Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Collaboration vs. Support Service Crisis [Oldie But Goodie] tlt.gs/SSvcCrisis


At most colleges and universities the supply of resources available to help faculty improve teaching and learning with technology is simply inadequate to meet rising expectations.  In addition, these resources are usually not well-coordinated – wasteful duplication is too common.  The usual lack of coordination and collaboration among different parts of most educational institutions compounds the impact of the shortage of support service professionals and undermines the college’s or university’s capacity to adopt and adapt valuable new combinations of technology, pedagogy, and educational purpose.  These combinations can only be developed and used effectively if the essential expertise and resources controlled by the “Constituencies for Change” [see below] can be focused TOGETHER on improving teaching and learning. 

Attractive new technology applications keep arriving faster than colleges and universities can integrate them.  As Mark Milliron suggested in a presentation in October, 1999 at the League for Innovation in the Community College annual technology conference:  every six months, with the arrival of the next exciting application or the next significant update to the standard suite of office tools, everyone is a novice once again.  Most novices ask lots of predictable questions which can be easily and quickly answered. 

As faculty become more experienced users of technology, many of them need less help with new “introductory” questions.  However, these veterans are likely to see how they might use it to achieve more sophisticated, educationally attractive goals.  Their questions and support needs become more complex and require more expert, possibly lengthy assistance.

The variety of technology tools and applications used at most colleges and universities also exacerbates technical support problems.  In many other industries, institutional standardization on certain hardware, software, and related tools can reduce support costs by restricting the variety of technical support services provided.  Unfortunately, this kind of standardization may reduce instructional options and, thereby, conflict with some interpretations of academic freedom.

The availability of appropriately skilled professionals may be diminishing just when the demands for technical support on most campuses are increasing.  Because the technology “support service crisis” isn’t limited to education, many of these same professionals are discovering they can get similar jobs in industry with much higher salaries and less stress. Fortunately, some still prefer the flexibility and variety in their work on campus;  and they value opportunities to work with students, teachers, and researchers available only in academia.

One of education’s unique resources, the students, provide the most promising response to the shortage of campus technical professionals.  Several colleges and universities are developing or expanding programs to train and engage students as assistants with technology and related support services.  But so far, these programs have only slowed the rate of widening in the gap between resources and expectations;  they haven’t reduced the need for professional staff – nor are they likely too.

The “Support Service Crisis” is most visible with respect to technology support personnel. Closely related causes have the same effects for librarians, faculty development professionals, instructional design and media specialists, etc.  As more faculty and students use the Web, librarians’ advice and assistance are more frequently needed to help navigate this new information resource and evaluate the credibility of the sources.  As faculty members shift from personal productivity uses of technology to instructional applications, they more often need the help of those with related professional expertise (instructional design, faculty development, pedagogy).  As faculty members become more comfortable with the Web and more conscious of students’ different learning styles (visual, audio, …) many of them begin to explore the educational potential of new media and need the help of experts in their use.

Finally, fragmentation and the unintended overlapping of academic support services is getting more common in response to the new pressures just described: 
- Librarians find they are providing technical support (“How do I print?” instead of “Where can I find information about X?”). 
- Technology, media, and instructional design professionals find they are providing pedagogical support (“How do I use this tool to teach topic Y in my course?”). 
- Pedagogy experts and faculty development professionals find they are providing technical training (“How do I convert my outline to PowerPoint slides?”  “How can I use a Web-based discussion to support collaborative learning?”). 

The gap is widening between the level of support services available and the expectations of faculty members, administrators, and students.  Consequently, more coordination and collaboration among these service units may reduce, but not eliminate, the need for more academic support professionals.  The Support Service Crisis is getting worse.

The use of information technology is clearly not an educational panacea – a cure for all problems.  Information technology can be the excuse and the means to move closer to educational goals that we have been unable to achieve for decades – and to some new ones. With enough commitment of resources, thoughtful effort, patience, and luck technology will help more than it hurts.

- from Observations Section of "A New Vision Worth Working Toward: Connected Education and Collaborative Change," Steven W. Gilbert, 2000-2006, First version published via AAHESGIT listserv January, 2000; PDF of full article

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