A college in my neck of the woods is looking to build its capacity in digital learning. Like many other institutions, they see the brick n’ mortar campus as the core of the institution, but they also realize that the time has come to make a bigger investment in digital.
The leadership at the college asked me “what the relationship between instructional technology and pedagogy ought to be.” This is a brutal question; one that can’t really be answered in under 5000 words. At the same time, the question forces you to get to the heart of matter: how do we create great educational experiences using technology?
Instructionally Agnostic Instructional Technology
The most striking aspect of the relationship between technology and instruction is how little the two are actually, well . . . related. The most commonly used instructional technologies in higher education rarely prescribe any particular pedagogical approach. They are open-ended; they don’t dictate or enforce a specific pedagogy.
Yes, I know: all technology “prescribes” certain practices or behaviours to some extent. Technology, instructional or otherwise, is never entirely neutral. But in relative terms, the tools that are commonly used today – those that are embedded in, or linked to the current LMS model such as blogs, discussion boards, chat, webcasting and others – are closer to the traditional blackboard – a blank slate. Instructionally agnostic.
Now Serving “Everyone” v Apps
This is no accident. To build and sell instructional technology to a college means you need to accommodate a very diverse set of users. Platforms like D2L or Blackboard are used by beginners and advanced alike, for online learning and as mere complement to classroom education, in both K12 and higher education. And most of these systems were designed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, when there was little sense of how the technology would or should be used.
Consider the differences between the commonly used instructional technologies to the more recent App model. Apps are typically built to offer a defined set of experiences. Learners move through the application in ways that were first imagined by designers. Pathways of learning are engineered by designers, rather than created by end-users. The pedagogy is embedded in the software. It’s not left to chance; to be determined by the academic or student. The quality of the learning experience is dependent on the sophistication and talent of the designers.
But this pre-packaged type of instructional material runs counter to the current organizational model in higher education. It is conventional that instructional strategies remain in the hands of the lone academic responsible for the course, despite the fact that many – particularly in research universities – are rarely trained in instruction or receive sufficient reward for doing it effectively.
And in my experience, most academics find the experience of creating high quality digital learning experiences difficult. But this shouldn’t surprise us. Even the oldest and most stable of all forms of instruction, the lecture, is challenging. Before an academic delivers the first lecture of their careers, they have witnessed hundreds of lectures by other academics. They know the various properties that constitute a lecture: the role of the audience, the setting, uses of images, and so forth. And they’ve seen both the good and the bad. Despite the familiarity with the format, and its stability, you and I know that at this very moment hundreds awful lectures are being delivered in colleges and universities around the world. Even at our “best” schools. Good instruction is not easy. The same applies to digital instruction where, I contend, the potential to mess up is considerably greater.
Minding the Gap Between Instructional Technology and Pedagogy
The college tries to fill this gap by hiring instructional designers that are charged with helping the classroom instructor create effective online experiences for students. The instructional designers help, but they are limited by the short amount of time that that they have to work on each course, by the limited control they can have over instruction – given the conventions of academic responsibility, and the difficulty of working with a very wide range of subject matter (art history to accounting). Too many instructional designers in our colleges and universities are reduced to serving as slightly better paid LMS support staff.
College management, then, needs to go beyond merely providing training on technology and the basics of instructional theory. We need to offer workable, repeatable instructional templates that our instructors can select, adopt, implement and modify for their own needs. Relying on the technology to somehow generate thoughtful instructional strategies won’t work. Nor will relying on individuals to figure it out on their own.
Creating instructional templates is difficult work, though. Only the most skilled instructional designers can create models of instruction that (a) can be used in many types of courses without being substantially modified, (b) are easy enough to use that instructors can work with them independently and that (c) enforce good instructional practice. Put simply, we need to move closer toward the app model, in which the pedagogy is embedded in the software.