This post was co-authored by Ted Bongiovanni initially as part of a research proposal.  

The ways in which students find and use information today challenges the traditional practices of institutions of higher learning. Just as practices in the disciplines in which universities are divided evolved, teaching practices need to transform, not just adapt to changes in information access and technology. Faculty members in institutions of higher learning must lead this change process to help prepare students for work in emerging fields. According to Nussbaum (2010), “institutions . . . [are] struggling to find a new way – a pedagogy that focuses on making and doing, [this requires] learning through exploring” (para 9). Creating meaningful experiences for students through exploration require faculty to develop new teaching skills. This is especially true of those faculty members who are accustomed to more traditional ways of teaching.

The field of educational technology intersects this dialogue. The field focuses on the “the study and ethical practice of facilitating learning and improving performance by creating, using, and managing appropriate technological processes and resources for learning” (Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 2004, p. 1). Educating in today’s world in which data, information, knowledge are immediately accessible, presents challenges and opportunities for creativity, innovation, and requires new forms of teaching and learning. How can universities support, facilitate and encourage this process of change?

The Professional Development and Technological Landscape 

Many institutions of higher learning provide professional development opportunities for their faculty to improve their teaching practice  (Light, Calkins, Luna, & Drane, 2009). These opportunities tend to be centralized through centers for teaching and learning. Many teaching and learning centers are service organizations within universities and colleges that provide workshops and training on using technology in teaching, creating equitable assessments, designing group projects, using digital library resources, and reinforcing strategies that promote academic integrity such as avoiding plagiarism. Educational technologists who work in teaching and learning centers typically partner with faculty to support their use of Learning Management Systems  (LMSes) and other tools.  Technologies can help educators reflect on their practice and challenge themselves to rethink their own practice.  In Pinto’s (2007) research on the Columbia University’s Center for New Media Teaching and Learning she observed that

this communication [between faculty and educational technologists] was, in fact, a pedagogical conversation where professors find an interlocutor to reflect with on the purposes of using the course management system in their courses. This interlocutor could be an educational technologist or a vicarious partner embodied in the tools used by, and provided to, faculty (p. 188). 

Experts in educational technology can engage faculty members, who may be unfamiliar with the best practices in using technology in teaching, in a dialogue around education. The educational technology expert can advise and recommend ways for faculty to meet teaching and learning challenges with or without the use of technology.  Some universities and colleges require faculty to use specific technologies to facilitate the administration and teaching of their courses. The most common of these technologies are LMSes. Information technology departments typically maintain these systems. LMSes are designed to help faculty manage their digital course content, share resources with students, and encourage a collaborative learning environment outside of the walls of the classroom.  While LMSes are important tools, centers for teaching and learning, staffed by educational technologists, are important mediators between the technologies managed by IT professionals and faculty who are researchers, content experts, and teachers.  The results of these interactions are typically a well-designed course website in a learning management system, such as Sakai, Moodle, Blackboard, Epsilen, etc. If every faculty reached this goal, this would be the status quo. How can universities and colleges encourage the application of innovative teaching and learning approaches and move beyond the status quo?

Barriers to Educational Technology

There are serious challenges and obstacles to encouraging the advancement of teaching through educational technology. The culture, structure, and processes of universities and colleges presents major obstacles to positioning advancement in teaching practices as a primary activity. While universities and colleges are structured around the three key activities which include teaching, research, and service (Boyer, 1990), in many cases the largest emphasis is placed on research. Moreover, technological change, new knowledge, faculty time, faculty skills, and lack of appropriate models and examples are some factors that impede this advancement.

Let’s look at a common scenario: 

In 2001, Professor Jenkins hired a graduate student to create a simulation that models the pressure and volume of blood in the human heart.  One of Professor Jenkin’s students developed the simulation in Macromedia Director, because it was what he knew.  The simulation allowed students to change a range of values and better understand the relationship between pressure and volume and the heart itself.  However, it’s now 2012 and the simulation no longer works. Professor Jenkins doesn’t have the skills, or the support to update the simulation. Feeling disempowered, he returns to lecturing about the relationship between pressure and volume.  He feels that this approach is more reliable since it never needs updating. 

Imagine an alternative scenario: 

Professor Jenkins thought that there had to be a better way to demonstrate the relationship between pressure and volume in the human heart.  He had a medical illustrator develop some slides, but they still didn’t show how blood volume affected cardiac performance—the slides were static, and Jenkins wanted something that showed how they changed as the pressure and volume changed.  Jenkins contacted the university’s center for teaching and learning.  He met with an educational technologist who helped him develop a high level description of what a simulator might do.  The educational technologist then worked with Jenkins and a small team to create a simulator.  They chose technologies that withstood the test of time, and even added new features to make the model more realistic.  When Jenkins accepted his excellence in teaching award, he recognized the contributions of the university’s teaching center. 

When educational innovations are created in a supportive community, then there can be a relationship and it puts the faculty in the role of designing the idea (as the expert and the teacher) and the technologies to build and create. This supportive community, however, requires resources. These resource include technology, but most important people. People to manage innovative educational technology projects in collaboration with faculty. This idea isn’t new. However, the investment required in human resources is significant. Many teaching and learning centers have done a lot with a little and those with a lot have done tremendous things.  There is real expertise out there in educational technology and together with great faculty and skilled technologists can push the envelope a little further.

Thoughts on the importance of teaching and learning centers within higher ed