Sunday, November 01, 2009

13. Make great leaps forward in technology infrastructure (??)

I once would have agreed that the big job for any chief technology officer is to assess the adequacy of major systems: the foundation on which the faculty teach and the students learn. If it's possible to do the job better now, replace the old systems. If there are important things that people can't yet do, provide new technology to help them do those things. Obviously, if you're going to make such changes, you should be ambitious, right?  Your faculty and students deserve the best, most modern, and exciting tools that your institution can reasonably afford. And, if you make a splash in the process or get big discounts from vendors introducing a new line, so much the better.

The important thing is to get things done, and get them done quickly. Consultation, especially too much consultation, will bog you down, and then nothing will happen. So check with a few tech-savvy friends among the faculty and staff, buy the new technology, and then announce what you've done. In the end, hopefully, they'll thank you for it.

That kind of strategy used to make sense to me.

However one impact of this process, at too many institutions, has been festering resentment by many faculty and staff, who feel repeatedly betrayed. The skills and materials that relied on the old technology-- much of that was rendered useless with each leap forward. Suddenly there was new, often unreliable, expensive, mysterious Technology to learn. Once again the experts had to become novices. And, when faculty members ask the institution to support technologies Y or Z, they are told, "Sorry, but we already bought technology X. Use that instead."

Even worse, the previous leap forward in infrastructure -- the advance made a few years back -- was supposed to promote a certain kind of educational improvement.  However, some of those betrayed faculty now simply drop off the bandwagon rather than retool yet again.  Others are now distracted by the demands of the new technology and the need to rework those parts of their courses that had been supported by the old infrastructure - instructions, assignments, assessments. And, of course, the new leap forward may be justified by a new educational priority which implicitly displaces the old one.  

I've been writing this series of blog posts because of the important improvements in teaching and learning that technology makes possible. But the sad truth is that many such TLT improvements have been derailed by rapture of the technology. Thoughtless changes in infrastructure can disrupt the very improvements that they are supposed to support.

Is this an accurate description of how technology infrastructure has been built at your institution?  Have you seen infrastructure changes that disrupt the educational improvements they were supposed to support?  If your institution has been able to make steady educational progress while periodically updating its infrastructure, how was this done? Please share your experiences below. If this series of blog posts have been good food for thought, please tell your colleagues.


  1. Steve: I'd like to know what examples you have in mind. That would help. But I also think that any technology revolution consists of 90 percent failures; what else would we expect? Faculty are not victims -- they are supposed to be out in front investigating their field and what useful new approaches are working. Our culture has moved forward; time for faculty to be adult and look around them. I'm not sure I like this new tack -- but as always, I appreciate your comments.

  2. Hi Trent,
    Steve Gilbert and I have visited many institutions where there has been bad blood between faculty and IT administration because of some technology tool that IT has purchased and now requires faculty to use (sometimes also denying faculty the option of getting a tool they'd prefer).
    If you mean examples of curricular disruption caused by the disappearance of software, I was thinking mostly of curricular software I've seen over the years (some of which I helped fund while working for FIPSE and Annenberg/CPB, 1978-96): educationally successful, spread modestly for a few years, and then disappeared. Lots of versions 1.0, very few 2.0s.

  3. I have visited many institutions where there has been bad blood between faculty and IT administration because of some technology tool that IT has purchased and now requires faculty to use.


What do you think?