and methods to determine which technologies to explore and recommend.  Some teams used group consensus to do this, while others were given a charge by the CIO or director of instructional technology to explore a certain tool or type of technology.  Administrators and even faculty members had little to no role in directing what types of instructional technology tools would be implemented.

Learning assessment and evaluation of the efficacy of instructional technology tools are skill sets that instructional technologists often do not have, which was a concern to the participants.  The participants were also concerned that faculty members did not welcome them into the conversation about the impact of instructional technology on student learning.  In general, the participants largely felt that faculty excluded them from curricular discussions despite the instructional technologists having applied and theoretical knowledge of it and wanting to support the faculty members' efforts.

The participants showed an advanced awareness of the changing financial, academic preparedness, and technological fluency characteristics of incoming students, the eroding financial resources at their institutions and across higher education, the admissions uncertainty and fluctuation at their institutions, and the challenges to finding qualified personnel for instructional technology positions, among others.

Question 2.  Why did you decide to study the intersection of educational technology and organizational decision making?

I was in the field of educational technology before I was a doctoral student studying it, and I found it interesting that much of the research about educational technology focused on adoption of it by faculty members.  Faculty adoption of instructional technology is a very important topic to understand, but having been on the staff side of the field, I wanted to explore the decisions and influences upon instructional technology before faculty members begin that adoption process.  There is a lot that happens before that adoption process among faculty begins, and much of it has little to do with the educational technologies, in and of themselves.

Question 3.  What was your biggest surprise from your research? What would be the most important lessons that campus leadership should take away from your research?

I need to be careful here because I conducted my research at seven small liberal arts institutions, so my results are not generalizable to all of higher education, nor were they intended to be. That being said, I was surprised by how the participants characterized the resource environment (ie, the financial environment) with regards to instructional technology at their institutions. Most of them stated that they encountered few financial barriers when funds were sought for hardware or software.  However, the prospect of adding additional instructional technology staff was a non-starter.  I was anticipating that the participants would describe a more uniformly constrained financial environment.  I was also surprised at how fast the technology environment was changing underneath me as I wrote the document.  I initially wanted to focus on why institutions chose to build home-grown instructional technology tools when I wrote my prospectus in 2008.  That focus became too narrow as open source (such as Moodle) and free web-based (such as Google Apps for Education) platforms became important players in the market beyond 2008.  I was racing to finish the dissertation by the time MOOCs bubbled up on the scene in 2012 because I was worried that the whole foundation of my research would go stale!

To campus leaders, particularly at liberal arts institutions, I would urge them to talk to and support their instructional technology staff members, because these individuals are right in the middle of the bigger discussion about how to effectively utilize technology in the classroom along with faculty members.  We instructional technologists are doing everything we can to support the faculty members' efforts, usually with a mosaic of academic, technological, and pedagogical backgrounds.  For example, my bachelor's and master's degrees are in American History and I was also a web and multimedia developer.  Regardless of background, we instructional technologists have a passion for supporting that intersection between teaching and technology.

Question 4.  Is educational technology emerging as an academic discipline? Do we have a set of theoretical foundations, accepted methods, an insider language, and a defined community?

I would argue that the profession of educational technology is emerging and that the study of it is also emerging, while the study of educational technology itself is more developed. One of the reasons I wanted to focus my study on instructional technologists is because the profession interests me, just as studying the paths and lives of faculty members interests other higher education scholars.

There is certainly an insider language, some of it cobbled together from theories of student learning like Bloom's Taxonomy and Chickering and Gamson's Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, and some of it from common experiences at our institutions, such as when we discuss whether we have "the trust" with the faculty members with whom we work. There are many communities of instructional technologists, many of them forged from the inside. Those of us who make up the profession among liberal arts institutions have created our own communities, such as the Collaborative Liberal Arts Moodle Project CLAMP and ISIS.

Question 5.  What resources (online or offline) and conferences do you find most useful in keeping up with the research on academic technology and higher education organizational change?  

In additional to the CLAMP and ISIS groups I mentioned above, the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative offers a steady stream of useful research as well as webinars for academic technology research and professional development, which is perfect because I and my colleagues cannot all go to their annual conference.

Regarding higher education organizational change, I start my day by sifting through Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle, but it is important to cast a broad net for this subject because it is very present in the media these with all of the chatter surrounding MOOCs and the cost of higher education.  I try to tug any thread that emerges in my reading, so I might check out The Atlantic, The Economist, or even an institutional bond rating report from Barron's.  I suppose I should also put a plug in for Pocket as a resource, because it helps me capture the information I want to consume and synchronize it between my computer, phone, and iPad.  I will come clean and say that I cannot keep up with what I put in there, but it at least it is there for me to try and keep up with!

Question 6.  What are your job plans going forward?  

I plan to stay at Macalester College.  I have great colleagues in the IT department, the faculty members with whom I work are fantastic, and I want to keep exploring the many excellent opportunities that are unfurling here.  For example, I work with faculty members in several of our humanities departments, and I want to continue supporting their exploration of the digital humanities in their teaching and scholarship.  Also, the College is just beginning to explore the off-campus, online education sphere this summer through a calculus class being co-taught by one of our faculty members and a a faculty member at St. Olaf College.  So, there's a lot going on here at Macalester in the realm of educational technology, and I get to be right in the middle of it.

I also plan to continue conducting research on instructional technology, hopefully with like-minded colleagues who would like to collaborate on the subject.  I would really like to take some of the findings from my research and test them on a broader set of participants and institutions.  I am also particularly interested in the factors that support or complicate the interactions between faculty members and instructional technologists.


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