I spend a lot of time thinking and worrying about the resistance to digital and social media among higher ed faculty. I’ve read and listened to Gardener Campbell’s insights on the matter and regularly find relief from his wonderful “Bag of Gold” analogy, in his talk No More Digital Facelifts (definitely worth a listen).
Always on the hunt for new insights to understand the nature of the problem, a colleague shared an article with me this week that definitely fit the bill. “Technological Change and the Professional Control in the Professoriate” by David Johnson (University of Georgia), published in Science, Technology & Human Values. In the article Johnson takes a fascinating look at how university professors perceive instructional technologies focusing on three questions:
1. How do professors perceive instructional technologies?
2. How do they perceive administrative initiatives to encourage the adoption of instructional technologies?
3. What work outcomes do professors experience when they employ technology in their work?
He starts with a review of historical perspective – the thought that the professorate’s concerns about technology is that it will unbundle the academic role. That is, the use of technology will break apart the functions of research and teaching as well as divide the teaching function into constituent parts managed by others – instructional designers, web producers, programmers, etc. With that as backdrop, this article’s author set out to investigate faculty perceptions of technology in teaching/learning. He interviewed 42 professors at three research-intensive universities (various departments), all of whom had a documented organizational commitment to technology use. His goal was to look closely at the context of work as experienced and seen through the eyes of the professors exposed to pressures for technological change. Technology in this case was defined as “knowledge-derived tools, artifacts, and devices by which people extend and interact with their environment.”
He chose his interview subjects through contact with department chairs, asking for professors with known use of instructional technology. Strikingly, even among that population, technology use was quite limited – the most commonly used was PowerPoint (48%) with course management systems (26%), class web sites (19%), personal response systems (12%) and listservs (7%) listed next. Powerpoint? Really?
So, here’s the meat of what he found: the study participants perceived technology tools as lacking an obvious function or value and were very skeptical of the gains derived. Not only did these faculty perceive new technologies to be of limited value, many viewed technology-rich instruction as detrimental to student learning – in their words, “technology as a substitute” – both for attending class and for understanding (e.g. “students want to have the machine do the thinking for them”). Here was a revealing quote from a biologist:
“Technology has a problem. The slide rules we used to use were wonderful because they gave an intuitive understanding of what you’re trying to do. The calculators spit out numbers and there’s an incredible loss of intuitive understanding about what your’e doing. That problem is really magnified when you get to computers. You have to really know what’s going on and to make sure you don’t lose an intuitive understanding.”
The article’s author goes on to explain that since these professors view the tools as ineffective, coercion (on the part of the administration) to adopt them could feel as though they were being undermined, that they were losing professional control of their work and threaten their sense of autonomy. After all, what tools you use and when you use them is most certainly a key factor of professional autonomy in any field and if you feel the prescribed tools are ineffective, well…
What’s more, the professors who do use technology aren’t necessarily connecting their technology use to pedagogy. Rather, they regularly refer to the context of student motivation and students’ prior socialization to technology. Here’s another revealing quote:
“You have to keep bombarding them with visual material, even if it’s only peripherally related.”
The perception seems to be that students will disengage if instruction lacks entertainment value. In addition to that context, many of those interviewed describe their technology use as necessary to handle larger-than-desirable class sizes.
When viewed in that context, a picture begins to emerge where academics perceive new technologies as tools to help with peripheral problems (large class sizes and students who require stimulation) but of limited or no functional relevance to instruction. From there, it’s not a far step to conclude that instructional technology contradicts their professional values.
The professors interviewed also believe that administrative plans for campus technology use are driven by marketing (so that the university is seen as “on the cutting edge”), cost saving goals and to achieve economies of scale. With those perceptions, a boundary is drawn (as the Johnson puts it) “between the professional and proletariat”. That divide is furthered by the perception among these faculty that they were excluded from decision-making, even though they commonly expressed unawareness or disinterest in campus decisions about instructional technologies.
Questions asked about incentives and rewards for using various forms of technology in teaching revealed a familiar dynamic. Faculty view the work required to learn and incorporate new technology as a burden and a constraint that yields no rewards for them. Beyond the fact that that they receive no recognition or support for the extra work involved, they perceive themselves as occupying a lower-status position in the department with time spent refining their teaching. The article’s authors point out the stark contrast to the freedom faculty have in selecting research topics.
This article really helped to ground my thinking about the challenge of integrating new media into teaching and learning. It’s clear that we will continue to meet with resistance among faculty until:
- The motivation for using technology can authoritatively shift to a quest for a superior means of delivering instruction and improved learning.
- Academics become a source of influence in technological change and not a passive recipient of a mandate.
As I continued to connect Johnson’s insights to my own experience, working with faculty, I am reminded of the huge gulf in understanding what technology use can bring to learning between these faculty and those who advocate its use. We all struggle with the best way to bridge that gap, but it feels clear that whatever methods are used should keep this resistance (and the reasons for it) firmly in mind.
In a subsequent conversation with Stephen Thomas, an amazingly innovative educator at Michigan State University and the same guy who sent me the article, he reminded me of the TPACK model. The easiest way to think of TPACK is to visualize a three-circle venn diagram – for technology (T), pedagogy (P), content and knowledge (C & T). TPACK thinking suggests that we need to work in the sweet spot where those three circles intersect. That effective technology integration requires negotiating the relationships between the three components. To introduce tools, without content or pedagogy just won’t work and, similarly, to debate content (what’s the cannon and in what order?) in the absence of technology and pedagogy won’t give the harvest we need. A useful way to address the challenges put forward in Johnson’s article?