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December 6, 2001 A vision is needed for teaching technologies



by Dennis Dicks
Associate Professor of Educational Technology

By January 2002, Concordia intends to have every classroom with more than 50 seats connected wirelessly to our internal computer system and hence to the Internet. Furthermore, the university will endeavour to make laptop computers available to students at a modest annual cost (CTR, 27 May 2001). These very substantial commitments suggest we have a central plan for promoting the use of teaching technologies.

Faculty initiatives

Meantime, a variety of Faculty-specific initiatives head us in that direction. Some of these arise from a major grant from the McConnell Foundation (Transforming Teaching and Learning at Concordia University, 1999).

Others draw upon funds provided by Quebec to subsidize programs which promote new skills or knowledge in information technologies. They take such visible form as videotaped lectures available on demand; multimedia course materials using the Web; groupware or other delivery systems; “learning objects” addressing specific teaching goals; common curriculum for multisection courses; and so on.

Significantly, at least three Faculties have hired “instructional designers,” staff specifically mandated to help faculty implement teaching technology projects. IITS and the Centre for Teaching and Learning Services also support faculty development in this area through workshops, helpdesks, authorware services (e.g. WebCT) and formative evaluation of specific projects.

I am most familiar with the work in the John Molson School of Business, where over the past five years faculty have worked closely with the team at the Centre for Instructional Technology to create four different “laptop university” projects; to enrich dozens of courses with FirstClass groupware; to deliver an entire program, the Global Aviation MBA, to students in 10 countries; to launch another MBA program linking students in Montreal and Toronto via videoconference; to support 20 or so teaching technology projects initiated by faculty; and to host a major conference on educational technology.

Broad strategy needed

An impressive array of activity across the university—but is there a broad strategy underlying this variety? Where are we headed with wirelessly connected classrooms? Why will we encourage students to arrive with their laptops? So they will have something more interesting to do than listen to the prof?

A cautionary view of this trend emanates from a conference sponsored by the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT), with sessions like Implications for Workload, Faculty Control of Content and Curriculum (November 2-4, 2001). Past experience does indicate that we have to do more than follow the herd to draw lasting benefit from technology’s promises.

Those who appear to have drawn such benefits from teaching technologies have started with clear strategic goals founded on an academic mission, and have moved towards those goals by forming collaborative consensus among all the stakeholders: IT units, libraries, faculty, staff, students, business partners, alumni, even parents.

Drawing on this wisdom, following a strategic plan, teaching technology applications in the John Molson School have been designed to support its strengths in specific niches — not to move on-line holus bolus.

Success demands collaboration on a focused plan because of the scale of investment required by teaching technologies and the pervasiveness of their impacts. Teaching technologies cost lots and depreciate quickly. They need staff to build and maintain them. They change the way faculty communicate with students. They change the way students learn.

In sum, they force substantive change in the way the parts of the university work together, in the allocation of human and material resources, in systems governing faculty workload and incentives. If we do not understand and address the concerns of all the stakeholders, experience shows resistance will grow.

To date, the organizations that have attained relative success in implementing broad teaching technology strategies are small — a few thousand students, a few hundred faculty. Can large universities like ours work to a common strategy? Is that an appropriate aspiration? These questions are the subject of policy research in the Educational Technology program. I don’t know the answers. But I know we do have to ask.