EdTech in a Time of Budget Cuts

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University, has written another opinion piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  You may recall that last year, Bugeja used a Chronicle essay to criticize classroom response systems as not worth the cost, although as I pointed out in my blog post about the essay, he didn’t really consider the benefits of clickers in his cost-benefit analysis, just costs.  This time, Bugeja’s essay, “Reduce the Technology, Rescue Your Job,” makes the argument that in a time of budget-cutting, if colleges and universities don’t scale back on their use of technology, “secretaries, janitors, adjuncts, advisers, and professors” are likely to lose their jobs.

As I wrote in my response to Bugeja’s last essay, I agree that colleges and universities should consider the cost of new educational technologies, not just their potential benefits.  And Bugeja points out some costs, such as the cost of local tech support required by some technologies, that may not be immediately obvious to some involved in these kinds of decisions.  However, Bugeja’s argument in support of his main point-that colleges and universities should scale back their use of technology-is unclear in places, and I find that the evidence he provides is only somewhat relevant to his argument.

My main concern with Bugeja’s argument is that it confuses teaching about digital technologies (such as journalism courses on uses of social networking sites) with teaching with digital technologies (such as teaching a journalism course on, say, ethics using classroom response systems or Twitter).  For instance, he begins his piece by stating that “professors [have] embraced the pedagogy of engagement” by using technologies to “woo” students.  That sounds like he’s focusing on teaching with technology.  However, when he shares changes his school has made to reduce technology, almost every change he mentions concerns streamlining his school’s curriculum so that there are fewer courses about technology.

This mixing of teaching about technology with teaching with technology muddies the issues involved.  For instance, it might be a poor choice (from a cost-benefit standpoint) to add courses to a major that are focused on learning about particular technologies if those technologies (as subjects of study, not as pedagogical tools) can be incorporated into existing courses.  However, that doesn’t imply that using educational technology in courses is a poor choice.  Those are two separate choices.

Even within each of these areas (teaching about technology and teaching with technology), Bugeja’s evidence is of questionable relevance.  For instance, he points to the great numbers of courses and degree programs in video-game design as an example of new courses designed “to accompany the gadgets that students brought with them” in an attempt to engage those students.  However, given that the United States computer and video game industry brought in $11.7 billion in revenue in 2008 (compared with “only” $9.8 billion for the motion picture industry in the same period), it seems to me that teaching students to create video games is a way to prepare them to enter an incredibly productive sector of the US economy, not just an attempt to tap into their leisure activities.

Regarding teaching with technology, Bugeja again omits any mention of possible or proven benefits to student learning provided by educational technologies.  He also blurs together several very different educational technologies, including classroom response systems (“clickers”), virtual worlds such as Second Life, and the microblogging platform Twitter.  These technologies are used to facilitate student learning and engagement in very different ways and at very different price points.

For example, using Twitter for in-class or out-of-class engagement with students is essentially free, since the service itself has no charge, it is simple enough so that instructors and students using it need very little tech support, and its bandwidth needs are minimal given that all the messages it facilitates are limited to 140 characters.  Virtual worlds like Second Life, on the other hand, typically require significant resources (mostly time) to prepare for use with students.  The upfront and ongoing costs are much more significant than with Twitter.

Even though I’m no big fan of Second Life in higher education, I should point out that in some settings, particularly ones in which the skills to be learned can be practiced meaningfully in virtual environments, virtual worlds can be very effective ways to promote student learning.  They can even be cost-effective, given that virtual simulations can be less expensive than real-world simulations in some cases.  Thus, the cost-benefit analysis for Second Life can sometimes come out in favor of its use.  When looking at other technologies like Twitter and clickers, where the costs are much less, it’s all the more likely that a cost-benefit analysis will lead to adoption.

Given that Bugeja seems to be against the use of technology in almost any way in higher education (going so far as to rail against libraries subscribing to digital versions of journals!), it’s not surprising that he would criticize teaching centers for conducting workshops on educational technologies.  He compares teaching centers to “brand managers” for technology vendors.  However, many teaching center workshops focus more on using technology to engage students (to “deep critical thinking and inspired commitment,” to use Bugeja’s definition of engagement) than they do on promoting particular vendors.  Certainly, when I give workshops on teaching with clickers, I focus on ways to ask clicker questions that foster higher-order thinking skills and that engage more students more actively in class discussions.  When particular vendors are mentioned in these kinds of workshops, it is usually because (a) instructors interested in tech-enabled pedagogies need some basic level of tech support that is vendor-specific and (b) a single vendor has been adopted across the campus in order to reduce costs, both good reasons for mentioning particular vendors.

Bugeja lists two changes at his school of journalism that are more about teaching with technology than teaching about technology.  He mentions a renewed emphasis on “the fundamentals of teaching excellence-preparation, organization, and mastery of the subject matter,” as well as an emphasis on “spending more face time than Facebook time with students” in the service of academic advising.  Let me be clear: preparation, organization, and mastery of the subject matter are indeed fundamentals of teaching excellence.  (Take a look at students evaluations in a course where one of these is missing to see how important each of these is!)  And when it comes to academic advising, face time with students is usually a good thing.

However, I would argue that there are at least a couple of other “fundamentals of teaching excellence,” including formative assessment (gauging student learning prior to evaluations of their learning in order to provide feedback to students and inform teaching decisions) and skill in planning and facilitating active learning experiences for students.  Ignoring these two areas can sometimes privilege certain students-students who learn in particular ways, often the ways we learned.  For instance, a well-prepared, well-organized lecture demonstrating mastery of the subject matter can work very well for some students-those who learn deductively, sequentially, aurally, and reflectively, for instance.  (I’m drawing on the Felder-Silverman learning styles model here.)  Students who learn better inductively, globally, visually, or actively, however, might not benefit as much from this learning experience.

Since educational technology can often be very helpful in facilitating formative assessment and active learning experiences, it seems a shame not to explore the possibilities technology might provide in these areas-especially in teaching center workshops aimed at promoting student learning and engagement!

Similarly, most students might benefit from academic advising conducted face-to-face, but is it really that hard to imagine students who might benefit more from advising conducted via Facebook, Twitter, or email?  Commuting students, for instance, who are rarely on campus, or students who can express themselves more effectively in writing than while speaking or students who only warm up to faculty members once they get to know them on a slightly more personal level first?  Should we privilege other students over these types of students by discouraging the use of digital communication technologies?

Given Michael Bugeja’s comments on my previous blog posts, I suspect that he’ll read this one and respond to it.  I’m glad for him to do so, because the issues he raises are important ones.  Given his advice to those making technology decisions to assess the costs and benefits of technologies they implement, I would be interested in hearing from him how his school is evaluating their decision to reduce teaching with technology.  Are they investigating whether or not focusing on preparation, organization, and mastery of the subject is indeed “instill[ing] in learners a commitment to make a difference in society”?  Does more face time and less Facebook time with students actually lead to higher retention rates?  These are genuinely interesting questions to me; they are just as important to ask as questions about the cost of technology.  I would welcome more insight into how they might be answered at Iowa State.

For a few more good thoughts on Bugeja’s essay, check out Britt Watwood’s blog post, “What Walls Need Tearing Down?”  What was your response to the essay?

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