Which Way, IT?


Traditionally charged with servicing infrastructure, technology departmentsare wrestling with how to manage a new role: supporting teaching and learning.

Policy & Advocacy THERE I WAS, in Washington, DC, listening to some brilliantpeople talk about technology and education, and not acongressperson or staffer to be seen. I guess they all neededa break from the DC heat and some time at home with the constituents.I was there as a part of Campus Technology 2007,our sister publication's 14th annual ed tech conference, alongwith about 700 CIOs, CTOs, and other leaders in the highereducation community, as well as 80 technology companiesserving that community. I wish that some K-12 officials hadbeen there, in addition to members of Congress, as they wouldhave learned a lot. They still can—recordings of the sessionsare available here. (Click on theCampus Technology 2007 button in the left navigation bar.)

One session was particularly impressive, not only for the subject matter, but also because of the implications it held for K-12 local policy and for the higher ed audience in attendance. Seventy-five minutes of fascinating dialogue was provided by Phillip Long, senior strategist for the Academic Computing Enterprise from MIT; Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth professor in learning technologies at Harvard University; and Joel Smith, vice provost and CIO at Carnegie Mellon University. A recurring theme took up the purpose of information technology in an age where, as Long stated, quoting Tony Driscoll of IBM, "world information will be doubling every 11 hours by 2010."

In this time of explosive change in the acquisition of knowledge and information, how will ed tech organizations cope? Dede said the key is to focus, not on what technology enables, but on the objectives you seek. After all, he said, channeling Yogi Berra, "If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there." Smith expressed a similar concern about focus when he said, "It's the pedagogy, stupid." Which was Smith's colorful way of saying that IT should be about improving teaching and learning.

However, Long noted that IT has traditionally been charged with deploying infrastructure, but not with understanding and applying principles of teaching and learning. Each of the three men discussed organizational changes—or lack thereof—that have been made at their respective institutions to account for IT's new dual and often shifting roles. Harvard remains in what Dede called the medieval stage; each college within the university has its own infrastructure. He even has to dip into his departmental funds to pay for a wiki powerful enough for his students to use. Carnegie Mellon's IT department keeps the support of teaching and learning separate from infrastructure, but both sectors report up through Smith's office to ensure there is appropriate coordination. Less than a year ago, MIT separated the two functions so that each had a champion to support it all the way to the top of the university.

Smith provided a compelling illustration of the dichotomy between making changes to infrastructure and making changes to teaching and learning. CMU's course management system is used mainly to save time, both for students and faculty. Smith's staff heard concerns about the efficiency of the grade-book component, tweaked the system, and were able to save everyone even more time, all with a few months' work.

On the other hand, seven years ago, CMU offered an online statistics course. Three months after the course ended, students were unable to recall its key concepts, and worse, they were unable to apply what they could remember. The university assembled a team of cognitive scientists, instructional designers, and technologists and set about redesigning the course and testing the results. Seven years later, CMU offers a hybrid (part online, part face-to-face) statistics class that takes half the time of a standard course and has proven much more successful in ensuring that students retain the material they learn as well as apply it. Changing software or installing boxes and wires is usually quick and easy compared to changing the content, approach, and teaching of a course— and proving that the changes worked.

The local policy implications of this debate over the proper role for IT are deep, but not new. As a technology coordinator in the early 1980s, I remember talking with my colleagues in other districts about forthcoming power struggles over who should control the Corvis network in the one computer lab, and how I didn't want any part of responsibility for telephones.

In my 11 years with the Texas Education Agency, I experienced a number of reorganizations. The instructional technology division grew from six people to 45 when our technology plan passed the state Legislature, with its mandate for the building of infrastructure to support an electronic network and a satellite dish in every district. Later, a new commissioner merged information systems, including the statewide data system, with instructional technology. Part of the rationale was that he wanted to examine using the statewide electronic network, operated by instructional technology, to transport data to the data system watched over by information technology.

The following three years I tried to coax very different cultures into working together. Yet another reorganization moved instructional technology, and me with it, over to curriculum, assessment, and textbooks. The rationale this time was that technology, including digital content, should be used throughout the teaching and learning process, and the instructional technology staff needed to help curriculum, assessment, and textbook people learn how technology could be incorporated in all aspects of schooling.

Organizing technology departments continues to be a concern that takes time away from a more appropriate focus, such as pedagogy or the objectives of the organization. As demonstrated at the Campus Technology conference, higher ed is wrestling with this issue as well. No one denies the importance of either function—you must have an infrastructure to deliver information and instructional tools to students and teachers, and the infrastructure would be wasted to a large degree if it were not used by students and faculty in teaching and learning.

The panel addressed a number of other issues during the session, including metrics for success, also known as assessment. All the panelists agreed that current approaches to measuring student success are significantly behind the technology, but that education at all levels cannot rely on nor be restricted by these limitations.

Another compelling discussion concerned how the term distance education soon will be dead as we realize all education should be distributed across time and place. This session, as well as others at the conference, provided significant meat for educators at both the K-12 and higher education levels. Give it a listen.

Geoffrey H. Fletcher is editorial director of T.H.E. Journal and executive director of T.H.E. Institute.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.