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Thoughts on Who Chooses What Ed Tech to Buy for the College Classroom? Jenae Cohn – Chronicle of Higher Education

Given my job and my interests, I probably spend more time than most people thinking about how educational institutions implement educational technologies. This is not something that gets much coverage at all in research literature about technology enhanced learning or ed tech, most likely because it is big and messy and complex. Most things I have seen about ed tech relate to specific interventions to see what impact a tool has on learning and teaching – which is, you know, pretty important. Alternatively another major strand seems to consist of feelings about ed tech – either at scale or individual wailing about the (sometimes legitimate) failings and ethical/moral problems of certain tools and approaches. Again, these can be important discussions to have.

I was excited to see this article in the Chronicle of Higher Education crop up in my Twitter feed today though from Dr Jenae Cohn, the director of academic technology at California State University at Sacramento. These are certainly questions and concerns that I’ve heard before but it was nice to see them articulated so clearly and evenhandedly.

Recognising that there are, of course, cultural/operational/organisational differences between HE institutions in the US and Australia and definitely different terminology, hopefully I read and understood it as intended. My biggest response was – where are your educational technologists? These challenges sound a lot like what we work to address every day (with varying degrees of success, sure). There is a reference to ed tech professionals at the end but I do wonder what differences there are in how we work and what we do.

Anyway, from here, this is largely going to be my direct responses to some of the key points. Apologies if I’m overdoing the quotes.

“Decisions about educational technology can appear opaque to academics. On the flip side, the IT staff in charge of acquiring the technology may find faculty preferences in the classroom to be similarly hazy and ill-defined.”This is literally why we have educational technologists (and also do reasonable business analysis), to be the bridge between educators and IT.

“Yet decisions surrounding digital tools — and the professional development necessary to use them effectively — seem to have no clear catalyzing origin for either faculty or staff members.” Agreed there is definitely a need for better communication, but at the same time, I’ve tried to explain the complexities of these processes only to see people’s eyes glaze over.

“Staff members and administrators often do not know why or how instructors intend to use certain ed-tech tools. The staff and administrative role is just to facilitate their purchasing and support.” So this is possibly a US/Australia thing – by administrators do you mean institutional managers/leaders (many of which are academics) or IT dept leaders? Here at least, IT dept leaders seldom make these kinds of calls without direction from the senior academic leaders in the institution. And, again, this is why we have educational technologists.

“Meanwhile, faculty members seem to think that some amorphous administrative body just decides to buy random ed tech purely for the sake of buying the latest fancy technology. Sometimes that perception aligns with reality; sometimes it doesn’t.” Again, these top end decisions here are frequently driven by senior academic leaders but the point about an amorphous admin body is well taken and sometimes decisions can even surprise the ed tech units too.

“Poor channels of communication. Because the faculty and the staff operate in separate spheres on most campuses, whether communication about teaching technology is clear and consistent often depends on where, and how, the ed-tech staff members are housed in an institution. On a single campus, you might find some ed-tech staff members in an IT department. Others are in campus teaching centres. Still others may be housed in an academic-affairs office or as part of a distinct online-learning division.” Certainly a challenge – in Australia at least, most ed tech units with the power to roll out ed tech uni wide sit in a central Learning and Teaching division and work with uni IT. There are often local ed techs in discipline based teaching centres (which we call faculties or colleges). There can also be a cultural component in HE institutions where academics tend not to talk that much to professional staff about these kinds of issues.

“Lack of representation. While faculty perspectives often shape campus technology choices, the mechanisms for collecting those perspectives may not always be representative. Some institutions have designated faculty-senate groups to discuss the choice and implementation of educational technology. But those committees may not be representative of the full range of faculty and staff voices and needs. In addition, those governance committees may not always consistently communicate with the staff members who are directly responsible for getting the technology up and running.” Any decent tech implementation project should first examine the business (learning and teaching) needs – which necessarily involves understanding what educators need (and want). An education technology will usually also need to address other institutional needs however (technical, security, financial, policy, etc), so educator input can’t be the only consideration. The question of how representative these representative groups is a fair one, with the potential for more senior educators who teach less to fill their ranks. One thing I’ve seen in Australia is that we will often seek out known ‘power-users’ or innovators in a faculty to inform decision making – which may still offer a skewed understanding of the needs of ‘average’ educators.

“Instructors going rogue. Faculty members may opt to use online teaching tools without the explicit support or licensing of their institution — turning the ed-tech environment on any campus into an idiosyncratic jumble that differs from one course to the next.” Certainly presents some challenges – ed technologists and central units actually don’t want to discourage innovative teaching practices and frequently do whatever they can to support localised implementations. Where value is demonstrated, with potential to be used more widely, they will even work to embed these new tools in the enterprise/institutional ed tech ecosystem. BUT there can be problems with integrating with existing systems (the LMS, student management etc), problems with support, accessibility, security and privacy and often problems when the person who was a big driver of using a tool moves on, leaving their colleagues abandoned.

Two suggestions:   

1) Give faculty members with expertise in college teaching a joint appointment in administrative units where they can directly influence campus decision-making about teaching — especially around purchases of educational technology.

Decision making in this space rarely happens quickly so there would likely be long periods where this person/people may have little to do. Developing stronger models for input (which many ed tech units are at least mindful of) might be more valuable. Also revisiting the weighting of priorities in the evaluation and procurement of new tools, while recognising that learning and teaching aren’t the only factors at play. Also, how would such people be found and, more pragmatically, how would we deal with institutional politics of it all? Would STEM academics accept someone from the humanities? How many would we need then? Some kind of embedding sounds useful but…

“2) Rethink the role of educational-technology professionals on campus and allow them to engage in a mix of scholarship, teaching, and administration. That way new research on college teaching directly influences technology procurement, testing, and implementation”.

Well, as an education technologist, clearly, I think this is ingenious. I have actually been advocating for this for a while but breaking down some of these perceived barriers between academics and professional staff and giving ed techs this richer experience of an academic’s work and needs can only help everyone.

This article is timely for another reason in that I’ve recently been looking at revising a Twine branching scenario game that I built with some colleagues (Wendy Taleo, Stephanie Luo and Kate Mitchell) in 2019 about choosing and implementing ed technologies. Bear in mind that it is a work in progress but enough is done to play through the process in around 20 mins.
Cohn, J. (2021, June 3). Advice | Who Chooses What Ed Tech to Buy for the College Classroom? The Chronicle of Higher Education.