In this blog, I will suggest a methodology for encouraging more innovative uses of technology for teaching and learning.

The problem (as I see it)

In our study of 11 institutions in our book, ‘Managing Technology in Higher Education‘ we concluded:

‘Probably the most serious problem we have identified is the general lack of imagination about the possibilities of technology for meeting the needs of today’s students. We need to move away from the dominant paradigm of the fixed time-and-place classroom (Andrea del Sarto’s ‘silver-grey, placid and perfect art’ in the chapter’s opening quotation) as the default model for university and college teaching, and think of all the other ways we could organize and manage teaching. In particular, we need to think very concretely about what teaching and learning could and should look like in the future. Our reach should exceed our grasp, driven by our assessment of the needs of students in the twenty-first century, and not by the existing institutional requirements that they must fit into.’ (p.218)

We also found that while there were often cases of individual instructors being innovative in their use of technology, this rarely failed to spread beyond that individual’s teaching. In other words our institutions were not supporting ‘bottom-up’ innovation in teaching.

One solution

Well, there isn’t one solution. Different subject areas and different students will have different needs. The goal then should be to establish an ongoing mechanism for encouraging, developing and supporting new ideas about how to teach with technology. The aim is to develop many different ways of teaching with technology, implement them, then evaluate them, in such a way that successful innovations then spread throughout the academic areas where they are most appropriate.

Scenarios as a means to develop visions for the future

We argue in our book that the key locus for developing vision is at the program level: a bachelor’s or master’s program,  a certificate program, etc. The design or plan for a program should be driven by a clear vision about how that program can best be delivered and to which target groups. In particular, the vision should clearly specify not only what students will learn, but how they will learn, and how they will be assessed. The design or plan should also indicate how individual student differences can be handled, and how students will interact not only with the instructor but also with other students and the external world, for the purposes of learning within the program.

Scenarios are a way of identifying and clarifying such goals. The purpose of scenarios is to develop a way of identifying future possible academic goals and outcomes that are facilitated by or made possible through the use of technology. We give some examples of possible scenarios in the book, but the value of scenarios is immensely increased when they draw on the imagination of all faculty, instructors and relevant support staff within a program. The process of sitting down and discussing possibilities is as important as the outcome in terms of actual scenarios. It is essentially an educational and knowledge-sharing process.

I set out below one methodology I have used to develop scenarios as part of program planning. There are other ways to get faculty to think creatively about teaching and learning, but I have used this method in several institutions and found it to work well under the right conditions. The best time to do this is at the start of the planning of a new program, or after a program review. The organization of the process should ideally be the responsibility of the VP Academic/Provost’s Office, working closely with the Deans.

The process for developing a vision for mentoring, teaching and learning

  1. Establish small working groups of between 9-12 people, e.g. six to eight instructors, two learning technology/IT staff, and a student representative, within each academic program
  2. Working groups are organized around common areas of interest (e.g. first year students, topic areas, or ‘streams’ within a program) reflecting overall opportunities and challenges.
  3. The dean or head of department should prepare a general comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis beforehand (probably developed for the strategic and/or academic plan) which is made available to each group. In addition though, each group should spend 60-90 minutes brainstorming strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to their particular area.
  4. 3-4 short presentations (10-15 minutes) of innovative teaching with technology to program faculty and support staff by carefully selected presenters from outside the area (from other similar departments either within or from outside the institution). These presentations should provide examples of successful initiatives that are relevant to the group (i.e. related to the academic areas likely to be covered by the program). Ideally a series of these presentations would be presented to the groups over a period of time before scenario building.
  5. An intensive, one day workshop to build the scenario (including free lunch).
  6. Each group has a chair and reporter.
  7. Each group brainstorms to reach consensus without compromise.
  8. Each group completes a scenario by the end of  the workshop.
  9. Within one week, chair and reporter from each group meet to develop integrated scenarios for the whole program. This group has the task of providing a coherent, intellectually consistent set of scenarios for the program as a whole.
  10. Scenarios go to the whole program team for endorsement and possible amendment by vote
  11. Once endorsed, the scenarios drive the design, development and implementation of the program.

Criteria for successful scenario building

The following are guidelines to building successful scenarios and visions for the future

  1. A comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis is done beforehand, with common agreement from all participants on opportunities and challenges.
  2. Scenarios should be developed that give stakeholders what they really want or would like – no compromises
  3. Must be creative and ambitious – a significant step forward from the current situation
  4. The scenarios must be written in concrete terms, describing where and how learners are studying and what tools they are using
  5. All key stakeholders are involved
  6. Start from where you are and build on strengths
  7. Scenarios if implemented would remove or deal with generally accepted weaknesses or shortcomings in the institution
  8. First steps towards implementing the vision can begin immediately
  9. 75%-100% achievable within a five year time frame
  10. There is a planning process that focuses on implementation of the vision
  11. Cost is NOT a consideration until the implementation stage (but see (9)).

Integrating scenarios into planning and operational processes

As well as helping develop specific programs, such scenario building is also immensely useful for budget and technology planning. Such scenarios when completed indicate clear directions and goals for the use of technology across the institution.

For this to happen though there needs to be in place an integrated planning process that links strategic, academic, technology and budget planning together. Budget considerations may cause program plans to be modified or delay the implementation of some elements of the scenarios. However, institutional planners can make decisions for priority funding based on the most innovative or dynamic scenarios and program plans, the ones that seem to best meet the institution’s and departmental goals and priorities. Scenarios provide concrete examples of what a program will do, and allows decision-makers to go beyond abstract terms to concrete realities.


This is not an easy exercise. Faculty are not used to thinking beyond the constraints of the current context in which they work (essential for creative scenario development). In universities, it requires patience and numerous examples to move faculty from abstract concepts to hard concrete examples. Many faculty have been badly burned in the past when trying to innovate on an individual basis, so there is often a deep cynicism about such ‘blue sky’ thinking and particularly the institution’s capacity to support innovative ideas about teaching and learning. Institutional leadership and support for the process is absolutely critical, as is the input of learning technology and IT support staff.

However, I believe it is essential to step back from the here and now, to move beyond adding the odd new tool to an LMS, to think about the needs of a very heterogeneous student body, the possibilities that technology allow, and the present and future needs of our students. My experience is that the best research professors are often, once the initial skepticism has been removed, and they are properly introduced to the possibilities of technology, the most imaginative about how their subject could be taught with technology, but they need a motivation and a catalyst for such thinking. Scenarios can provide such a catalyst, so long as they are an integrated part of institutional program planning and implementation, and the process is fully supported by institutional leaders.


For a video that resulted from scenario building, see:

Learning Technologies @ UBC, 2005 (8 mins)
A vision for teaching and learning with technology in higher education
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56 kbs/sec

Note that this video was made in 2000, and was used to support a report that resulted in a number of strategic directions for the use of learning technologies at UBC.


  1. This an excellent post Tony.

    I agree with your focus at the program/award level and it seems like a very practical approach to achieving the necessary changes in thinking that are required. It would be great to see this applied at each program across an institution and then see what the implications are for university wide educational technologies.



    • Thanks for providing details of the steps involved in the visioning process you employ for teaching with technology. It reminds me of the work of teaching and learning roundtables advocated by organizations such as the League for Innovation and EDUCAUSE. If these roundtables did not have the power to implement the vision, allocate the resources needed to make the necessary changes, and/or provide essential support, the vision died.

      In my view, there are at least two major differences between the approaches used by some institutional roundtables and what you advocate. First, I believe that you are suggesting the use of the process at the academic departmental level (rather than the system-wide level). Second, you specify that costs are not discussed until the implementation stage; yet, this major factor permeates everyone’s mind. If you are able to convince participants that they should forget about implementation challenges during the visioning process, then the resulting vision can be creative and future oriented. However, this visionary process is unlikely to work a second time if some of the outcomes from the first visionary session are not implemented.

      Perhaps the real challenges lie in the implementation stage when one has to deal with inertia (“It’s always been done this way.”), the lack of incentives, the lack of recognition as working with technology is not as highly prized as research, the lack of development time, the lack of support, and so forth. But the greatest challenge may be changing institutional policies related to:
      • intellectual property (and open educational resources) as most institutions assign faculty the rights to all the materials they produce and existing policy can hamper the cost effectiveness of technology implementation over time;
      • workload which is still primarily based on face-to-face instructional time rather than learning outcomes;
      • professional development and the need to refine current andragogical practices with teaching effectively with technology;
      • course development procedures and the approval required to alter how, where, and when a course is delivered;
      • jurisdiction – when the blended course becomes mostly an online course, should the course be transferred to the e-learning/online learning department or similar division;
      • the use of social media and other forms of technology that lie beyond the secure “garden walls” of the institution’s information and technology department;
      • supporting faculty and students with technology, yet allowing for academic freedom, flexibility, accessibility, quality, and cost-effectiveness;
      • learning analytics and privacy as faculty and students may feel that technology is being used to track their every move;
      • cost effectiveness as it is often defined from an institutional point of view without consideration of the costs to students (institutions may unfairly download costs to students that institutions would normally cover); and
      • allocating finite, and sometimes, dwindling resources.

      We can all dream of a new world, the real challenge, from my perspective, is implementing the vision. Guess I should buy your new book to find out how implementation is handled. Congratulations on its release!

      • Thanks, Clayton. You raise excellent points.

        I agree that implementation is often a big barrier which is why I believe it’s important for the visioning process to be the first step in program design, and for an institution to have a well articulated governance process that ties departmental/program plans and vision to budgets and technology. Usually vision is limited by existing budgets and administrative requirements, rather than the other way round – we should be using vision to drive our allocation of resources, our choices of technology, and the way we organize.

        This relates to the reason for stressing this process: the institutional barriers that lead to inertia. Without better vision and attempts to encourage faculty and instructors to see that things could be better, those institutional barriers will never be removed. But I agree: change is not easy, especially in higher education,


  2. It might also be interesting to look at a “worst-case” scenario. For example, what if the institution starts down the slippery slope to financial insolvency? How might technology get factored into teaching/learning in circumstances of institutional stress? Sometimes imagining a world unlike the present one creates a quantum jump of sufficient size that all kinds of creative stuff percolates out.

  3. […] Developing vision for teaching with technology This is pitched primarily at thinking about the use of technology in higher education but the same thinking could apply in schools and could inform work in teacher education. (tags: usqict ttf DxD teaching 21c) […]


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