Questions Worth Asking about Educational Technology

Last week brought the second meeting of the committee on which I serve that has been charged by my university’s chancellor to explore how the university can use digital tools to enhance our teaching, research, and service missions. This second meeting was the first in a series of meetings devoted to scanning the current technology landscape here at Vanderbilt. The committee chairs, as the representatives of the College of Arts & Science, shared results of an informal survey of faculty regarding the ways they use technology in teaching and research. Following this, I shared my perspective on the topic as director of the Center for Teaching. Both of these presentations generated very healthy discussion among the committee members. I thought I would share a few highlights and observations here on the blog. (Section headers below borrowed from Rogers’ Diffusion of Innovations.)


First, here’s the Prezi I used during my presentation:

I was glad I had chosen to use Prezi for this presentation since questions and comments from the committee members almost immediately led me away from my intended presentation narrative. I panned and zoomed all over the Prezi in response to committee members’ comments, sharing the ideas and examples that seemed most relevant in the moment.

I made sure to embed a number of examples of innovation technology use, including links to published reports of these examples, throughout the Prezi, since it’s hard to envision where technology might take us without seeing concrete examples of its current use. I didn’t have time to discuss all these examples, but I knew that would be the case. I’ve posted this Prezi on the committee’s private blog so that other committee members can explore these examples on their own time.


One point I made was that, while we have a few “early adopter” faculty members who are leading the way in the use of things like course blogs, we have many faculty members who are in need of more basic technology training and support. I mentioned our always-popular “PowerPoint Makeover Clinic” as an example of ways we’ve felt comfortable helping instructors who aren’t entirely confident with their technology skills. The College of Arts & Science presentation at the meeting supported this point, since their informal survey turned up a “smattering” of faculty who were actively using technologies, like course blogs, that many in the educational technology community would consider standard tools. These observations led the committee members to ask some important questions about technology training and support here on campus, as well as the “culture of adoption” we have among our faculty.

Relative Advantage

My mention of course blogs interested the committee, so I shared how my colleague Shaul Kelner uses a blog in his course on the sociology of tourism. One committee member asked a very sensible question about the value that a course blog adds beyond what is provided by, say, discussion forums in Blackboard, our course management system. I pointed out that course blogs are often easier for faculty and students to use, and, more importantly, make it possible to share student work with the open Web and for students to continue participating in learning communities after particular courses end. I borrowed Gardner Campbell‘s description of blogs as “public and persistent” platforms for sharing student learning.

I’m glad this question about a course blog’s relative value was raised. Some technologies help us do what we’re already doing more efficiently. Typical uses of course management systems to share announcements, files, and schedules with students is an example of this. However, some technologies help us do things that are impossible or incredibly difficult to do without technology. Those technologies and especially those uses of technology are what this committee should be exploring if we are to identify ways to enhance the teaching mission of the university.

To that end, I shared the notion of social pedagogies with the committee. These are, as regular readers of my blog know, approaches to teaching in which students are asked to construct knowledge by representing that knowledge for authentic audiences.  I mentioned the motivational aspects of having students write for each other or for the open Web on a course blog as an example of a social pedagogy. I find that the idea of social pedagogies provides a useful lens for seeing how technologies, particularly social media, can enhance the learning process for students. I hope that the committee members will start to use the language of social pedagogies as we move forward with our work.

The committee member who asked about the value of course blogs over discussion boards also asked another great question: What are ways to use a technology like course blogs effectively, in support of the learning objectives of the class? Surely there are more useful and less useful ways to use course blogs? The “best practices” question is another useful question for this committee to raise and address. I hope that whatever set of recommendations the committee generates includes ideas for helping faculty (a) learn about “best practices” where they are known and (b) contribute to the research on student learning that informs “best practices” where they are not known.

Cultural Compatibility

Another intellectual frame I shared with the committee was the idea of “students as producers.” I’ve long heard the lament from faculty that students too often think of themselves as “consumers” of higher education, seeing themselves as entitled to particular outcomes (like good grades) because they (or their parents) are the ones paying for education. The student-as-producer model provides a positive way to respond to this challenge. I learned of this term and the ideas behind it from Mike Neary at the NAIRTL Conference in Ireland last summer. Mike heads up the Student-as-Producer project at the University of Lincoln (in the UK, not Nebraska), a project that involves “a reappraisal of the relationship between academics and students, with students becoming part of the academic project of universities rather than consumers of knowledge.”

I think the student-as-producer idea has great potential as a way to leverage technology to enhance the teaching mission here and to address what one committee member called “Vanderbilt’s value proposition.” What does Vanderbilt uniquely offer? What can Vanderbilt uniquely do? As a research university, our faculty are actively producing new knowledge in many different ways. As a highly selective undergraduate institution, our students are capable of and interested in contributing to the production of knowledge. Technology can be used by students to produce new knowledge (as in Jay Clayton’s “Worlds of Wordcraft” course, where students create video game adaptations of Spencer’s The Faerie Queene), and to help students connect to authentic audiences for the work they produce.

Put another way, it’s all well and good that Harvard and Stanford and MIT are putting online great lectures by great professors, but what if Vanderbilt started sharing online not only the work of our faculty, but also the work of our students?

Image: “Thinking Tools #4,” by me, Flickr (CC)

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