Instructional Technology – Does it Really Matter?

The conversation that continues to be carried forward by Martha Burtis and Laura Blankenship surrounding their recent Fear 2.0 preso at ELI, has encouraged me to reflect on similar thoughts and experiences I have been having recently. Many thanks to them and their co-presenters who put together a session that continues to send out important ripples for us to think about.

The questions about relevance and “does what I do really matter?” are perennial and shifting, especially when it comes to the notion of the role of the instructional technology[ist]. To be honest, I’m not even sure I can say what an instructional technologist is anymore, short of being a container that means lots of different things to lots of different people. But I don’t think that is the point of the conversation that is unfolding here…at least not for me.

I have been fascinated, as many folks have, over the last few years with the seemingly endless emergence of new web-based tools that permit new forms of social exchange, knowledge creation and sharing. It has been easy to share our excitement for the tools.

But, as others have echoed, its not the tools that really matter.

Over the past two years I have had the amazing good fortune to collaborate with a group of five colleagues in a faculty learning community (FLC) at the university where I work. The focus of the FLC has been to explore the ways technology might enhance teaching and learning. The early days of our work found us exploring several web 2.0 technologies – blogs, wikis, podcasting, screen recording, social bookmarking tools…you know the drill. Some of the faculty members attempted to integrate these into their courses and teaching practice. Interest would run high on the new tools from the popular buzz surrounding them, and I certainly felt excited because I had a group of faculty who seemed very interested in what I had to share. Excitement can be hard to sustain, and the glamour of shiny new tools wears off when you are not sure about learning impact, and if you are “doing the right thing.” As our first year wore on, I started to have doubts about the value of what we were all getting out of the FLC endeavor. They had learned about some new tools and experimented teaching with them. Perhaps there was greater support for risk taking through group membership, but I found myself asking questions about what had really changed?

Change is not always obvious, and it often happens in places we didn’t previously consider.

As facilitator of the group, I had hoped that the change would be in the committed adoption of these technologies, and that teaching and learning would begin to be transformed in the classrooms these faculty members taught in. I was wrong. I’m happy that I was.

I think what changed was that we began to respect each other more, to grow in a trusting collegial way that allowed us to feel a little less vulnerable about the uncertainty surrounding what we were trying to do – to be a little less isolated and a little more connected…and perhaps to be a little less fearful about not really knowing. This is the kind of dynamic that the environment of the academy might well benefit from having more of.

We are well into our second year of this FLC, and we haven’t spent any time learning about new tools. I think we have realized that it is not ultimately the focus. We have instead begun to tell our story about our learning and the change that is often slow and circling as we attempt to make sense of technology and practice.

The members of the FLC worked collaboratively to draft a paper describing the work of the FLC and our learning, and have submitted it for publication. In the Fall of 2007, we designed and conducted a survey study exploring student / faculty expectations for using technology, the first study of its kind ever conducted on our campus. Most recently, several members of the FLC attended and presented the early findings of our study at the 2008 ELI conference. Like many who attend this conference, we came away full of new ideas, and energized by the people who make ELI what it is. These activities have confirmed a sense of value for continuing our work in the FLC.

In a recent meeting of our group – post ELI – we excitedly discussed several opportunities for next steps. As a group, we are beginning to ask hard questions about the real impact of technology on learning. Individual FLC members want to examine their own practice as they attempt to use technology in their teaching. They are beginning to critique how technology is shaping their work in the academy. Arriving at the point where this line of inquiry becomes valued and important in the lives of faculty members takes time, patience, the development of trust, and endurance to get through the wondering if it is even worth it.

Engaging in collaborative and interdisciplinary scholarship about the impact of technology on teaching and learning has served as an impetus for our group to start a larger conversation – one that has been missing on our own campus – about learning and the role technology should play in it.

So does the technology really matter? I’m not convinced yet, but what we do together in search of an answer certainly does…


Tag clouds as a heuristic

I have been fascinated by the concept of the tag cloud since I encountered it for the first time a few years ago on flickr and I’m not always too sure what to make of them, but my interest in using the tag cloud as a form of knowledge representation was renewed at the recent ELI Conference.

During a session presented by George Siemens and Cyprien Lomas, they offered some interesting perspectives on using web-based tools to assist with data visualization. One of the tools was, Many Eyes, which provides the opportunity for unique visualization of data. One of the options in ManyEyes is the generation of a tag cloud from large amounts of text. I had come across ManyEyes some time ago and thought it was pretty interesting, but at the time I just didn’t have a strong sense of what I might use it for. As happens all too frequently, I let it get buried under a host of other tasks and other ideas demanding my attention.

During the session George Siemens commented that he will occasionally – when he is bored – take the last several months of posts from his blog and dump them into ManyEyes to create a tag cloud. Someone in the audience immediately picked up on this and suggested that we take the last several years of the Horizon Report and generate tag clouds for the sake of comparison. This idea really seemed to resonate with people in the session, and the back channel communication being conducted on Twitter immediately began to light up with this idea.

Picking up on this idea after the conference, Chris Lott generated tag clouds of the most recent Horizon Report, as well as for past reports from 2004 – 2007, and posted them to his blog. Interesting stuff…

This practice of generating tag clouds for knowledge representation also appeared last week following President Bush’s most recent state of the Union address, one version of which can be found here. Both of these examples suggest an interest in using tag clouds as a form of sense making that is gaining in popularity.

This recent activity and buzz surrounding tag clouds has increased my interest in their use as a form of knowledge representation. Sometimes I find that when I look at tag clouds of data sets I get a flash of insight that leads to some realization, something that helps me analyze underlying meaning and sub-text. And sometimes I look at tag clouds and see…well….just clouds. Data haze. However, I am thinking increasingly that there is something a tag cloud reveals in a way not otherwise possible. In this way I think that the creation of tag clouds represent a replicable method for directing inquiry and attention when we are engaged in learning or problem solving…in other words a heuristic.

I am a huge of using technology tools in ways that help us to do things that would otherwise not be possible…or otherwise so time consuming and tedious as to discourage a particular practice. Many Eyes, for its ease of use in generating tag clouds from large amounts of text, permits a level of analysis that would otherwise not be possible. Taking hundreds of pages of text and representing the frequency of key words can be accomplished in mere seconds. There is also another web-based tool, a bit less sophisticated than Many Eyes, called TagCrowd that permits similar tag cloud generation using text, as well as just entering a URL for a website…so perhaps some interesting potential here as well. Ultimately, I think this kind of practice opens the door for us to ask some interesting questions and perhaps lead to inquiry that might otherwise remain unexamined.

So, I am continuing to think about practical ways this might be employed in educational contexts to support learning and inquiry. Building on the basic blog / report idea from George Siemens, I think the following practices would also be of interest:

  • Tag clouds for individual and class sets of student papers / essays.
  • Tag clouds for speeches and lectures.
  • Tag clouds for analyzing the content of websites.
  • Tag clouds of classic pieces of literature.
  • Tag clouds generated from set of stories covering the same news event.

Just to name a few…

The other thing I wonder is, if we engage in these kinds of practices in the classroom, what are the kinds of questions we should be asking students to wrestle with? how do they interpret tag clouds? Are they of value in supporting learning? Inquiry?

In any event, I’m sure I’ll be doing my fair share of dumping data into Many Eyes and seeing what kinds of patterns and questions emerge. I remain excited to learn about other creative uses for the tag cloud that are bound to emerge, but one I’m thinking about is a web-based application that would create a tag cloud from selected podcasts (transcribed text content) where the tags are also links to the list of podcasts addressing that concept. Anybody know of something like that?



I’ve been at the ELI Annual Conference the last few days, and as always it has been both an energizing and thought provoking experience. It will take some time to cook this stew down, but I wanted to take some time here to comment on a session I sat in on yesterday.

Gardner Campbell from the University of Mary Washington, led a learning circle session guided by the framing question: What are creative, innovative ways to engage and motivate faculty to develop their expertise in information technologies? This session was at the end of the day and the room filled to capacity – 70 people or so – in a circle…well more like an amorphous oval. Gardner asked each person to go around and do a brief intro, sharing something that was happening at their institution with faculty development that was working or that they were challenged by. As might be suspected there was a good deal of diversity, but also some impassioned beliefs about what works and what does not. I was struck by the following two themes:

1) Workshops don’t work! There were several folk who were fairly vehement about this, saying that they tried and tried and tried, but that in the end workshops had little impact on meaningful change. “We have stopped doing workshops!” stated one participant. A faculty member at the session underscored this idea by stating, “I don’t like being workshopped!” This was the first time I had heard this phrase, and it spoke to some pretty powerful feelings that I think lie beneath the surface for many faculty – that they see workshops as something done to them as if they somehow were in need of fixing and repair. This is a problematic notion that needs to be addressed by those interested in engaging faculty in the meaningful use of technology for learning. The workshop format and notion is overloaded with negative perspectives for a significant number of faculty in the academy…they will never come to the table.

I think we have all had our fair share of being in some poorly designed workshops and sloppy conference sessions, so it is not difficult to understand how time-constrained faculty members can quickly become inoculated to the notion of attending workshops. And while I tend to agree with the views on overall efficacy, I’m not sure workshops can be easily dismissed. Part of this has to do with the many complex variables that intersect at a particular college / university – numbers of faculty, technology resources, IT support, staff capacity, mission of university, etc. – sometimes workshops can’t be done because of limited resources, and sometimes they are done because of large numbers of faculty who expect to receive (and prefer) some F2F learning opportunity. There is not a clear formula for deciding here. Each institution is different, and this gets sorted organically – or perhaps chaotically – as the variables dictate.

That said, I came away thinking once again that the workshop notion is in real need of some [re]conceptualizing. I do not have an answer. But, I think one of the things that may be key here is the notion of formal v. informal learning opportunities. Informal consultations and small projects with individual faculty may be more impacting, and one challenge is how to capture some of this for larger groups or cohorts…consistently and with limited resources.

2) Faculty Learning Communities are Gaining Traction! Several people in the session indicated that they were beginning to explore the FLC notion and wanted to hear more about how they function and work. I found this to be fairly encouraging. The idea of faculty learning communities has been around for a while, and I found it encouraging that this idea was being more widely considered by those with an IT focus. I suspect that one of the reasons for this might be that university teaching and learning centers across the country are taking on increased responsibility for working with faculty on exploring and using IT to support learning. This is a trend that is likely to increase in my opinion, and I think represents an opportunity to – collectively – begin to have some real impact. I have been engaged in facilitating a faculty learning community focusing on enhancing teaching and learning for the past two years, and it has been a hugely rewarding experience. I plan to blog about the FLC a bit here in a follow-up post.

Overall, the session was engaging and I was happy to see so many people at ELI take up the question of the challenges of faculty development. These challenges in my opinion are significant. Perhaps collectively, we can really begin to chip away at some of this and make some lasting impact. I’m hopeful…