Sunday, May 24, 2015

Ignorance is Not an Excuse

I've been reflecting a lot on the issue of professors and education technology of late.  In particular, I've been thinking about the exact issue raised by the tweet pasted above: we have reached a point where it is no longer acceptable to be unable to use classroom technology and the extensive suite of learning tools available to support student learning.  We are horrified if a professor shows up to class unprepared; yet regularly turn a blind eye to colleagues who refuse to invest the time and energy necessary to master the latest ed tech tools and research; and integrate them into their classrooms.  Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that all faculty need to learn how to code.  Rather, I'm suggesting--to give one obvious example--that it is malpractice to continue to teach by lecture and high stakes midterms when we now know that there are many other, more effective ways to teach large classes; and we now have the technological capacity to implement at least some of those tools (e.g. online practice quizzes; pre-recorded content lectures; student response systems like i>clicker).

Likewise, if one is in any kind of leadership role, with decision-making authority, it is simply inexcusable to be unaware of the vigorous conversation about the role of education technology in higher education.  In particular, it is essential for our college/university leaders to grasp what is at stake when a decision is made about, for instance, outsourcing online course development to the private sector.  Higher education, especially public education, has become deeply politicized.  Debates about the role of education technology are central to the politics of higher education, in part because there is a lot of money at stake.  As campus IT evolves into a complex (and expensive) part of the campus infrastructure, more and more resources are directed away from instructional budgets and towards IT departments (in various configurations).  This includes the creation of entirely new units in such areas as Learning Sciences and Data Analytics.  This isn't a bad thing; it has the potential to be quite a good thing.  But it is a big change.

This reallocation of resources is  largely invisible to most teaching faculty and even department chairs; yet an awareness of it is essential.  For one thing, it might finally demonstrate to departments that our universities are in the midst of significantly redefining the way they accomplish their mission.  Rank and order faculty remain ignorant of this important conversation at their own risk.  Departments with graduate programs have an ethical obligation to ensure that their graduate students are trained in the latest best practices, including a strong knowledge of online course design and implementation; and a basic knowledge of important ed tech tools.  The graduate students of today will be expected to have this skill set when they apply for jobs, and many of them will be asked to teach both in classrooms and online.  It is inexcusable to not prepare those who pursue academic jobs for this reality.

For many decades, it was possible for faculty, and especially for our department leadership, to be disconnected from the larger, national discussions about higher education.  It is surprising to me how few faculty have any real sense of the vigorous debates currently happening, especially around the issue of the private sector elbowing its way into both K-12 and higher education.  It is simply impossible for departments (and Colleges within universities) to make wise decisions about where to direct resources if you don't understand this encroachment by the private sector--and what factors are fueling it.  Most faculty have little sense of where their students are taking classes.  They don't realize that, over the past three years, the number of students taking courses outside of the university--either online, at community colleges, or even at other 4 year institutions--has increased exponentially, to the point that a college like mine (Liberal Arts) has already outsourced an unacceptable amount of our General Education/Core Curriculum courses.  We should be having vigorous conversations about how to reverse this trend, including how to integrate our own, high-quality online courses into our curriculum.  It is frustrating to me to see that, if these conversations are happening, they are happening at very high levels and largely exclude faculty.  It is equally frustrating, though, to see my faculty peers express so little interest in these important conversations.

I appreciate that faculty are busier than ever these days.  It would be helpful if institutions did more to ensure that faculty are educated about policy conversations but also, that faculty are held accountable for using best practices in their classrooms.  In any other profession, an individual who refused to remain up to date on basic technological developments would no longer be able to work in that field.  This has become a real issue in medicine, as more and more sophisticated diagnostic tools come out (e.g the Da Vinci robot for abdominal surgeries).  Physicians in procedure-intensive specialties regularly have to learn how to use new devices--otherwise they would lose patients and business.  Likewise, it would be considered malpractice for a physician to be unaware of the latest research and medications for various conditions.  Imagine a rheumatologist who ignored all the new studies about the dangers of long-term use of prednisone and continued to prescribe it at high doses to his patients!

Out of date or sub-par teaching won't kill anyone, to be sure. Eventually, though, students and their parents will become more savvy and less willing to tolerate poor learning experiences.  The result won't be that tenured faculty are fired for poor teaching, however.  Instead, the persistence of faculty resistance to ed tech and best practices will be used in higher education debates to persuade the leaders of our institutions that the teaching of, especially, first and second year courses can't be left to the luddite faculty who refuse to update their practices.  This will (and, in some places, already has) lay the foundations for outsourcing these courses to private-sector companies; and to the continued redirection of resources away from departmental instructional budgets.  If departments want to hire more positions, the best thing they can do is figure out how to reclaim the credit hours that we have lost--and will continue to lose in escalating numbers.  We are approaching a tipping point.  Soon it will be too late, if it isn't already too late.

One of the best historians of education technology is Audrey Watters.  She regularly posts her public presentations to her site (see The Golden Lasso of Education Technology for a recent example).  I am also a huge fan of this collection of her essays, The Monsters of Education Technology (a bargain at $4.99 on Kindle; 9:99 for pb).  Another fantastic way to get caught up on the conversation about higher education and the politics of education technology?  Twitter.  Really.

5/26: See also The Ed Tech Curmudgeon: "If the educators that care about students don't find a way to respond, the future of education will belong to those who stand to profit economically or politically or both. Who will build the universities and colleges of the future - those who understand the history and share the values of the educational enterprise, or those who simply want to make a buck?"


  1. Debate? What is debate? It is sometimes difficult to follow your mode of speech, O Texan! What is this "debate" of which you speak? Where can I find this on my planet? :-)

  2. Jen: great post! I couldn't agree with you more. There are certainly concerns about how to encourage faculty to consider and adopt what are clearly suggested best practices based on both research from learning sciences, and applied experiences from faculty around the world who have tried and reported their outcomes. As you noted, it's become very close to irresponsible to simply lecture twice a week for 14 weeks and toss in mid-term and final exams.

    Yet the singular autonomy of faculty, particularly in the US, makes it very challenging to change things. Certainly, colleagues may try to demonstrate options, supporting units for T&L offer help for those seeking guidance in rethinking course design to leverage appropriate technologies to advance learning outcomes (where learning outcomes have been explicitly articulated), and senior leadership seems in many if not most institutions to recognize the relationship between more engaged, active learning and student persistence. But as I have been making the cultural transition from living and working in a commonwealth country to the US, one of the pieces of advice I was given was I needed to remember a key fact about teaching in US universities. Faculty have two requirements teaching in any semester. 1) They have to have a syllabus done by the first day of class; and 2) they have to turn in their grades no later than five days after the semester ends. Anything that happens in between is up to the faculty teaching the class.

    This is a classic representation of the belief that the individual faculty works as a sole proprietor of the learning experience. More and more the evidence for good teaching practices suggest that this notion of teaching is what happens behind closed doors solely between the instructor and the students in the room needs rethinking.

    That doesn't mean the instructor isn't ultimately responsible for their class. It simply suggests that the process and tools are not only their burden to independently shoulder. The opportunities that are emerging from technology-enhanced learning practices, as well as the research in cognition, learning sciences, education, information science, & psychology are voluminous - hard for any one person to stay abreast of in addition to their core area of disciplinary expertise. It's of necessity become a 'team effort'.

    Out of date or sub-par teaching may not physically kill anyone, except perhaps in the context of med school. But it can and routinely does damage if not extinguish the joy and excitement of learning among initially inquisitive through open but skeptical students. And that's tantamount to the same thing.


  3. Phil, absolutely re: the tradition of faculty autonomy. It's very tricky. As a faculty member, I don't want someone handing me a syllabus and giving me NO freedom about how or what I teach. At the same time, the amount of autonomy that we currently allow probably needs to change a bit. Or, rather, learning outcomes have to be taken into account. The big problem is that these badly taught classes, often by luddite faculty, also produce very poor learning outcomes. But because they are in "one-off" courses, faculty/deans, etc. tend to ignore it. I guess what eats at me is that, finally, we really do have the capacity to ensure that our frosh courses are very high quality. And yes, these courses will by necessity be carefully designed and built by teams of experts. That's what it takes to set students up for success, on time graduation, etc. Institutional policy is probably going to need to change a bit, to hold faculty more accountable but still allow for freedom, flexibility, creativity in teaching. But I definitely know it's an uphill battle--faculty are terrified to give up any autonomy at all for fear that they will lose all autonomy. Instead, their jobs are simply being eliminated (but of course this has more consequences for future generations of academics than the current generation, which is part of the problem.).

  4. 1) The "outsourcing" of parts of the undergrad education at UT was going on when I was there back in 2000-2 as an undergrad. I remember that lots of my fellow students would take their introductory Government and US History courses over at ACC. I had a hard time understanding why. My thinking was that if you're going to UT, why wouldn't you want to take UT classes? But then, I eventually became a career academic and so realize I'm something of an outlier.

    1a) I can understand a blended version of Ancient Rome, but I sort of thought the point of taking a Classics course at UT was so that afterwards you could have pretentious conversations outside of Waggener. Or did that change after UT became a no-smoking campus? :P

    2) I suspect that folks at state flagships and other R1s have until very recently had the luxury of choosing whether or not to follow the debates on pedagogy, what the future of higher ed looks like, etc. Lower-ranked schools have been cash-starved and under the gun for much longer, and so they've sort of been forced to grapple with these issues for the last decade and a half or so. I remember a few years ago when I was getting ready to adjunct a Medieval Europe with a higher ranked school just up the road. I'd been using an LMS even for my in-class courses because I'd had to do that from the start. So when I asked the department chair at Higher Ranked School up the Road, he remarked that maybe a third of their faculty used any LMS. And this is some fairly basic technology!

  5. Comment too long for Blogger, ha ha. Here is the rest:

    So, as I said: one costly (minisabbaticals), one not costly (office hour blog), and one complicated (ditch the LMS).

    The problem, though, as Jennifer points out, is that we really cannot even have a conversation about these things. And without a conversation, how will we ever find truly good solutions that are not just imposed by the administration top down...? So, on the one hand I am endlessly optimistic (the opportunities we have as teachers today are amazing), but I am also very pessimistic (we have painted ourselves into a corner from which we cannot escape).

  6. Andrew, I'm laughing hard at your comment about chatting outside of WAG. When I arrived at UT in 2002, I had to navigate through thick clouds of smoke to get inside the building. Once Erwin Cook left for Trinity and Gwyn Morgan retired, though, the doors outside WAG largely cleared out. And then the smoking ban finished the job, for the most part. It's a totally different place these days. And yes, you are absolutely right about R1s being able to ignore even basic things like LMSs--they still do. That's part of why it's such an uphill battle to get faculty, especially the "more experienced" faculty on board with, in essence, learning an entirely new skill set. They aren't too keen.

  7. Laura, yes, the central problem is that we seem not to be able to have a conversation about this. UT has been trying, with a series of Provost-led Campus Conversations. My own sense is that the best way forward, in a way that involves at least some faculty, is to work hard to find the early adopters/curious folks and work with them to train them, resource them, give them opportunities to do great work. But, as I noted on Twitter, UT is pretty far behind in terms of online course development (and development of policies/infrastructure for running these courses and dealing with the issues that crop up). On a related note, we also need to get our Extended Campus (ie Distance Learning courses for non-UT students) up to date.

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