Friday, July 04, 2008

Watch the doughnut, not the hole

The TLT Group's work has several hallmarks: taking low threshold steps forward; collaboration; and making a pluralistic, constructive approach to assessment. But arguably the most important, most counter-intuitive, and most pervasive theme of our work over the last decade has been our focus on 'activities.'

In contrast to our approach, the typical technology initiative focuses on -- surprise! -- technology. Buy new, fast, and inexpensive technology. Help faculty learn how to like and use that technology. Evaluate that technology (occasionally). And, all too soon, regret that the technology is now so old, slow, and expensive, and replace it with the technology that is newer, faster, and less expensive.

In contrast, The TLT Group usually focuses on what faculty, students and staff are likely to do with technology: how technology can potentially enable them to alter specific patterns of teaching/learning activity, e.g.,
  • discussion,
  • faculty-student contact,
  • peer instruction,
  • thinking through complex problems,
  • calling up visual images and pointing to elements of those images while talking about them,
  • integrative thinking,
  • active learning,
  • teaching in ways that take instructional advantage of diversity, ...
Our approaches to faculty support and course improvement, to cost modeling and time-saving, and to formative evaluation all focus on helping educators and institutions improve teaching/learning activities over time: small steps and, ultimately, larger changes.

Focusing on activities has several advantages:
  • Activities drive outcomes, including learning, retention and costs. so the most direct way to change an outcome is usually to alter activities.
  • Technology is never the only ingredient for improving outcomes; by focusing on the activity, we tend to notice the non-technological changes that also need to be made (e.g., reward systems, policies, partnerships, ...)
  • Activities change slowly, in part because they are influenced by more than just the technology. It often takes several generational changes in technology before an activity and its outcome can be altered significantly. So plans to change outcomes need to be on a longer time scale; we help programs budget time and money in ways more likely to pay off in real improvement in learning.
Many of our materials and services focus on activities:
Here's the point. In the past, our development of materials for professional and faculty development, evaluation, learning spaces, etc. has been opportunistic. While developing materials about the seven principles in one arena we might be focusing on diversity or visualization in another.

In the next stage of development of materials and services we are consider picking one or more activities and then developing a suite of faculty development workshops, evaluation templates, learning space examples, etc. needed to improve that activity. And, in true TLT Group fashion, we'd look at this 'warts and all,' studying the dangerous discussions and dilemmas that can arise in the process of making such changes.

Does that make sense? If so, which activities would be most important for The TLT Group to support at your own program or institution? if we wanted grant support for a consortial approach to such development, which activities might draw funder support?
  • Teaching diverse classes and workshops?
  • Using evidence to improve practice, in courses and services? ("culture of evidence")
  • Digital writing Across the Curriculum?
  • Learning communities?
  • The 'seven principles?'
  • something else?
Where should we work first in 2008-2009?

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