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Instructional Technology: Navigating Higher Ed’s Next Iceberg

The EvoLLLution | Instructional Technology: Navigating Higher Ed’s Next Iceberg
Increased staffing and budget support for instructional technology is critical for colleges and universities that want to remain relevant in the tech-enhanced learning era.

A new picture is coming into focus, but not everyone is seeing it: today’s instructional technology is the tip of higher education planning and budgeting’s next big iceberg.

After all, no matter what kind of educational program we deliver—whether it’s inside or outside the classroom—we find ourselves discussing what kind of technology is needed to conduct and deliver the offering.

Instructional technology is today where computer technology was in the early 1980’s. That’s when the first personal computers were being acquired by staff and faculty. At that moment, we had no clear picture of what computers were going to do for us … and to us. Institutions had no clue what the financial impact was going to be, nor what the demands on staffing would be.

We found ourselves asking questions about whether faculty and students wanted to use these “PC things,” what it was going to cost for staffing and facilities to support computers, and whether the whole thing was actually here to stay. Now we know. We should be asking the same questions about instructional technology.

Today, the questions we are asked include:

  • How can we get the most out of our LMS/online course platforms?
  • What technologies do faculty need in the classroom? Tablets? Smartphones? Skype?
  • What technologies do students expect in the classroom?
  • How do faculty learn how to use this stuff?

This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the new wave of instructional technology. It includes an impressive mix of devices that can all be connected in various ways: cameras, microphones, electronic whiteboards, monitors/projectors, iClickers, tablets, Macs, PCs, desktops, wireless communication, displays for multiple student laptops. There’s more every day. And let’s not forget the education functions of online tools like Skype, Zoom, chat, web conferencing, synchronous communications, Google+, Facebook, Twitter and other apps. Without software none of this stuff could run, adding to the IT workload and creating compatibility problems.

For that matter, don’t forget that some of this technology needs to talk to your LMS, whether that’s Blackboard, Desire2Learn, Canvas or something else. It’s all software with updating and compatibility issues, and faculty and students have to figure out how to use it.

The fact is, today we don’t know what it will take to support this new wave of instructional technology in terms of budget or staff. We need to research it, acquire it, train people in how to use it, and establish replacement and upgrade cycles and budgets to support it.

Our current budgeting and staffing for instructional technology is mostly focused on keeping the projector lamps working, perhaps adding a document camera to the lectern, and providing lectern connections for the instructor’s laptop. Some lecterns have touch-screen controls, and some don’t. To keep up with instructor needs, we’re usually upgrading bits and pieces one room at a time, based on what instructors call for this year. This really hasn’t changed much in the past decade.

Meanwhile, one set of instructors is bringing iPads into the classroom and wanting to do live web conferencing and use Google+ in class, while other instructors demand access to overhead projectors that were last used during the Kennedy administration, or a slide projector for the 30-year-old slides they haven’t bothered to transfer to digital images. There’s a significant gap in technology skills and teaching techniques between the two groups.

It’s increasingly clear we are at a point of change, similar to the early 80’s, and the body of the iceberg is still hidden under the water.

We know that instructional technology is becoming increasingly complex very quickly, and there are numerous educational options emerging. Cultural issues are also appearing; can faculty deliver what students expect? Do faculty even recognize this issue?

Students enter college today with years of experience using tablets, laptops, Smartboards, online apps and software. Institutions that are catching up, but they’re doing it with budgets and staffing that struggle to support IT, and the instructional technology budget often hasn’t increased to match. That budget generally pays for lifecycle replacement of existing classroom devices and systems, but little more. The budget may not allow for new steps into classroom technology that requires an entirely new cycle of training, maintenance and upgrading and replacement.

And there’s the minor challenge of encouraging and training faculty to use all this new stuff instead of just reading from the dog-eared lecture notes on the old yellow legal pad. Yes, many of them are curious—maybe even somewhat interested—in these technology things, but they “really can’t find the time to learn that stuff.”

Helping faculty bootstrap their knowledge and teaching practices is a huge task, and it’s a topic that occupies a great deal of time in breakout sessions at every online and continuing education conference. Making it happen every day increases the demands on staff.

The future—and a lot of training, budgeting, and upgrading instructional technology in classrooms—creates an iceberg looming high and ominous. Navigating around the iceberg requires advocacy for staffing and budget support, not only from those of us working in online and distance education, but from those of us simply keeping the lights lit on campus. Everyone needs to be working to advance the use of technology as part of everyday teaching. It matters more every day, in every classroom. Now is the time to get ready to deal with your iceberg.