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.
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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- An intensive, one day workshop to build the scenario (including free lunch).
- Each group has a chair and reporter.
- Each group brainstorms to reach consensus without compromise.
- Each group completes a scenario by the end of the workshop.
- 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.
- Scenarios go to the whole program team for endorsement and possible amendment by vote
- 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
- A comprehensive environmental scan/situation analysis is done beforehand, with common agreement from all participants on opportunities and challenges.
- Scenarios should be developed that give stakeholders what they really want or would like – no compromises
- Must be creative and ambitious – a significant step forward from the current situation
- The scenarios must be written in concrete terms, describing where and how learners are studying and what tools they are using
- All key stakeholders are involved
- Start from where you are and build on strengths
- Scenarios if implemented would remove or deal with generally accepted weaknesses or shortcomings in the institution
- First steps towards implementing the vision can begin immediately
- 75%-100% achievable within a five year time frame
- There is a planning process that focuses on implementation of the vision
- 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:
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.