The Promise, Perils and Progress of Educational Technology

Below is a draft of my prepared remarks for the EduFan panel at D2L Fusion 2016. I actually didn’t read these remarks; rather, I extemporized my remarks in order to respond to the prompts of the moderator. But I was able to bring most of the points I raised in my prepared remarks (as well as quite a few more) during the panel. My comments seemed to be well-received by those in attendance.

First let me say thanks for the chance to speak on this panel. I’d like to thank D2L in particular for recognizing me as an EduFan. It is a distinct honor, and I look forward to seeing how the EduFan idea evolves.

And I’d like to thank the moderator for giving a mostly positive spin to the title of this panel: “The Promise, Perils and Progress of Educational Technology.”  While there may be some perils, I think most of us here at Fusion are likely to focus on the promise and progress of educational technology. And that includes me. For over 30 years, I’ve been a college professor who has embraced technology in my teaching and scholarship, evangelized the broader use of technology by my faculty colleagues, and encouraged my administrative colleagues to more fully consider the academic benefits from investments in technology. Drawing from that experience, I’d like to share with you today one simple principle and two practical suggestions.

The one simple principle is this: educational technology is primarily an academic resource, rather than a physical resource. Embracing this simple principle sounds easy enough, but in practice, the physical essence of the hardware and software behind educational technology can make it difficult to see beyond its nature as a physical resource.

Not that there’s anything wrong with physical resources. Every institution of learning has physical resources, like chairs and desks, file cabinets and lighting fixtures, doors and windows. But the windows in my office are quite different from the Windows running on my laptop. Actually, I’m more of an Apple fan myself, but that’s another story.

The point is while we need physical resources in education, we also need academic resources, like books and journals. To be sure, books are also physical resources. You can count them and hold them and store them. But books are primarily academic resources. They have value well beyond the value of the physical paper and ink. Indeed, books don’t have much value at all until they are opened, and read and engaged with as part of the learning process.

And so it is with educational technology. Yes, at one level it’s a physical resource. You can measure it in gigahertz and terabytes, calculate return on investment, analyze costs and benefits. You can treat it as a physical resource, but in my opinion, that’s mistreating it. In an educational environment, technology should be seen primarily as an academic resource. And the investment, management and deployment of that resource should be guided by that one simple principle.

Which leads me to my two practical suggestions. First, I believe the chief information officer of a university should ideally be an academic officer. In practical terms, that means moving toward the norm where the CIO of a university will hold the title of vice-provost rather than vice-president. If we accept the principle that educational technology is primarily an academic resource, then I think the top leadership structure needs to reflect that, in name as well as in practice.

Fortunately, I think we’re making good progress on this front. I’m encouraged by the growing number of university CIOs who not only have academic backgrounds and credentials, but hold academic posts, like the vice provost at West Virginia University, the associate provost at St. Bonaventure and the senior associate dean at George Washington University. And these are just a few examples of universities that clearly see the important role of academic leadership in technology. But even where CIOs aren’t formally recognized as academic officers, there tends to be a growing expectation that the technology leadership of a university unequivocally embrace its academic mission and priorities.

And in part, I think we can thank libraries for that. After all, we have long recognized library resources as academic resources, and library directors have traditionally been seen as an important part of the academic leadership of a university. Which leads me to my second practical suggestion: tenured faculty positions in educational technology. Just as it’s fairly common to have tenured non-classroom faculty in libraries, I hope it will someday be the norm that we’ll see tenured non-classroom faculty lines specifically in educational technology.

Now I realize this second suggestion may be a tougher sell, but it makes more sense if ed tech divisions are headed by academic officers. This will allow the development and implementation of tenure and promotion policies for academics whose primarily responsibilities lie outside of the traditional classroom. It may seem a bit far-fetched, but again, think of the library faculty who already achieve tenure and promotion, often without teaching a single class. Surely, if having tenured faculty in libraries is seen as an important part of the management of their academic resources, why wouldn’t we also see having tenured faculty in educational technology as an important part of the management of that kind of academic resource? Think of some of our brightest instructional designers, many of whom have advanced degrees and classroom experience. What if they could achieve tenure? What if they could serve alongside other faculty in policy deliberations and curricular committees? Consider the possibilities of educational technology divisions that see faculty as colleagues and partners, rather than as clients and consumers.

In conclusion, I believe the simple principle and two practical suggestions I offered today could lead to a paradigm shift in education, one that could help us more fully realize the promise and progress of educational technology.

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