Living in the middle layer, or ‘why can’t we all just be open’?

I step into these waters with fear and trembling…but finally composing these thoughts (rumbling for some months) given a couple of things I have read in the last couple of days (more below on what specifically, read on).

My work involves trying to find ways to encourage/cajole/persuade/entice/motivate faculty colleagues (and some staff who teach) in the use of technology to enhance/enrich/inform their teaching (and thereby student learning – we hope).  Some things I have tried have met with some success.  Others have fallen flat or have been in fact epic failures.  I can tell you after a year and a half in my position there is no magic bullet/easy answer.  The reasons faculty do or do not embrace and use technology in their teaching are complex/multimodal/not easily dissected.  I have learned a few things as I have listened/read carefully to others in the field and offer up my humble take on the matter.

First, faculty are busy people. They work under the traditional burden of academic role expectations crafting their teaching (with or without technology enhancements), service, and scholarship.  It is hard to keep up with that. For many (especially those in my age-bracket/generation) working with technology does not come easy…is not intuitive, is always an add-on that takes time, energy, and commitment to learn even at a basically proficient level.  Mastering something to the point that you feel comfortable exposing yourself and your ability in the public arena of your class takes even more time.  That time might take away from some other facet of work…like service, or scholarship.  Okay, I know about now you are saying….”Learning to use technology can help you be more proficient, productive, and efficient in your role-enactments.  How can you NOT learn to use it?”  Good point.  The fact remains that the time challenge is there.  Now I also know that even my mother used to say that ‘you make time to do just about anything you really want to do.”  So, do faculty just not want to learn?  I don’t think that’s the problem.  The time issue is very real and difficult to overcome.  I have taken to offering up just brief snippets of introductions to tech tools. For example, we hold an annual Emerging Media and Technology Fair we describe as a ‘microconference of minisessions so people can come and go at their convenience and catch short sessions of interest to them.

That brings me to the ‘middle layer’ theme of this post.  I am caught somewhere here between the desire for living totally in the open (ala Alec Couros, Alan Levine, David Wiley, D’Arcy Norman, Jim Groom to name a few) and entirely behind the protective walls of the LMS.  Don’t get me wrong here…I do understand and value life in the open.  I have been following the conversation about everything from Edupunk & DIY, to last fall’s massive open Connectivism and Connected Knowledge course from George Siemens & Stephen Downes (to be offered again this fall – check the site for details).  Boy do I ever appreciate the collegial spirit that under girds it.  At the same time, I appreciate and understand the reticence of most faculty to embrace it.  You see, there is that nagging time thing.  Time is needed to explore and understand safe (for lack of a better word) ways to be ‘open’.  Time to master a rather disparate (I know some will disagree) set of tools most standing alone and needing to be coalesced in a thoughtful way by the user (ie: the teacher).  Enjoying the kind of insight needed to make that happen takes…time…and exposure…and experimentation…and willingness to fail….all luxuries most faculty can’t afford.  So, you can’t blame folks for resorting to their institutionally provided LMS.  Tools are there…they have been used before (granted they can be snarky and are not perfect)….but they are comfortable…easier…take less time to master. 

So…why write about this now?  Well, in addition to my regular following of the open-promoting practices and writings and sharing of the folks I listed above, a couple of things have me focused on this area anew:

1.  One is a post via George Siemen’s blog elearnspace: Addressing the Problem of Faculty Resistence.  To quote George: 

              “Obviously, you don’t need technology to be a provide a great        learning experience. Creative, engaging, and participatory learning is an educational mindset, not something that requires blogs, wikis, Second Life, and podcasts. What technology does, however, is expand the range of options for interaction. Classroom walls give way to global connections. Single educator models are replaced with distributed networks. A bit utopian? Perhaps. But, once control shifts to a network of learners, the prospect arises for the creativity that exists in open source software and with application developers (i.e. iPhone, Facebook) can be applied to education.”  Amen, so how can we NOT embrace technology? Huh?

George links in that post to James Morrison’s writings via the Innovate-Ideagora: Addressing the problem of faculty resistance to using IT tools in active learning instructional strategies.  As I understand it, James started this topic last year, but recently updated it (see comments section) with a list created in his session at the recent EDMedia2009 conference in Hawaii.  Here is the list composed by participants in his session:

“1. Fear of using technology, which may not work
2. Faculty members are busy as is; they see no need to expend time and energy on learning technology or new pedagogies
3. Perception of a lack of institutional support/rewards (little technological or pedagogical resources; no incentives or recognition for using technology)
4. Perception of lack of cultural support from peers
5. Perception that developing online courses threatens jobs
6. Perception that using technology takes too much time (to learn, to set up, to use)
7. Fear that incorporating technology will detract/ distract from their lecture/teaching (technology will become an end in itself rather than being a means to educational ends)
8, Faculty members don’t think that technology is relevant/helpful to teaching in their particular subject area
9. Faculty members are unaware of the degree to which students might enjoy/gain from technology-enhanced active learning strategies
10. Faculty members view their role as experts/information providers, not teachers designing experiential education
11. Perception that face-to-face classroom instruction is the most instruction”

(I recommend visiting the site and following to the close of the post to the group’s suggestions for how institutions can help/support faculty in their efforts to use technology)

You will note that 2 of the items in the list have to do with time.

2.   Today, there was this post and comments exchange (via tweet by @jclary) from D’Arcy’s blog: on openness, walled gardens, community and ownership.  Interesting exchange and viewpoints.

3.  Yesterday’s piece in the Chronicle’s Wired Campus news letter by David Wiley: Open Teaching Multiplies the Benefit but not the Effort. His narrative of his thoughtful beginnings and evolution to offering an entirely open course is very engaging and persuasive.  Granted, it takes starting with just one tool…then building. I’m with him. 

 But there is still that nagging time thing.  One of the things I think I often forget is that I live my professional life (including framing my life as teacher) completely immersed in technology.  So do all of the folks I refer to here.  This is an immersion most of our faculty colleagues do not experience/relate to/know about.  We have a built-in tendency to experiment with/curiosity about technology.  They do not live in the same world as we.  We would do well to remember that.

4. A number of folks in the ed tech/instructional tech world have been tweeting for a while now about the upcoming OpenEd conference (wish I could go, but alas no travel $$ here and personal travel $$ being channeled into my eldest’s semester of study abroad this fall).  In preparation for that, Alan Levine issued an invitation to submit “amazing stories of openness” via his cogdogblog: I’m Talking to YOU! Where is your Amazing Story?.  Alan shares some very interesting examples (and his process is just plain fun).  I hope he streams his session.

5. I am just generally awed and humbled by the things Alec Couros does/writes/shares on a regular basis. His work always keeps me thinking about was to be open-with-grace. Check out his open work at his blog open thinking.  Alec taught an open grad course last fall and will do so again this fall (I am sure he will be sharing more details with us on the blog as the fall semester approaches.

These are just a few things that have me thinking about the middle layer – in which I live…, along with my faculty colleagues.  While I might tend to agree more than disagree with the ideas of openness, I do empathize with colleagues who fear and don’t have time to learn how to live in the open – who are content to stay in the middle.  There are some very palpable privacy concerns (a whole ‘nother post) some folks are just not comfortable confronting…. (more time needed to learn how to be safe and open).  And I know there are many more complexities at play here – I already said so.  But I pledge to be patient and try to meet folks where they are and to try to help them find some time to overcome their fears and be just a little more open than maybe they have been before.  By feeding them little snippets in small frequent feedings.

Whew, that was a lot more than I probably should have written in one post.  Kudos if you stuck with it to the end!!