Beyond 'Toys, Travel and Food'

Institutionally, most colleges have, in one way or another, embraced the use of technology in how they educate their students. Four in five colleges and universities use some form of content management system, and educational technologists are no longer unusual creatures on their campuses.

October 20, 2005

Institutionally, most colleges have, in one way or another, embraced the use of technology in how they educate their students. Four in five colleges and universities use some form of content management system, and educational technologists are no longer unusual creatures on their campuses.

The trick at many institutions, though, has been broadening the swath of faculty members on their campuses who are "on the team." Many IT administrators grouse that unless and until many if not most professors take advantage of the tools and learning environments available to them, colleges will lag behind their students in technological savvy, and the institutions' sizable investments in the new technologies will be, if not wasted, underutilized.

At a session Tuesday at the Educause meeting in Orlando, a panel of academics from a diverse group of institutions discussed "incentives and rewards" for getting more professors to experiment with and use the latest technological innovations in their classroom work. 

Many of the ideas revolved around what Glenn Everett, director of instructional technology at Stonehill College, a small private institution in Massachusetts, called "toys, travel and food, always food" -- practical rewards, like improved equipment, travel to conferences and lots of meetings (preferably over a nice lunch), that entice faculty members to overcome the inertia or fear or other disincentives that tend to work against innovation.

Joseph Vaughan, assistant director of the Center for Digital Humanities at the University of California at Los Angeles, spoke about UCLA's Brian P. Copenhaver Award for Innovation in Teaching with Technology, which recognizes the work of faculty members who use technology to improve undergraduate instruction. He noted, with some pride, that one of the winners was 71 years old.

One audience member said her institution had set up a system in which departments received more money for their instructional budgets if they increased the number of courses that were built using the campus's WebCT course management system, while another noted that, when asked to put together an online course, she had pointed to her "equipment that came over on the Mayflower" and said, "On that?" 

Colleges "need to find a way to incentivize instructors with good equipment," she said.

Susan Fliss, director of education and outreach at Dartmouth College, reflected the view of several panelists when she said colleges could encourage the involvement of some faculty members just by "not making them feel like they're all alone out there."

She described her participation several years ago, while she was at Mount Holyoke College, in a now-completed Mellon Foundation project, called the Technopedagogy Initiative. In it, a faculty member who wanted to change a course worked on the redesign with a librarian, an information technology specialist (her), and a student who had taken the course. The professor was so heartened by the involvement of the librarian and the others that she threw herself into the project with gusto. "Sometimes you just have to pay attention to their teaching -- it doesn't always have to be money and rewards," Fliss said.

But while "tried and true" financial incentives and care and feeding may work to some extent, Everett argued, such steps don't nearly overcome the most significant disincentive for faculty technological adoption: the fact that the time and energy that professors must invest in embracing new technology is typically not recognized or rewarded in the tenure process, which still overwhelmingly favors research over teaching at many institutions. 

"Until we make some progress on that front, we aren't going to reach that large group of faculty who are concerned by these things," Everett said. "We cannot honestly promise a junior faculty member that there is a guaranteed outcome. This is in many ways experimental, and we don't know there will be something measurable, that student evaluations will increase as a result." 

He added: "The reason chairs still warn them not to get involved in technology is because at the end of the six-year tenure track, the questions are "Where are your publications? Where are your student evaluations? It's nice that you learned some Photoshop or whatever this is, but you can't do that and expect to get tenure. Nice that you put in all this time. See you."

The comment seemed to resonate, as heads nodded around the hotel meeting room.

One audience member, William H. Riffee, associate provost for distance, continuing and executive education at the University of Florida, said he believed such a shift is taking place, if not quickly enough. Riffee is also dean of Florida's College of Pharmacy, and he said that because more than half of its students took courses at sites off the main campus, 90 percent of pharmacy professors there are trained in teaching technology, and the college provides salary supplements based on the number of courses they teach online. 

The true shift nationally, though, won't happen until institutions begun "having technology and innovative teaching advocates on tenure and promotion committees," Riffee said. "When someone on the committee says of a candidate, 'Your record isn't strong' " because it appears to emphasize teaching rather than scholarship, "you've got to have somebody there who says, 'Oh yes, these results mean just as much as this particular publication in this particular journal.' "

Shifts like that will only occur when campuses put leaders in place -- presidents, provosts and deans -- who themselves recognize the importance of technological innovation in teaching, Riffee said. "If people at the top don't recognize the value of technology based teaching, you're sunk. You can have a dean who doesn't have a clue."


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