Monday, July 22, 2013

Faculty use technology when they need it

Many IT units in higher education struggle with campus technology adoption. They try to push new technology to the faculty, only to meet resistance (at worst) or apathy (at best). The problem, of course, is that IT cannot drive change.

Technology is fairly new to the workforce, and that includes faculty. Remember, the PC was only introduced to office desktops in the 1980s (unseen mainframes in server rooms don't count). If people enter the workforce in their 20s and retire in their 60s, that's a 40-year work generation. So computers have only been part of the workplace for less than a work generation. There are still a lot of people out there who remember doing their work without technology.

And faculty are less likely than, say, accountants to embrace change. Accountants realized that they could use computers to add up columns of numbers, creating spreadsheets to track budgets, income, and expenses. People in sales adopted the computer to write business correspondence and other customer communication. But in higher education, it's different. For faculty, their job is teaching and for that they have relied on a chalkboard (or whiteboard) for pretty much their entire careers, going back to their years as an undergrad. Even Powerpoint was a stretch for most faculty to learn, but Powerpoint isn't much more than a "captured" version of their whiteboard talk, so many faculty eventually warmed to Powerpoint as a means of delivering lectures.

One of the faculty at my university often uses the phrase "Technology should be like a rock; it should be that simple to use." And there's a lot to that statement. Faculty want technology that is easy to use. They don't want to tinker with technology, they don't want to try the latest thing. Faculty only want technology when it supports what they need to do for instruction.

And that's where we in IT see things differently, of course. As technologists, we are highly driven to explore new technology. Sometimes, we get excited about things not because of what a new tech can do but because it can be done. We're just "wired" to be "wired." And that's good; it means we're in the right job. For us, technology isn't just our job, it's often our passion. We got involved with technology as a career path (programming, desktop support, server admin, databases, etc) because we were pretty much doing that already (building web pages, building our own computers, installing our own OS, etc) and what better job than to get paid to do what you love? So campus technology folks naturally gravitate to the latest technology: the Raspberry Pi, smartboards, video capture, and the like. And then we get confused when the faculty don't want to use it, as suggested in Classroom Technology Faces Skeptics At Research Universities from Information Week.

Faculty will adopt technology when they need it to do the job of teaching. The article includes some quotes along those lines.
"I went to [a course management software workshop] and came away with the idea that the greatest thing you could do with that is put your syllabus on the Web and that's an awful lot of technology to hand the students a piece of paper at the start of the semester and say keep track of it." What makes it easier for faculty to focus on teaching: learning how to put a PDF on the web (or a course management tool like Moodle) when they've never done that before, or printing out a syllabus and asking the students not to lose it?
"What are the gains for students by bringing IT into the class? There isn't any. You could teach all of chemistry with a whiteboard. I really don't think you need IT or anything beyond a pencil and a paper."
One quote that highlighted when faculty were interested in using classroom technology: "They're undergraduates - you need to attract their attention before you can teach them anything." Because here, using technology assists the faculty in the job of teaching students, which is the most important thing. In this case, using some technology in the classroom may help get the attention of students, which the professor says you need to do "before you can teach them anything."

I'd also remind anyone working in campus technology to remember three important questions when trying to effect change on campus:

  1. Is it the right change to make?
  2. Are the right people behind the change?
  3. Is the campus ready for this change?

Those three questions get at the three lenses of leading through change: Strategic, Political, Cultural. And you can be right on with Strategic and Political, but if you aren't respecting the Cultural lens, your campus community will reject the change and you will get nowhere. That's not to say you need to wait for people to be ready for a change. You can certainly influence that change acceptance by finding faculty willing to try something new, having them do a pilot, then getting them to talk about it with other faculty. That's usually the best way to introduce changes, and the most successful.

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