Between Cultures

One of the goals for this blog is to provide a space where us learning designers, educational technologists, course designers (or whatever you call us) can discuss issues related to our discipline.

August 26, 2009

One of the goals for this blog is to provide a space where us learning designers, educational technologists, course designers (or whatever you call us) can discuss issues related to our discipline.

Over the years my desire to connect with, and learn from, other learning technology professionals has grown as I've figured out what this gig is all about. I started my careers on the faculty (in the sociology department at WVU as I was finishing my dissertation), a job that was pretty well understood in terms of responsibilities, perks, and a relationship to the larger academic community. While the 3-and-3 teaching load and the need to bring in grant money was exhausting, at least when I explained to others what I did ("I teach sociology") they had a pretty good idea what my job was all about.

Today, saying I'm a "learning technologist" draws blank looks or the assumption that I write computer programs or design websites (neither of which I know how to do). I'll explain that my job is trying to make big classes, lecture classes, feel like small seminar classes, and that we use technology as a tool to help make learning more intimate and centered around our students learning styles and our instructors teaching strengths. After this explanation people will begin to get what the job is all about, but still will not have a clear picture of what a learning technologist actually does all day.

So in this Technology and Learning blog I hope to build a community that can explore issues around what our profession is all about, where we fit in within the larger structure of academia, and how we can best influence the strategic directions of our institutions.

The specific issues I'd like to explore today are about culture. As a learning technologist I feel that we often live at the margins of the academic IT culture (my position is within Computing) and the faculty culture. Faculty cultural norms include putting strong value on the sharing of information, the collective construction of knowledge, academic freedom, peer evaluation, and loyalty to the discipline. Academic IT cultural norms place value on expertise, innovation, practical solutions, productivity, collaboration, and loyalty to the institution. The academic and IT cultures are not inherently in conflict, as both cultures value autonomy and competence. By experience and temperament I tend to identify with the faculty culture, although their are areas within the academic IT culture (such as placing a premium on innovation) that deeply resonate.

One of the challenges of our profession is that while we often identify with the norms and values of faculty culture, we are structurally apart from this group and do not enjoy their rights or privileges. Put plainly, faculty do not view learning technologists as one of their tribe. While we enjoy excellent relations with our academic IT colleagues, and we depend on these colleagues to make the applications and platforms run that make our jobs possible, we (or I) lack the practical technical skills and experience. I'm sure many of my colleagues in learning technology are proficient in html and can program in multiple languages, rack a server and de-bug a database, while I possess none of these skills.

In his excellent book, Diffusion of Innovations, Everett M. Rogers writes about how change agents often work at the margins of institutional cultures. This position can be rewarding as we as learning technologists get to cross-boundaries and work with people across the institution. This position also comes with challenges, as a fundamental aspect of our job (as I see it) is to move our institutions from the status quo in teaching and learning.

Where do you fit in as a learning technologist (or learning designer or course designer etc. etc.) on your campus? Do you feel that you face similar challenges of navigating the norms between faculty and academic IT cultures? Have you hit upon strategies or developed skills that have been particularly successful to facilitate change at your institution? Do you also feel like you often live between two cultures?


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