During the early days of digital higher education, the selection and use of educational technologies was heavily influenced by the interests and sensibilities of individual instructors. These pioneers took it upon themselves to find and test new technologies to support new ways of teaching and learning.
As digital education became commonplace and of strategic importance to the institution, the decision-making process for the selection and use of educational technologies became increasingly formal and centralized. The decisions moved from the very local level of instructors and individual departments, to education technology professionals working in the institution’s central services. “Rogue” instructors still resist following the dictates of central services, by and large, but their capacity to control their own technology practices has been curtailed. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the process of selecting a learning management system – the long, involved, and bureaucratic experience of committees, reports, focus groups and RFPs.
I was very interested to see, then, signs that the pendulum may be swinging back to the individual instructor. A number of the more interesting new learning management systems are designed and marketed to individual faculty members. While these companies – CourseKit, Schoology, Instructure/Canvas – are obviously interested in institutional sales (b2b), they make it relatively simple for individual instructors to use their systems without requiring extensive involvement of the institution. One company describes their approach as “self-serve”.
On one level, this is a marketing issue. It is potentially less expensive, at least initially, to rely on individual adoptions of the LMS, rather than building a large sales force to work through the notoriously slow sales cycle of institutional sales. These smaller companies appear to be relying on web-based marketing, social media and word-of-mouth among instructors.
But this self-serve approach is also a by-product of a different business model and advances in technology. As cloud-based applications, these systems can be adopted by individual instructors without placing as much burden on the institution’s technology infrastructure (the systems are maintained by a third party, such as Amazon Web Services). The systems are often free-of-charge for individual use, which eliminates the need to secure institution funds. The systems stress ease-of-use, thereby reducing the demand on the institution’s training and support teams. From a purely technological standpoint, it is becoming increasingly easy to link web applications to exchange data with other systems – such as student information systems.
The opportunity for instructors and individual departments to act independently of the institution’s central services has its implications, though. It can lead to the use of multiple systems which may, in turn, create inconsistency for students; forcing them to move between applications with different features and navigation. It may weaken the institution’s ability to successfully manage certain aspects of its operations including data security, branding, and compliance with regulations (e.g. Intellectual property, information privacy).
On the other hand, more local control over technology choices may increase the speed of innovation within the institution; enabling ambitious educators to explore new applications and teaching strategies. And because local, instructor-level control of instructional practices is entirely consistent with the conventions of academic autonomy, this shift may serve to increase the level of engagement of academics in digital education initiatives.