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Learning, Technology, and Faculty Time
September 2, 2014 - 9:00pm

Question: What would be the single most impactful investment we could make in improving student learning by leveraging technology?

Options:

A. Hire more instructional designers.
B. Invest in advanced digital learning platforms.
C. Develop institutional capabilities in learner-centric data analytics and assessment.
D. Free up faculty time.
E. None of the above - you supply an answer.

Which answer would you choose?  Why?

I’m leaning towards answer D:  “Free up faculty time”.

Why?  Because any efforts to improve learning by leveraging technology that does not put educators at the center of the discussion will be both impoverished and doomed to fail.  

If you believe that authentic learning depends on the development of a relationship between an educator and a learner (as I do), then you will start at finding ways to invest in that relationship.  

If every single class could be a small in-person seminar then I’d vote for throwing out most of the technology.  

Yes, even a small face-to-face seminar can benefit from the judicious use of some technologies. (For instance, I will read many more books if I can have them on e-book and audio). But technology in the small face-to-face seminar will only be of marginal assistance.  

The promise of learning technology is to help make large enrollment classes feel like small enrollment classes, and to enable geographically dispersed students to act and feel like face-to-face residential learners.

In order to reach our goals for leveraging technology, goals which I think involve finding ways for as many students to receive a seminar-like experience at all points in their educational career (and please argue the point), we will need to invest in a number of institutional capabilities. Yes to more instructional designers. Yes to more advanced digital learning platforms.  Yes to an ability to use evidence (in the form of the data made available as more teaching migrates to digital platforms), to improve instructional capacities.

But all these investments will be for naught if faculty don’t have time to take advantage of these new resources.  

Faculty need time to absorb the highlights of the scholarship on teaching and learning (SOTL). Very few of us who went through a PhD program received any formal training on how people learn. The explosion of cognitive research, and the growing theoretical and empirical literature on learning, requires some time to get a handle on.  Faculty need time to read the literature on learning and to participate in discussions in university teaching and learning centers.  

Once faculty have a stronger understanding of the science of learning, and have been exposed to new teaching methods and tools (sometime digital tools) that seek to improve learning, they will need time to (lots of it) to think about how to apply all this knowledge to their own teaching.  Re-designing a course is a time intensive endeavor.  Thinking through the development of learning outcomes and classroom activities to ensure more active, collaborative and experiential learning takes time.  Collaborating with an instructional designer to re-think course design takes time.   Working with non-faculty educators (such as instructional designers, librarians, media specialists, etc.) to develop digital materials that would enable some degree of classroom flipping and more classroom time for discussion and hands-on work takes lots of time.

Finally, any efforts to integrate new methods and new technologies into teaching to improve learning will need to be evaluated. It is important to understand what worked, what did not work, and why. Treating teaching as a disciplined experiment, and committing to constant improvement based on evidence, takes time.   

The challenge, of course, is that faculty time is perhaps the scarcest commodity on campus.

Faculty members are already overwhelmed with a huge set of competing demands.  These demands may differ across institutional types, with the range of demands varying in proportion from teaching to research to service.  

But overwhelming demands and limited time are what bind all faculty together.  

Too much to do, and too little time, is the common thread that runs through the faculty experience.

Do I have any suggestions to improve the faculty time crunch?  All of us wish (I think we all wish) that resources were available to lessen the faculty time burden. More (full-time tenure track) faculty lines, more release time, more summer support, more of everything.  

I don’t think that there is any magic bullet for the faculty time crunch.  

But I do think that we need to acknowledge that if we are going to make real strides in improving student learning, advances that involve the integration of digital learning technologies and techniques, that we will need to face head-on the need to free up some faculty time.

What do you think?

 

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