Time spent at the Lausanne Laptop Institute (#LI11) this week got me thinking about a change happening to the role of Academic Technologists in our schools. I am sure to revisit this more in subsequent postings.
It seems to me that the role of the Academic Technologists (a staple position at independent schools over the past ten years) is morphing into the role of Instructional Designer of (increasingly online) course material.
When the role of Academic Technologists first emerged, the job could be summed up easily: help faculty catch up. Schools realized that the students’ facility with technology and digital communications (the natives to the world of technology) often far surpassed that of the faculty (the immigrants). And so, the Academic Technologists were there to help bridge the divide. They ran workshops for faculty on every thing imaginable: powerpoint, email, browsers, databases, etc. They worked one-on-one with faculty. And, they worked hand-in-hand with faculty in classrooms as they used “new” technology for the first time.
Five years ago, more progressive schools began to shift their models so that the Academic Technologist worked within a triumvirate with classroom teachers and librarians. The idea for this construct being that the subject-matter expert (the teacher), the guide for knowledge seeking (the librarian), and the guide through technology (the technologist) could team up to create new and exciting ways for teachers to deliver content to their students.
But, this model has been changing too. As of late, it has become much easier both to use educational technology and to learn it. Five years ago, YouTube did not have videos that taught you everything you needed to know about Powerpoint and Microsoft did not have self-guided courses on Excel (much less did something like Prezi even exist). Today, those resources are readily available, and many faculty are beginning to take advantage of them.
The other shift that is taking place in schools is a greater reliance on and creation of online learning environments both for organization of course materials and for delivery of the course. Schools are using Learning Management Systems (LMS) to a much larger degree to help students and faculty manage the content of courses and to engage students in online work. And, schools are also increasingly using online computer-based instruction and analytics tools (particularly in lower school reading and math) to gauge student successes.
Not surprisingly, it is the Academic Technologists within schools who have been in the position to learn about new online learning environments first, and begin to put them to use (younger teachers have often played this role, too). They built robust course pages first; used blogs, wikis, and podcasts first; and engaged in online learning communities first. And, as the technology has started to bring these previously disparate tools together, they have been the first to design an experience that effectively blends the best of online education with the best of the face-to-face education: they became the first practitioners of blended learning, and the first to design courses given all that is now available. They (the Academic Technologists) have become the Instructional Designers in our schools.
Even as this shift has happened, there is still an eagerness (even insistence) by entrenched faculty members and administrators that see the role of the Academic Technologist as it was ten years ago (much less five years ago): they ask Academic Technologists to come in and “teach” Powerpoint or even Google Docs or something of this vein, rather than using the real talents that they have in designing more robust learning environments for students, in a much more mission-focused way (this not to say that there is not occasionally the need for hands-on instruction of tools, but that this is often not the technologists talents or time when there are so many tutorials readily available).
It seems to me that the schools that make a shift sooner will be able to create better learning environments faster for their students.
As always, I’m interested in any thoughts you all have on this posting… these thoughts are very much a work in progress (again, that I am sure to come back to in subsequent postings).
Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn, authors of the seminal book on online education Disrupting Class, have just published an article in Harvard Magazine on the state of American colleges and the coming changes to the collegiate landscape: “Colleges in Crisis: Disruptive change comes to American higher education.”
Their article, written for the Harvard alumni community, aims to help those unfamiliar with online education to understand the potential positive impact that online education will have for American higher education, and even for an institution as august as Harvard. It seems to me that the article might resonate in a slightly more accessible way for boards and heads at independent schools, and I suggest it highly for those groups.
I think that their article has a number of salient points for independent school heads and boards to consider:
… The business model that has characterized American higher education is at—or even past—its breaking point… Undergraduate tuition has risen dramatically: at a 6.3 percent annual clip for nearly the last three decades—even faster than the much-decried 4.9 percent annual cost increases plaguing the healthcare industry. The full increase in the price of higher education has actually been hidden from many students and families over the years because gifts from alumni, earnings from private university endowments, subsidies from state tax revenues for public universities, and federal subsidies for students have been used to mitigate some costs. But universities are exhausting these mechanisms.
Christensen and Horn point to a business model that is succeeding (instead of just “treading water”), noting that education is seeing the disruptive forces seen by other industries (and predicted three years ago by them in Disrupting Class):
The success of these online competitors and the crisis among many of higher education’s traditional institutions are far from unique. These are familiar steps in a process known as “disruptive innovation” that has occurred in many industries, from accounting and music to communications and computers. It is the process by which products and services that were once so expensive, complicated, inaccessible, and inconvenient that only a small fraction of people could access them, are transformed into simpler, more accessible and convenient forms that are also, ultimately, lower in cost. We are seeing it happen more rapidly than one could have imagined in higher education, as online learning has exploded: roughly 10 percent of students took at least one online course in 2003, 25 percent in 2008, and nearly 30 percent in the fall of 2009.
Christensen and Horn end with a commentary on how an individual university (or, I would add, independent school) could embrace online learning in a way that moves the university from “treading water” to becoming more long-term sustainable and to meet the mission of offering a high quality, accessible education to more:
This stance exposes an even more significant problem that is forcing many American universities outside the top institutions to the brink of collapse. Although some traditional universities have used online learning as a sustaining innovation—in effect disrupting their individual classes—almost none have used it to change their business model in any significant way. Whenever we have seen a disruptive innovation reinvent a sector, change has resulted from the joint action of a new technology and an accompanying new business model. But cost increases and an increasingly broken business model—reliance on ever-rising tuition, more endowment income or government support, and research funding, all wrapped up in expensive physical campuses with large support staffs—continue to plague much of higher education.
Certainly, these are thoughts for our independent school boards and heads to consider… and act upon.
Brad Rathgeber (he/him/his)