Thursday, November 05, 2009

M. Improve infrastructure conservatively, cumulatively

This week, we're discussing a program's foundational technologies for teaching and learning: learning management systems, suites of productivity software, and basic, semi-specialized tools that are widely used such as mathematics software and online databases. Monday's post described a traditional strategy: upgrade these utilities periodically, in order to keep up with, or pass, one's competitors by providing the best, fastest, richest tools and resources that the program can afford for its faculty, students, and staff. 

Today I would add that there's a creative tension that needs to be managed very carefully between:
  • The need to help your faculty and students make progress, especially improvements in practice and outcomes selected as long-term priorities by their departments and by the institution as a whole.
  • The need to avoid disrupting delicate patterns of incremental, cumulative improvement of teaching/learning skills and materials.
One way to reduce the chances (or frequency) of disruption is to consider how to minimize that risk right from day #1.  

For example, over the years, many mathematics tutorials and modeling packages have come and gone. Sometimes they disappear and no new technologies provide an escape route.  Yesterday's faculty are left to mourn now-obsolete curricular materials that had been built to take advantage of the vanished software.  Software designed for instructional purposes, especially when using proprietary materials, poses a known risk of disruption when the package becomes obsolete. 

In contrast, since about 1980, students in a variety of disciplines have been using spreadsheets to do calculations, modeling, gaming, and simulations. Any faculty member who began developing curricular materials based on VisiCalc (a spreadsheet of that period) could have made incremental curricular progress from that day to this, even though, over the decades, their tools might have shifted from VisiCalc (which no longer exists) to Lotus 1-2-3 (which no longer exists) and then to Excel , and then to OpenOffice or Google Docs.  The transitions could happen with  minimal disruption because new spreadsheets are usually able ot read the files of old spreadsheet programs and because the interfaces are usually similar. So materials and skills could develop incrementally and cumulatively, even while one technology was being swapped for another. And it's a reasonably good bet that an instructional practice based on spreadsheets will continue to have good chances for incremental, cumulative improvement as unpredictable new, more powerful spreadsheets make their appearance in future years.

Consider a current challenge to smooth progress: electronic portfolios. Some uses of ePortfolios imply that the institution will, over a period of years, store and use student works, reflections, faculty assessment, and other feedback about the student's work. These records are all linked together. So, for example, the institution will need to know for years to come which project that each comment was about, which projects were for the same assignment in the same course, and, of course, which projects were done by the same student.

Suppose, for example, a department decides today to buy ePortfolio technology #1 in order to organize, use and store all that interlinked information. That institution must be able to use those records, and add to them, even when ePortfolio technology #1 is replaced by technology #2.  Therefore the export of those files and their linkages from technology #1 to technology #2 must be easy, quick, and inexpensive.

What I'm suggesting, in other words, is that the institution think cautiously about using ePortfolios for this purpose if there isn't high confidence that they can export all those records and relationships from technology #1 and then import them easily into a hypothetical technology #2. The sustainability of the innovation and the continuity of the technology are related issues.  (Notice that this is only sometimes a problem. For example, if ePortfolios are used in courses and are finished when the course ends, one probably only needs to be able to export the web of project plus comments, without a need to import the record to any other ePortfolio system. It's the academic record uses of ePortfolios that pose a more daunting requirement for technological continuity across vendors.

Is the technology which you might buy today likely to gracefully give way to successor technologies, while not disrupting those innovative educational practices which are the justification for today's purchase?

PS That risk of disruption is the bad news. Here's the good news. Every year we have more technologies that are useful, reliable, inexpensive, and sustainable (and thus almost beneath notice).  So our options for technological foundations for sustainable educational improvements are multiplying every year.

What have you seen? Do these observations mirror what your program already does? Contradict current practice? 

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