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.)

1 comment:

  1. Steve,

    I really enjoyed reading this. It mirrors my career in many ways (I've been supporting technology integration into TL since 1979).

    I never really reflected on what I used to believe. Partly because I cannot remember and partly because there seems to have been years in my career where I was mostly reacting.

    When I read through the things you (used to) believe I find myself thinking about how technology is changing all these "rules." Given the accelerating pace of change how can a pyramid of authority and accountability even work? How can ideas survive long enough to see the light of day when they need to move through a unit, and then percolate? Something new seems to appear that lays waste to ideas before they can even be crystallized.

    I don't have any good answers for how to tweak the IT organization to deal with this. I do wonder if we are quickly entering an era where faculty and students will by-pass the IT organization and just use the technologies as they like without much input from us ITers.

    Why will they need us soon? What value will IT bring to the table?


What do you think?