Revolution or Evolution? Social Technologies and Change in Higher Education

Getting your hands dirty / Sandbox

This is a guest post by Derek Bruff, assistant director at the Center for Teaching and senior lecturer in mathematics at Vanderbilt University (@derekbruff and; Dwayne Harapnuik, director of faculty enrichment at Abilene Christian University (@nethowto and; and Jim Julius, associate director at Instructional Technology Services at San Diego State University (@jjulius). Derek has often written for ProfHacker about clickers and other topics. — jbj]

Have you ever heard about a clever and effective use of some new educational technology (blogs, wikis, Twitter, smart phones, whatever) and thought to yourself, “Wow, that’s a great idea, but I’m pretty sure that I have a few colleagues who wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it”? New social technologies, along with the easy access to information that the Web provides, can open up new avenues for learning that have the potential to revolutionize higher education. Some have argued that higher education must be radically transformed or it will face extinction. But is revolution possible in an environment where evolution–in fact, slow evolution–seems the norm?

We explored this question during an interactive session we led at the recent annual conference of the Professional and Organizational Development (POD) Network in St. Louis. The POD Network is a professional association for faculty and staff engaged in educational development in the US and beyond. If you have a teaching center or faculty development center or teaching assistant support unit on your campus, then chances are that the people who work there belong to POD. These folks help their campuses value and support effective teaching and learning, and they’re often involved in initiatives aimed at pedagogical change. We wanted to hear what they had to say about the challenges and opportunities associated with the changing educational technology landscape. The conversation was an interesting one, so we decided to share and continue it here on the ProfHacker blog with a different audience.

First, a little recap of the ideas we floated at our session:

  • Dwayne described some of the ways that access to information has changed since pre-Gutenberg days, arguing that the greatest challenge of our current, digital information age is assessing, not accessing information. This has implications for the so-called “Industrial Model” of higher education, in which information is (in theory) transmitted from instructor to student in a one-size-fits-all manner.
  • Jim began by referring to Barr and Tagg’s 1995 characterization of a shift in higher education from the Instruction Paradigm to the Learning Paradigm. He followed with an example of a Post-Industrial, Learning Paradigm model of education: “The Twitter Experiment,” a five-minute video showing how Monica Rankin used Twitter in her large history course at the University of Texas at Dallas to enhance small-group and class-wide discussions. Might this technology-mediated classroom, where students play very active roles in creating and sharing knowledge and information, be a vision of the future of education?
  • Derek then shared some provocative statements by people like Bill Gates, Salman Khan, Anya Kamenetz, and Sir Ken Robinson arguing that higher education indeed must embrace social technologies and the information-sharing power of the Web in order to remain relevant in the 21st century.

Check out our Prezi for more on these ideas.

After stirring the pot, we asked our POD colleagues to work in small groups to generate a list of “roadblocks, obstacles, and speed bumps” that stand in the way of a rapid shift away from the Industrial Model of education. We used Google Moderator to have groups share their ideas with the group and to vote on the challenges that we as faculty developers can and should address. The top challenges in this unscientific poll?

  • Faculty mistrust technology.
  • Faculty need examples of effective uses of these technologies.
  • Loss of control when shifting from faculty-centered to student-centered learning
  • Not a high priority for faculty development professionals on a campus
  • Lack of a culture of openness to try technology among faculty
  • Perception that technology does not offer deep learning

You can see the entire list of 59 challenges generated by the small groups over at Google Moderator.

Next we had participants return to their small groups and brainstorm options for responding to these challenges. This time we had them report their ideas using a Google Form. You can see the results in this Google Spreadsheet, but here are a few highlights:

  • Moving from Faculty-Centered to Student-Centered Teaching
    • Provide students with a menu of assignments from which they can choose, helping them to create “personal learning plans” for their work in a course. This provides students a chance to take some ownership over their learning within certain boundaries drawn by the instructor.
    • The next time a local classroom is up for remodeling, advocate for a more flexible, collaborative design for the space. It can be difficult to shift focus away from the instructor when all the seats in the classroom are pointed at the teacher!
  • Sharing Examples of Effective Uses of Technologies
    • Partner faculty interested in exploring particular technologies with faculty already engaged in those technologies. This is a reasonably “safe” way to make the teaching we do a little more visible and open, even on campuses that don’t have cultures of openness around teaching.
    • Recruit students to help new technologies spread on campus. You might teach your students how to use a different presentation tool (like Prezi) and encourage them to use the tool for presentations in their other classes.

The listed challenges and responses suggest that a gap exists between the integration of technology and teaching. The belief that some faculty are less likely to engage in teaching and learning discussions if they involve technology may reinforce the inclination toward evolutionary change. Should faculty and staff engaged in educational development take a greater leadership role within the academy to encourage transformational change?

We would like to hear what you have to say on this topic. Do you feel that higher education needs a revolution in order to stay relevant? Or will evolutionary change be enough? Do you agree with the barriers to change listed above? If not, what barriers do you see? And what strategies might faculty or faculty developers employ to address these challenges?

Image by Flickr user KellyB / Creative Commons licensed

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