Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Frugal Innovation

Frugal Innovation:  How to continue to improve teaching and learning with technology when money and time are scarce - especially by taking advantage of abundant low-threshold resources.
TLT Group's Frugal Innovation Initiative:  Discuss, develop and share Frugal Innovation resources, practices, policies, and ideas for colleges, universities and individuals within them.  Encourage and enable participants to help colleagues use, improve, and share further  (see: Faculty Sharing Further) some of the participants' own favorite under-utilized low-threshold resources.  

Above are excerpts from:  Frugal Innovation Glossary

Monday, September 28, 2009

8. Support strategy: Help a few faculty; teach one new technology after another

The topic of this series of blog posts is how to use technology in ways that, over time, result in substantial improvements in teaching and learning. When I say "substantial," I am pointing to hopes that many have had for educational evolution, perhaps even revolution, triggered by the use of technology. Each Monday I describe something I once believed about how to make such major, long term improvements, a belief I question today. Last Monday, we discussed the content of faculty support offerings (services focused either on technology OR on teaching/learning).

Today, I'd like to hear your observations on scale of faculty support: size of the change in teaching practice by faculty, number of faculty helped, time scale (frequency of change of topics for support), and total budget for support.

Traditionally small support budgets for faculty have divided among two or more units (one in the technology unit, perhaps someone in distance learning, staff in the library, staff in the teaching center, staff in colleges or departments).

Historically, many of these units would respond to technical changes as quickly as possible ("Which technologies are the subject of the most buzz this year?"). Then the unit would offer faculty workshops during the term and during the summer to help faculty learn to use that new technology. To attend such a session, faculty would need to set aside more than hour (sometimes much more) and go to a different building. Limited interest, that time requirement, and size of computer labs would combine to limit attendance: a few faculty at a time. Help desk operations would assist one faculty member at a time.

Costs: Because only a few faculty members could be helped at once, because each person was being helped to master a major technology, and because the topics of support might change rapidly (with expenses to develop each new support unit), the cost for each faculty member receiving support (including the faculty member's own time to attend and to master that new technology) was probably substantial (though it was rare to see estimates of such total costs).

Outcomes: Even after backbreaking effort by each tiny support unit, it's possible that only a few faculty could describe how they had improved teaching and learning in their courses by using that support. And I'd guess that no academic department could describe any cumulative improvement in teaching and learning made in one their degree programs over the years with aid from a technology support unit.

Is this a good description of what used to happen, or what still happens? What have you seen? (Depending on which URL you used to see this post, you can post your observations either by clicking on the phrase "Post a Comment" below or else by clicking the word "COMMENTS" to the right of my name below.)

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

G. To engage most faculty, support must meet many needs

How should an institution help faculty improve teaching and learning (with technology)? I'll respond to that question in different ways over the next three weeks. Here's my first set of suggestions for faculty support (e.g., teaching centers, information technology units, library staff, distance learning staff, ...).

At most institutions, support programs only influence a small fraction of the courses each year. And support staffs are usually so small and under-budgeted that they're often kept pretty busy serving just the small fraction of faculty who actively pursue their services.

But if you're looking for a reason why we haven't seen major improvements in teaching and learning (with technology) at most institutions over the last thirty years, this is certainly one of them. Faculty aren't getting the help they need. Or, from the point of view of the helper, we might say instead, "Not enough faculty are asking for the help we think they need."

Under what circumstances does an institution need to engage large numbers of faculty in some teaching and learning improvement (using technology)?
  1. When a major is being transformed (e.g., to offer a degree program at a distance, or reshape a degree program as MIT did when it created the CDIO program) many faculty need to be engaged in order to offer a full constellation of courses, provide advising, etc.
  2. As that Reed senior said about learning how to rethink his reasoning and writing, 'I don’t think I could have learned that from just one course. But, over the years, it gradually sank in.' If one's goal is to improve what the average graduate is able to do, or think, or feel, make many small changes across many courses. That requires the participation of lots of faculty.
  3. (Technology-supported) innovations are sometimes resisted by students who say, "No one else is asking me to do this but you." For innovative faculty, there's safety in numbers.
  4. Get enough faculty engaged in an improvement big enough, visible enough, and last enough to gain an advantage in the competition for new students, new faculty, donor support, grants, and other resources that the program needs to function, as we discussed in an earlier post. That's why a degree program or an institution might decide that it's a priority to work for 5-10 years to internationalize the curriculum, to develop a national reputation for the design skills of its graduates, or to become widely known for the work of its faculty and students in responding to climate change. Those are just three examples of technology-supported improvements in teaching and learning.
  5. Accreditors might have targeted this area as a deficiency that needs to be remedied over the coming years.
  6. Sometimes a new foundational technology is introduced which works better and better as more students and staff use it, e.g., email, sharing of documents and social networking.
In any of these circumstances, faculty support units will need to ask themselves, "How can we engage large numbers of faculty to work in this chosen direction?" One key is to recognize that different faculty members want different things. For example,
  • Headline some of your offerings with the issue itself as your headline (e.g., adapting curricula to respond to climate change.') If you've chosen the right issue, that should attract a significant number of faculty. But probably not enough. How can you attract more faculty to learn about and work on your issue?
  • Some faculty love fooling around with new technology. So, if the goal is important, some support offerings for your issue should be headlined, "Play with this new technology" (even if the priority only uses that technology as one ingredient in a larger strategy).
  • Some faculty are focused on their own teaching (i.e., lecturing, writing). Can they advance your priority by developing that skill? If so, headline your offering with the skill, and use your issue as the example. (Here, as in the other bullets, we're talking about a fraction of your total offerings relevant to the chosen priority.)
  • Some faculty member see it as important to understand their students so that they can help each student excel. If your priority can help with that, headline some offerings with that need (e.g. learner-centered teaching). (What's marvelous about many educational uses of technology is how many of these headlines can be used with integrity. To internationalize the curriculum effectively, for example, all these kinds of changes are enabled.)
  • Some faculty want to survive. Can something about your priority save them time? help make their teaching less like pushing a boulder up a mountain? If so, make that the headline some of the time.
To repeat: don't make promises you can't keep. If you headline a workshop with 'time-saver for faculty,' it had better both advance your priority and also save participants some time. Support for a high priority issue should also be offered in a variety of modes, each designed to engage a different subset of the faculty, e.g.,
  • summer workshops;
  • online tutorials;
  • brown bags;
  • 5-10 minute sessions led by faculty as agenda items in departmental faculty meetings.
  • enlisting one or more faculty in each relevant department to play a more active role, e.g., studying what other institutions are doing in this arena and then sharing their findings with relevant colleagues in their department.

To sum up, it's important that faculty and support staff work together to set a few priorities for improvement. For those priorities which require engagement of large numbers of faculty, staff should offer support in several modes (e.g., workshops, one-on-one consulting, peer-to-peer strategies) and frames (e.g., new technology, educational priorities, saving faculty time).

It may seem counter-intuitive to suggest priority setting in a culture that values academic freedom. And I certainly wouldn't rely on this strategy alone. But such a widely-embraced priority has the power to mobilize the resources needed over many years to power major, cumulative improvements in education.

Monday, September 21, 2009

7. What I once believed: Train faculty how to operate the technology

This is what faculty support offerings look like at many institutions:
  • The IT department offerings are about “How to use (operate) our course management system,” and “How to Use Photoshop.”
  • The faculty development program's offerings are about “Using collaborative learning in the classroom,” and “What to do on the first day of class.”
In other words, there is a sharp division of labor. Most IT units help faculty mainly with “how to” use the technology, while many teaching units mostly help faculty with “how to” teach (they ignore the technology, which is the business of the IT department).

This isn't an arrangement I ever recommended. But I didn't initially question it, either; it seemed the natural way to do things. I did notice that at most institutions the attendance was low at the workshops. Nor was there much sign that average faculty members used other forms of service (e.g., web sites, phone-in for help) unless they had to (for example, when using the course management system was required).

Does your institution divide support this way? Are support services mainly about “how to?” Please use the “COMMENT” button below, just to the right of my name, to add your observations about how your institution handles these tasks.

(As you may know, this blog post is part of a series, “Ten Things I (no longer) Believe about Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology”. To see a summary of the whole series, where this entry fits, and links to all the completed posts, see

Causes of Myths & Misconceptions re Learning

More precisely:  Contributing causes of myths and misconceptions about the application of research findings 
from neurobiology, cognitive science, and related fields 
to human learning in educational institutions.
<From Steve Gilbert Sept 21, 2009>

  • Courses taught in schools, colleges, and universities are more varied and complex than most situations conducive to effective research in the cognitive, neuro, and related sciences.
  • Conditions essential to the research are difficult to match with conditions in courses.  
  • Conditions essential to the research are difficult to isolate and control in courses.
  • Exogenous  factors in courses - factors safe to ignore when applying research results - are difficult to identify and more difficult for educators to agree upon. 

The challenge:  Glean what we can from the scientific research and develop practical applications.  
Interpret and adapt the findings carefully - not too broadly, not too quickly.  Develop, test, and improve practical guidelines and resources.

REF:  "Various 'neuromyths' exist in schools. According to a survey of advice literature by the Transfer Centre for Neurobiology and Learning (ZNL) in Ulm, Germany, the topic of the brain is popular among teachers. 'Unfortunately, many of the ideas that have made it into the classroom fall under the heading of pseudoscience,' says Paul Howard-Jones of the University of Bristol, UK. 
Here are five of the most popular:..."  
Above excerpted from "[Learning] Myths and Misconceptions," Craig E Nelson, posting to POD List Sun, 20 Sep 2009 21:27:09 -0400
Professional & Organization Development Network in Higher Education

Friday, September 18, 2009

"Connectedness" - Recommended Reading

"What is connectedness? It is a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself. It is a sense of belonging, or a sense of accompaniment. It is that feeling in your bones that you are not alone. It is a sense that no matter how scary things may become, there is a hand for you in the dark. While ambition drives us to achieve, connectedness is my word for the force that urges us to ally, to affiliate, to enter into mutual relationships, to take strength and to grow through cooperative behavior."  Excerpt from Ned Hallowell's essay "Connectedness" - see citation below.

That's what first came to mind when I read a request for recommended readings to be offered in Centers for improving Teaching/Learning.

I did a quick Internet search and found the full text of Hallowell's essay, along with some other comments and quotations, in the last posting of 1995 that I wrote for the AAHESGIT Listserv
Here are some excerpts from my own comments:

"Education can provide the excuse and the means for transforming society...for better or worse; and
Information technology can provide the excuse and the means for transforming education...for better or worse.

"As enthusiasm and opportunities increase for using information technology to change the core processes of education -- teaching and learning -- more people are afraid of losing important elements, of having cherished values dismissed.
Those of us committed to using information technology to improve education need to be sure that we are advancing fundamental human values and a better quality of life -- and not only for a few of our closest friends.

Sadly, we are still
"...unraveling the fabric of trust, loyalty, and connectedness that holds us together as a nation, as communities, and as organizations.
"...pushing more people out of economic security, out of having a fixed "place" in society. ... rushing to reduce support services and subsidized essential resources for all those least able to provide them for themselves.

Too many seem to be ignoring the:

* cumulative value of long-term mutual commitment to common goals;

* pain of those unable to earn livable wages and secure minimally livable levels of healthcare, education, food and housing;

* increasing difficulty of sustaining viable communities;

* growing gulf between those who can amass wealth and those who cannot.

Includes "Connectedness" by Edward Hallowell - last chapter in the book:
Finding the Heart of the Child: Essays on Children, Families, and Schools by Edward M. Hallowell, M.D. and Michael G. Thompson, Ph.D.
Published by National Association of Independent Schools (December 1997) ISBN-10: 0934338922 ISBN-13: 978-0934338929
This chapter reproduction and distribution via AAHESGIT on the Internet was authorized by Richard Barbieri, Executive Director, Association of Independent Schools in New England.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

F. Organizing to Improve Teaching and Learning with Technology: Collaborative Change

How do we organize the process of improving teaching and learning (with technology)?

At most institutions, the context is a sharp division of labor. The most important divisions:
  • Individual faculty exercise relatively personal, private control over the content and methods of each course. (In most departments, this individual ownership of individual courses is far more meaningful than any collective faculty responsibility for the degree program.)
  • Various facilities, resources and services are controlled by various staff units (e.g., classrooms, course management systems, libraries, study areas and their equipment) and by outside organizations (e.g., Internet sites, Google tools, textbooks, ...)
The implication: each can handle those responsibilities relatively independently of the others. Presumably, the sum of their efforts will yield sufficient return on the institution's investment in expensive technologies such as course management systems, classrooms, and libraries. Many of us had hoped for much more: computing would revolutionize how students learn, what they learn, and who can learn. Perhaps the cost structure of education would be transformed, too. Or maybe not. That division of responsibility has been a major roadblock. Of course, we occasionally overcome that division. I have already talked about how a variety of independent choices by faculty led to a coherent pattern of change in learning activities and outcomes at Reed College in the 1980s. Here's an example of an unusual degree of collaboration. Perhaps it's not a coincidence that this story unfolds at an entrepreneurial research university where team research is the norm. A few years ago, my old undergraduate department, the MIT Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, decided that major curricular change was needed. Faculty started by asking what skills their graduating students would need. To develop those skills, faculty decided, students would need plenty of practice in four activities:
  1. the conceptual work of design,
  2. converting those ideas into plans for something that could be built,
  3. actually constructing the engineered work, and
  4. testing the product.
Faculty called this four step cycle “Conceive – Develop – Implement – Operate (CDIO)”. And they realized that most of CDIO needed to occur outside classrooms, 24 x 7. Conceiving such a reform is one thing. To actually develop, implement and operate such an innovative academic program would require collaboration involving many faculty in the department along with many individuals and groups outside the department. For example, faculty realized that their building (which was due for renovation) was unsuitable for this kind of 24x7 approach. When the institution's architects balked at planning such a facility, the department responded that it would raise its own money and hire its own architects. (One advantage to having a faculty with a track record of raising large sums of money and well-to-do alumni– it changes the internal balance of power!) 'Support staff' and faculty from other departments and offices then teamed to develop these plans, e.g., figuring out how, in order to work on their projects, engineering undergraduates could use keyless access to enter otherwise-locked rooms in the building at any hour of the day or night. That MIT success story is the product of a coalition of effort, complementing a division of responsibility. How are things going at your institution? Who takes responsibility for improving teaching and learning with technology? Do those folks have the respect and budget to carry out that responsibility? For example, how does (or might) your institution deal with questions such as these:
  1. Should your institution switch to Google Mail? What are the educational, budget, and policy implications of relying on such an external service?
  2. The monograph and article no longer have a monopoly on academic expression. More work in the disciplines is being developed and shared through web sites, video, email, and multimedia. In each department, what media do your advanced students need to use to do their projects and communicate professionally? To prepare for that, what kinds of multimedia skills should your entering students learn in the first year ? Who should help them acquire those skills in the first year? How do you assess those skills?
  3. What issues of policy and practice are emerging as a result of ePortfolio use at our institution? Should projects and the portfolios themselves should become part of the student's formal academic record? How long should they be saved? Who has the right to change those records?
  4. Much of what faculty do to improve their teaching is the result of informal learning. How can such learning be improved and extended? What roles might other staff (e.g. librarians) play in helping faculty learn about teaching and learning with technology in their disciplines at other institutions?

“It takes a village.” Steve Gilbert and I have been supporting collaborative change for fifteen years. Here are just two of the ideas and resources we've developed at The TLT Group:
  1. Your institution has what we would call a Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtable if you have a council or conclave that meets regularly, advises the chief academic officer on issues of policy relating to teaching and learning with technology, and convenes many kinds of stakeholders. To assure that the Roundtable balances a variety of points of view, it's important to include faculty (tenure track and adjunct) who represent a variety of degrees and types of technology use, for example. TLTRs have advised on budgets and tricky policy questions. They can help faculty and support staff to understand one another's perspectives. And they can accelerate the sharing of information between junior faculty and senior technology administrators, senior librarians and junior facilities staff, student affairs staff and academic department heads, as TLTR members from all these areas work together to develop a policy position for the institution. A well-functioning TLTR helps the institution seize opportunities and deal with problems that are not the responsibility of any one office, department or segment of the institution. We can help with getting a TLTR underway and providing resources for its agenda.
  2. Gathering information from stakeholders: Flashlight Online, our web-based survey system, has been used by a few institutions to regularly gather input from different segments of the academic community. Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, has said that Flashlight Online is one of the keys to their strategy for shared governance. Tenure track and adjunct faculty are regularly surveyed so that they can contribute information, ideas and opinions for use in developing new policy at Valencia.
What steps has your institution taken to exercise collaborative responsibility for improving teaching and learning with technology? What do you suggest as next steps? Click on the word “COMMENTS” below, just to the right of my name, to share your observations and suggestions. REFERENCES For a bit more on the history of CDIO at MIT, see William Litant's article, “Learning in a Landmark Laboratory,” in

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

"We are not responsible..." Universal Disclaimers!

From Steve Gilbert, Sept 15, 2009
Worried about liability for something on your Website?  In your blog?  See the links/refs below, including the Tom Jones video and consider this useful disclaimer:
"We are not responsible for anything at all. Ever. So there."
From: "more-or-less funny disclaimer text" Found 1/22/2008 at:
- "Mad Science" - David Cary

Tom Jones, 1966: "Not Responsible"

See also: Garrett Price, New Yorker Cartoon, July 14, 1945
Page 163, The Complete Cartoons of the New Yorker, Robert Mankoff, Editor, Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers; 2004; ISBN 1-5791262-322-8
Page 421 of accompanying CD

"On-Demand-Personalized-Tutoring" Network of Retired Smart People

Combine Baby Boom retirees with Web 2.0 technology?
From Steve Gilbert Sept 15, 2009 - Google Doc   TLT-SWG Blog   
A network of people ".. with resources who can answer many questions immediately and direct the person to a 'library' online that will help the person (client) with really hard stuff." That's what Henry Holcomb, U. Md. Sch. of Med., suggested after reading "At Your Fingers, an Oxford Don" by Steve Lohr, NYT.
1. Would you welcome the service he describes?
2. Do you have friendly amendments to suggest? Or reasons for discarding this idea?
3. Is there already something so similar available that we should look no further? Even within one academic discipline or field of knowledge?

A. Holcomb's Hope: "on-demand-personalized-tutoring"
" personal librarian / scout master / big brother helper.

"...Reflected on an article on individualized tutoring sessions in today's NY Times. Only solution that comes to mind for 'on-demand-personalized-tutoring,' might be a network of retired smart people working with smart people in college and those recently graduated, a network of people with resources who can answer many questions immediately and direct the person to a 'library' online that will help the person (client) with really hard stuff. You might call this the 'Distributed Alexandrian Project.' a reference to the vast ancient information lost when the Libraries of Alexandria burned (several times i suspect). Only through a distributed system of interested, smart people with some time to spend are we likely to create the sort of individual tutoring system (NYTimes Today) that we all find so helpful. It might cost a few dollars for each session. Of course creating such a network in the context of a successful business model is another matter. It would be useful to know how many unemployed / retired engineers, scientists, scholars are puttering around their gardens waiting for you to call them.

"...I genuinely believe that a 'scholar-scientist-engineer network,' could be done.
There is an immense number of knowledgeable people with time on their hands. Some are students and some
are people retired or looking for work.
And there is an even greater number of people like me looking for answers to complex questions.
There is no 'easy' way to connect the two communities.
Optimally one would like to ask an expert to convene a 'study group' to help solve a problem or
create a training program. People will pay for this. I'm sure of it. Especially if there is some sort of flexible fee schedule.

"...'I'm especially keen on the idea of providing people with different 'levels' of consult. Some might need only to be
guided through a maze of online choices while others will want and pay for help in solving complex database designs. Not unlike having an online personal librarian / scout master / big brother helper.
could be cool.  Finding the clients is another matter and advertising it even trickier."

Henry H. Holcomb, M.D.
Prof., Psych, U. Md School of Medicine
Maryland Psychiatric Research Center

B. Why "At Your Fingers, an Oxford Don" is NOT what I'm waiting for
Tutorials are not best for everyone for every purpose. Most human beings seem to learn many important things better in something like a traditional classroom and course. Especially if the course includes at least one good teacher and some engaged learners (and not too many disengaged learners), some appropriately selected technology and teaching techniques, and a sequence of activities carefully structured by the teacher and colleagues.

"SINCE the 16th century, the ideal of education has been the tutorial system pioneered at Oxford and Cambridge, nurturing young minds one to one, inquiring, prodding and encouraging. The tutorial method, research shows, is a proven winner.
"For all its promise to improve education, technology is still no match for one human tutoring another — which, of course, cannot be used to educate large numbers of students and is expensive."
Lohr, Steve. "At Your Fingers, an Oxford Don." 12 Sept. 2009. Web. 14 Sept. 2009. <>.

Private tutorials are NOT the best way to learn everything for everyone
This article repeats a frequent and dangerous oversimplification of options for learning. Lohr implies there are only two (maybe two and a half):
1. private tutorials, and
2. "stand-and-lecture factory approach"
[the half is a brief mention of "project-based learning" - not clear if PBL is considered part of 1 or 2 or something else]

Zealots emerge every few years and proclaim the end of classroom instruction shortly after some new technology arrives. The rest of us are expected to enthusiastically accept the superiority FOR ALMOST ALL LEARNERS AND TEACHERS of the apparent ability of the new technology to record and make easily accessible traditional lectures and permit independent, individualized learning "anytime, anywhere". Scheduled face-to-face meetings are often described and disdained as if they were merely unfortunate by-products of political pressure: a convenient mechanism to provide some semblance of education for the masses who cannot afford the real thing. Once the shouting stops, we usually discover that for some learners, for some purposes, and for some teachers, new technologies and new ways of teaching and learning are very effective and better than what was previously available. That includes new options for individualized, independent learning. But the greater progress is often found more slowly in adaptations of new technologies and methods to improve, enhance, or extend the content and quality of more traditionally structured courses.

Steven W. Gilbert
President, The TLT Group

Monday, September 14, 2009

6. Old idea: To improve TLT, Improve the Org'l Pyramid

Here's what I once believed about how to organize an institution in order to improve teaching and learning with technology.

The pyramid of authority and accountability: institution is organized like a pyramid, with the chief academic officer and, ultimately, the president at the peak of the academic program. (This is belief #6 of ten things I used to believe about improving teaching and learning with technology.)

The flow of information: Ideas and needs are first discussed within a unit. Then, if necessary, a request or action percolates up to a person senior enough to make that choice. That authority then makes sure the decision is implemented. In other words, the main lines of communication are vertical: requests and information may rise up the chain; decisions and information flow down the chain.

Faculty Autonomy: However, the tenure track faculty member rules his or her own course (and research, if there is some) absolutely. In this realm, everyone else at the institution must defer to the faculty member. Not even other faculty can intervene. (I remember visiting an institution around 1990 that was developing a major distance learning program; faculty were quite concerned about the fact that other faculty might be able to see what was going on in their courses.)

Under no circumstances should support staff appear to tell faculty members what it's best for them to do in those areas.

Implications for teaching and learning with technology: Things are different in the realm of facilities for teaching (e.g., classrooms, course management systems, distance learning). In many institutions, faculty may be told what facilities they must, can, or cannot use. It is assumed that telling a faculty member what facility to use, or how to use it, has no implications for what the faculty member teaches, or how.

Organizing Information Technology (IT) Services: Because IT supports most activities at the institution, one way and another, someone needs to be in charge of that fabric of support: ideally a Chief Information Officer of some sort. The CIO's span of control needs to be wide, probably including the library, in order to assure adequate coordination and reduction of redundancy.

Faculty Input: Because the IT organization needs to be responsive to faculty needs, and because, when the IT organization wants to do something, they would like faculty compliance, many IT units organize faculty advisory committees. The faculty most likely to agree to serve are those who care most about exciting new technology.

Funds for Improvement: as a non-profit that (to quote Howard Bowen, the economist of higher education) 'raises all the money it can, spends all the money it gets, and spends that money pretty much the same way it did last year,' an institution of higher education rarely has much of its own venture capital. So the entrepreneurial faculty member is more likely to make major improvements by raising money from outside (grants) than by soliciting it internally.

Summing up: Decision about new or changed technology-enabled facilities for learning will come top down. Decisions about improving learning will come from individual faculty who care about these possibilities, making changes at the level of individual assignments and courses. The ability to use technology to make a big improvement in a course may well depend on whether an external grant can be obtained.

So that's a summary of what I once accepted as the realities of the organization of higher education. As a young funder of innovation (when I started, in 1978), I assumed that the best grant-funded innovations would gradually diffuse throughout higher education. In those days, I didn't pause to wonder if the organization of higher education might make it quite difficult for most students to benefit from the practices, tools, and materials that our pilot projects were demonstrating.

How would you tweak the organization of higher education in order to support pervasive improvements in what have students learned, how they have learned, and who has learned by the time they graduate? Please click the word 'comment' below (just to the right of my name) to add your views. (Because we're personally moderating the comments in order to block spam, there will be a delay before your comment actually appears.)

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

E. Save Time: Transform Learning

Saving time can be key to using technology to create a pervasive lasting improvement in teaching and learning. No need to wait for new technology in order to achieve such benefits. Consider this example from over twenty years ago.

In 1987 Ray Lewis and I were studying how faculty could take advantage of computing to improve teaching and learning. We spent a day interviewing faculty and staff at Reed College, a superlative private college in Portland Oregon. Current seniors had had Macintoshes since freshman year.

During our day on campus, we interviewed a small number of faculty members scattered across eight departments. They had been selected because they believed that student use of computers was a real asset for their courses. We wanted to know why they thought so: what they had learned about teaching and learning with technology.

It quickly became apparent that each instructor had taken advantage of students' use of computers in very different ways. But, as the interviews unfolded, we discovered that there was one thing that all of them had done. As two of them put it, 'I'm no longer embarrassed to ask the student to do it over again.' 

Back in the day of the typewriter, writing was akin to sculpting in stone. Faculty would make an assignment, students would often type one draft, perhaps use 'whiteout' to correct words here and there, and turn it in. Now, with word processing, Reed students and faculty were discovering that they could revise a word, sentence, paragraph and paper more quickly and easily. Initially it was a time-saver. But, as revising became more common, prolonged, and deep, writing became like sculpting in clay: you could try an argument, look at what you'd done, think about it, hear what others thought, and reshape it. The screen became a mirror to the mind, helping thought grow.

So these faculty saw the promise and had gradually changed their syllabi: assignments were now made in stages: plan, feedback, draft, peer critique, another draft, final version. None of the faculty mentioned any dramatic redesign of their courses: instead, over the years, they had tweaked their syllabi and their techniques. By now, the change in the rhythm of assignments had become substantial.

That day, I asked a couple of seniors if their abilities had been influenced by their use of computers over their four years at Reed. One of them replied that he'd learned that it's not one's first draft or thought that matters, but only the final version. When I asked from which course he’d learned that lesson, he replied, “I don’t think I could have learned that from just one course. But, over the years, it gradually sank in.” Apparently this change in the shape of courses at Reed had been widespread, enough so that this student had seen this kind of teaching again and again over his four years.

By early afternoon it was clear that we were seeing a pattern. So I started asking if this change in teaching was having an impact on the skills of graduating seniors. The three remaining interviewees replied the same way: Reed's senior theses had improved. (At Reed, a senior thesis is the product of two semesters of research.) ‘Part of that is simply because it’s easier to revise a long paper when you’re using a computer,’ said the director of the writing program, ‘but I think our students have gradually learned more about how to assemble and refine a complex intellectual argument.’

At the end of that day of interviews, Ray and I sat down with several senior faculty and administrators. We told them pretty much the same story I’ve just recounted. They were surprised. There had been no centralized push, no faculty workshops, no inspiring leader urging colleagues to build revision into the curriculum. Apparently large numbers of students and faculty, seeing similar opportunities to save time and improve their work, had responded in similar ways.

Years later, I read Walter Ong’s classic Orality and Literacy. Ong suggested that reading and writing enable people to gradually develop a complex arguments, a way of thinking quite different from that found in preliterate cultures. 

Similarly, when Reed began using word processing as a lever to enable more critique and more revision, students might well advance to a new level of critical thinking. And critical thinking is one of the most important goals of education.

Remember the backdrop of this story. It had always been possible to revise a draft, and some students must have gone through several drafts before submitting a paper, even when using pen or typewriter. But word processing saves time when revising, enough time so that revision could begin to play a very different kind of role in helping students learn to think.

This time-saving use of word processing for revision led to what I'd call a “transformation” of education at Reed, i.e., a pervasive, lasting change in academic work that probably led to important improvements in how Reed graduates could think.

What does this story about saving time suggest how to transform teaching and learning with technology in the future? Here are the lessons I learned:
  • The activity: Select a routine activity that is important in studying and in life. At Reed. the activity was revising a paper. For an engineering program, the activity might be some aspect of design or analysis. In a humanities field, the activity might be using and discussing source materials in several different media. The activity should be something that students and faculty do frequently, across the course of study.
  • The technology: Then find ways in which some technology now enables students and faculty to save time while carrying out that activity. The technology is probably so familiar that the technology pioneers in your program don't even think of it as 'technology' anymore. But the technology should be popular, inexpensive, and easy to use. When someone learns applies this technology to the activity, they should quickly get a thrill: initially because the activity is now much quicker and easier, and later because in some way the activity is also better when done this way.
  • Avalanche about to happen: In the first bullet above, I said to “select one or more routine activities,” but perhaps a better verb would have been “discover.” Look for people who are already saving time by using this technology in this way, and getting such a charge out of that change that they're already telling a few colleagues about it. If you're on the right track – the right activity, the right use of technology – you'll have discovered an avalanche that is about to happen. Your role: help to trigger it, so that your program can progress this way more quickly and easily, and perhaps before your competitors do.
  • Cumulative impact: You're looking for a changed activity whose benefits can add up, course after course, to some significant improvements in how graduating students think, what they know, what they can do, what they appreciate...
  • Evaluation: That's what was missing at Reed. If my inferences at the end of that day in 1987 were correct, Reed had made important progress. But the leadership didn't even know the change had occurred. So they hadn't applauded it, guided it, or funded it. They had no evidence to share with faculty, students, or potential benefactors. They didn't know where progress had been usually rapid, or unusually slow, or whether to pay attention to either. The smaller the steps toward improvement, and the more pervasive and bottom-up that progress, the more important it is to use programmatic research to help the faculty as a whole see what they're doing so that they can discuss and decide what to do next. I'll discuss how to do this kind of research in a future post.
This strategy may be counter-intuitive: no hot new technology, for example, and not necessarily any need for a big grant. But I suspect this bottom-up, time-saving strategy may often be the best way to alter who can learn, what they learn, and how they learn. It's an example of what my colleague, Steve Gilbert, has called 'frugal innovation.' ***** PS. We're now half way through this series of posts, the last five weeks on goals for using technology and the next five weeks on strategies to reach those five goals. This table includes links to each past post, and my evolving plans for coming posts. Print References Ong, Walter (1982), Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, London and New York: Routledge.

Monday, September 07, 2009

5. Save time by using technology

My fifth goal for using technology in education was saving time. Word processing is a time-saver, compared with pens or typewriters (especially if your first drafts aren’t perfect). Course management systems made it easier to put course materials and activities on the Web. Smart phones save time when you need to look up facts.

But it quickly became apparent that ‘time-saving’ can be a mirage. The faster that technologies appear and disappear, the more frequently we must become novices again, mechanically following directions, fumbling, energy sapped by frustration.

And each time a new technology makes a learning activity easier, the older generation worries (correctly) that ‘time-saving’ can corrupt learning. Written language is a technology. Long ago, Socrates warned that reading removed the motivation for people to train their memories. And students could repeat what they'd read without actually understanding the meaning, fooling everyone (including themselves) into thinking they'd learned something. His warnings came true.

These worries have a moral edge, too. “When I was your age, I had to slog through the snow…” is a lament that the new generation lacks the spiritual strength and character developed by hard labor. The opening chapter of Morison's classic Men Machines and Modern Times recounts a bit of history that helps explain why professionals can resist a new technology, precisely because that technology would make their work easier, quicker, and safer.

So I counted 'time-saving' as a reason to invest in technology, but I didn’t have much respect for it. I wasn’t alone. In the 1990s, I heard many, many people moan that 'my institution has spent huge amounts of money on computing, and it’s only being used for word processing!’

What reasons are cited when your program buys new hardware or software for teaching and learning. How often is ‘saving time’ the #1 reason? Does your institution offer workshops for students or faculty with the title ‘How to use Technology to Save Time?’ Why, or why not? Please post your comments below by clicking the word "comments" just to the right of "Posted by Steve Ehrmann".

Tomorrow, I'll tell a story about an educational transformation, two decades ago, that happened because word processing saved time.

Print References
Morison, Elting E., Men, Machines and Modern Times, Cambridge, MA and London, England: MIT Press, 1966.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

D. Save time(money) while improving programs (10 Things I Believe)

I used to believe that education functioned like a recipe: invest in this technology, use it in that way, and you probably get certain educational gains for some particular cost. For example, as a consultant, I'd suggest starting or expanding a distance learning program in order to reach more students at a reasonable cost per student.

Perhaps you think that way, too. Did you ever say, "I can't run a program and produce good results if you give me that tiny a budget!" or "Let's look at the average of what institutions like ours spend on X, so that we can figure out what to spend on X." Both statements rest on the assumption that higher education is at least vaguely like a recipe: if you want to produce a good angel cake, it takes a certain amount of flour, yeast, eggs and so on. Too little or too much of any one ingredient: equally wasteful.

But economist Howard Bowen did a major study (Bowen, 1980) showing that very similar institutions of higher education (similar governance, physical setting, and reputation) spent very different amounts of money per student, and spent each dollar in quite different ways. In other words, there is no 'recipe' (production function) that relates higher education spending with higher education results. So one distance learning program with a particular design and a particular reputation might have low costs per student while another with a similar design and reputation might have high costs per student. Revenues, of course, can vary unpredictably as well.

Having said that, traditional budgets can be misleading. They divide costs by organizational unit, hiding the true costs of educational activities. Each activity is supported by people from several departments and offices. Higher education budgets go mostly to pay for people's time. So the real costs of any given activity (a distance learning program, a large course, an institution's use of clickers) - the real costs of any such activity are driven by how the individuals involved each choose to ‘spend their time.’

I’ll never forget a workshop on cost modeling that we ran some years ago. A faculty member and several staff members were creating a simple spreadsheet that listed the time (money) it took them to implement help that faculty member use a new technology at their college. So the faculty member recorded how he had spent time, and whom he'd asked for help. Those ‘helpers’ also recorded how much time each of them had invested, and noted when they each had asked the instructor to do something.

By the time I listened in, all of them were in a state of shock. Each individual had known that their own roles had been time-consuming (i.e., expensive). But each had assumed that, when they had asked one of the others to do something, it didn’t take that other person much time. However, when they totaled the time each of them had spent, they realized for the first time that the total time (cost) had been staggering.

These kinds of spreadsheets are called activity-based cost models, because they total all the costs associated with doing a particular thing in a particular way. If you can model how something really gets done in your program, you can then use your model to help figure out how to do that thing better, with less stress, and at lower cost. Several of us wrote a book on how to create such models, the Flashlight Cost Analysis Handbook.

At this point, you may be thinking that the way to reduce costs of an activity is for staff to spend less time on that activity. That's a good way to drive away your best staff, if you inadvertently cut down those activities that are most motivating for them! The Handbook includes a wonderful case study by David Pope and Helen Anderson on improving (and cutting the costs of) undergraduate engineering laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania (Pope and Anderson, 2003). Instead of asking each faculty and staff member how much total time they spent on different aspects of running the laboratory, Pope and Anderson asked them to separate time that was fulfilling from time that was burdensome (e.g., training students how to use the laboratory equipment). Armed with those kinds of insights, the Penn team redesigned the engineering laboratories in a way that simultaneously improved learning and made teaching more satisfying, while reducing costs for staff time, equipment breakage, and space.

We've known for years that such cost modeling can produce important insights into how to reorganize work. But it has been so frustrating to see how rarely institutions actually look at their own work. Either times are good so no one cares about costs, or else times are bad so no one has time to do the study...

Nonetheless, what I now believe is:
  1. Institutions often have no idea what specific programmatic uses of technology cost, because those costs are spread across different units and consist largely of how individuals spend their time;
  2. if a program does study such costs, that study creates opportunities to make programs more effective and work more fulfilling, while also controlling costs.

PS One organization that has done a lot in this area is the National Center for Academic Transformation. Their Redesign Alliance has a couple workshops coming up this fall, focusing on redesigns of large enrollment courses in ways that can improve learning while reducing per-student costs.

Note on this series of blog posts: "Ten Things I (no longer) Believe about Transforming Teaching and Learning with Technology" was introduced in this post. Past posts (and my evolving ideas for future posts) are summarized in this table.

Print References
Bowen, Howard R. (1980), The Costs of Higher Education: How Much Do Colleges and Universities Spend per Student and How Much Should They Spend? San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Pope, D. & Anderson, H. (2003). Reducing the costs of laboratory instruction through the use of on-line laboratory instruction. In S. C. Ehrmann, & J. Milam (eds.), The Flashlight Cost Analysis Handbook: Modeling Resource Use in Teaching and Learning with Technology, Version 2.0. Takoma Park, MD: The TLT Group.