But where’s the teaching and learning?

On Friday I had the pleasure to present with Matt Gold and Mikhail Gershovich at the 2007 CUNY IT conference on the possibilities for Open Source tools in the classroom. This was a particularly fun presentation because we all go “way back” to graduate school and have been playing with tools like WordPress, Drupal, MediaWiki, and Typo3 in and out of the classroom for quite a while now. They are both first-rate technologists and teachers, which made our collective demonstration of the potential for these various tools in higher education that much more compelling, in my opinion.

That said, I was forced to think about a few things immediately before, during, and after this presentation that I have to get down to clarify a few things for myself. First, when I asked a fellow conference attendee how he liked the conference thus far he replied, “Well, I’m a teacher and most of these presentations are geared towards administrators.” He couldn’t have been more accurate. If you look at the conference schedule, about two out of every three presentations is geared towards questions about administering information systems rather than exploring their implications for teaching and learning. And the sessions that do explore teaching and learning were mostly herded to the late afternoon session as concurrent sessions so that you could only attend one of them.

The organization of such a large conference dealing with all things CUNY IT might be the root of the problem, but it illustrates a larger issue that struck me while presenting. There were a number of questions during my portion of the session that were inquiring whether or not I believed a system like WordPress Multi-User (as one example I was demonstrating) could replace BlackBoard, which happens to be the enterprise Course Management System “solution” throughout CUNY. The difficulty of such a question is in many ways tied up with the larger problems with such a conference, and actually framed quite clearly the heart of our collective argument: it all depends on whether you want to focus on teaching and learning within a community or efficiency administrating several different classes?

The answer to this question will ultimately decide whether or not one professor or ten professors or an entire campus is willing to use open source tools like WPMu, Drupal, MediaWiki, etc. If the focus is on administration and not teaching and learning than an enterprise CMS like BlackBoard will work perfectly. And you can spend all your time talking about the technical details of the proprietary system’s latest features or even its unbelievably bad “blog” and “wiki” building blocks. I really can’t (or rather won’t) argue with anyone on this count, for the two approaches are conceptual forks in an approach to the digital landscape of education. But if and when one chooses the enterprise CMS more times than not that choice has more to do with administration than teaching and learning. And as a result of such a choice the role of the instructional technologist is effectively limited to routinized training that demonstrate the limited capabilities of such a system. All of which effectively makes the instructional technologist an administrative assistant providing technical help. It is the still birth of a profession that is still gestating. Little or no imagination goes into this process and the limits of possibility are always already defined by the technology mandated. A position that should be exploratory and imaginative is reduced to the administrative realm in the name of efficiency and doing the greatest good for the largest number.

Let me be entirely clear here, an instructional technologist should not, I repeat should not, be an administrator. To conflate the roll of an instructional technologist with administrative work is to sap it of its transformative vitality. Instructional technologists should do three things, and do them well: 1) work closely with faculty on imagining possibilities, 2) live within the latest technologies and 3) imagine and experiment with possibilities regularly. The less time an instructional technologists spends thinking about administering a system, the more time he or she can actually do these three things. This is, without question, the reason why WordPress Multi-user has been so appealing for UMW. The administrative onus is shifted to the teacher and the student. They have their own space that they control. It becomes their charge to think through the possibilities of the system, rather than being told how it works. They have to discover what works, how it works, and why it works. It is this transformative process that is all too often relegated to system managers rather than intelligent people who live in the interstitial spaces of ideas and imagination like students and instructors. It is in this liminal spaces of thinking through and imagining what such a tool can do (rather than being overly concerned with how to actually do it) that our work happens. This is when the possibilities are imagined and old conceptions and new directions coalesce and by extension morph.

In my current job I don’t administer UMW Blogs, I build community and interact with both professors and students on a regular basis. I’m not so much concerned with the technology (and if an instructional technologist isn’t—should students and faculty be?), rather I am an interested and engaged participant in the transparent intellectual life of the university. That is what an instructional technologist must do! There is no other definition that makes sense to me. The conversations about teaching and learning’s intersection with technology is the inspiration undergirding what has been taking place for the last several years at Mary Washington, and has in many ways fueled the transformation through a larger grass roots effort. The change starts with a conversation, not with a directive. The transformation is imagined, not administered.

Which leads me to my final musings on this topic after the presentation. The point at which I start administering systems or training folks on BlackBoard on a regular basis is the moment I walk away from this occupation. There really is no reason why anyone off the street who has read the respective CMS manual can’t do that as well as me. And I would gladly defer to them. To become an administrator and/or to fashion oneself as a leader means to often extract yourself from the actual relations that are the basis for re-imagining the space of teaching and learning. Why aren’t instructional technologists understood as something other than either one of these categories? You don’t need to be a leader to be a great instructional technologist who catalyzes change in an environment and you really shouldn’t be administering anything because it would be taxing the invaluable time spent imagining and exploring the innumerable possibilities of these tools with faculty.

There is no question we are in an absolutely fascinating moment of flux in this field, and what becomes ever more apparent is that the role of the instructional technologist at campuses is understood as transitional at best. A job that will prepare you for a directorship, a higher degree, or some other administrative position in IT. Such a conception of this crucial role is in many ways defined by the hierarchical system of academia much like teaching and learning with technology is defined by learning management systems like BlackBoard: it’s limited in its structural imagination. While I was speaking with friends this weekend about their own situations and the administrative route of academia I became evermore certain that budgets, meetings, and management more generally are important for numerous reasons, but in the end often compete with the time-intensive work of fostering conversation and inspiring imagination throughout the community more generally about teaching and learning with technology. And while the right management can foster the conditions for this conversation, the point is that what we are talking about is doing it not constantly re-visiting the fact the technology and pedagogy have a future. For that is in many ways a given, it is the type of experience a professor or student imagines where a majority of the work still needs to be done.

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13 Responses to But where’s the teaching and learning?

  1. Mario A. says:

    Dear Jim;

    Wow.. I understand you so well. The problem, as you said, is that many times teaching and learning is the less important process and administrative issues because central in our work. And sometimes, one has to deal with both of them with very limited time.

    I still see an important value in CMS like Moodle and Blackboard. They have the tools for dealing with the adminitrative tasks of the course: assignments, grades, etc. So we may be still needing them not for faciitating learning but for dealing with the administrative tasks of a course.

    It would be great if we can have access to your presentation.

    Thanks for this reflection full of wisdom.

  2. jimgroom says:

    Thanks for the kind words, Mario.

    I definitely understand there is value in CMSs like Moodle and BlackBoard, I just think it all too often gets conflated with teaching and learning. Martha Burtis, our director, makes an excellent point that all the money spent on a system like BlackBoard is considering a teaching and cost when in truth it is really an administrative expense.

    More than that, I think these tools are more useful from force of habit than anything else. They make the bare bones functionality of having an online presence quite simple. On the other hand, the fact that they are prefabricated and readily available means that little or no thought goes into them beyond administrative tools– perhaps making them more harmful in the end than useful. Point being when faculty use BlackBoard for the tasks you outline above they might be under the impression that they are exploring the possibilities of technology for teaching and learning when I would argue they aren’t.

    As to presentation resources, I gave this talk using a bunch of tabs in Firefox so I really have no persistent resources other than UMW Blogs, which I know you are familiar with 🙂 I find more and more that when I don;t work from a script I am more comfortable with the talk, not to mention that I have given this talk more than a few occasions as of late and I am really starting to think this stuff conversationally on a daily basis -could there be a beneficial side effect to blogging regularly?

    In fact, this post might deal with the ideas I was trying to communicate better than the actual presentation because it was in some ways a moment of further focus on what it is I do.

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  4. jeff drouin says:

    Hey Jim,

    I’m really bummed to have missed you at the conference. The panel I presented in was concurrent with yours and it was killing me to miss it. We’ve been talking about hosting a small instructional technology conference at the new Macaulay building. Might be a good venue for discussing the better integration of “information” and “instructional” as technology disciplines.

    Anyway, hope to talk to you soon, and steer clear of hippies!


  5. jimgroom says:

    Hey Jeff,

    Actually, my post was alluding to how disappointed I was that I couldn’t see the Instructional technology Fellows’s presentation. Seems like you all are really into some wonderful stuff, (I really like your Drupal set up on the Maccauly site, btw) and I personally would love to attend a small conference on Instructional technology hosted by the Honors College. In many ways the Honors College was (and I’m sure still is) far ahead of the rest of CUNY in imagining the space of instructional technology for teaching and learning. And the distributed nature of your program makes these open source social applications that much more appealing.

  6. Jami Bryan says:

    Interesting post. I think librarians have been grappling with the sort of issue you discuss for awhile now – our time is increasingly spent on showing researchers the hows (the administration and training piece) of using databases and other resources, leaving us little time for the whys (the evaluation, the learning, the “possibilities”).

    I may be misunderstanding your post, but I read that you see the role of instructional technologist as focusing on the “whys”, leaving the “hows” up to administrators. I wonder about this stance and would love to discuss it more. I am not ready to fully disagree with you yet, but I will throw out some food for thought.

    Despite frustrations with the time spent on the hows, I think many librarians (myself included) recognize that the hows and whys are both legitimate needs that have to be served and that doing both should be our job. Put simply, I can talk all day about how to evaluate articles and how this all informs the contruction of a good research paper, but if I don’t take the time to show the researcher how to find the articles and get access to them, all my “whys” have been for not. While we could have some library staff that do the hows and others that do the whys, I don’t know that this serves our patrons – and I don’t know that they see that much difference in these 2 needs. They want both and need both pretty much at the same time. And from the librarian’s perspective, (when time permits, but that is another issue really) there is a reward in being able to give them both.

    Akin to library patrons, do faculty separate the teaching and learning piece – the “possibilities” – from the administration of tools? And if they don’t, I wonder if faculty are best served by intructional technologists that do?

    (Maybe I am ready to disagree with you after all – lol)

  7. jimgroom says:


    Excellent points. let me see if I can respond accordingly.

    I guess the issue I see specifically with administration (in how I am using it here is the actual conceptualization of technology as somehow intrinsically administrative. Which I believe has a nice corollary with a librarians mission. For example, part of what both you and I do is think through systems and show people how to use them, and I have no problem with that, in fact I enjoy it very much. But what begins to concern me with the technology is that the growth of this nascent field, i.e. instructional technology, has in many ways been stifled by the systematic conflation of Course Management Systems like BlackBoard with Teaching and Learning Technology. Especially when in our moment of technology this seems like an outmoded means of thinking about the intersection of technology and teaching and learning. I think this is also the case for librarians, not so much that you don’t want to show people how to use databases for you do it and do it well, but you are also faced with thr question of how do so many of these others tools available for searching resources online need to be considered as well.

    And while academic journals are a part of your purview, how many other resources are out there that might be of use and how do you go about encouraging people to approach the intersection of finding solid resources without disregarding the trends in searching, accessing, and sharing educational resource that are made possible by social networking tools for example? I am sure I am simplifying things here, but I entirely agree with you that librarians and instructional technologist share many of these same concerns in this moment.

    And I think that similar to my argument for instructional technologists, librarians might also feel the intense need to be thinking about the why in order to reframe the how, or at least part of it. The rate at which things are changing is moving far faster than courses and curriculum, we need to imagine this stuff together, hence the very establishment of a job like mine.

    That said, I am a public servant and I would never suggest that someone else do the how, rather that we think together creatively about how the how has changed and what it means for teaching and learning–or the why. This isn’t something I made very clear in this post, but it is an issue that I am grappling with and believe is still evolving. My statement that I wouldn’t “deign” to train folks on BlackBoard was not a holier than thou approach (or at least not entirely 🙂 ), it was more akin to engaging in a process that I believe will produce more harm than good for teaching and learning. Which in turn makes me think it is in fact contrary to what I am being asked to do. So while blackboard is a useful system for some basic tasks that I think every professor might need, I think it is our job to re-imagine those basic tasks in light of the wealth or resources, information, and general teaching and learning that is taking place on the wider web. BlackBoard (or systems like it) are anathema to the very approaches, practices, and theoretical conceptualizations we need to be preparing burgeoning thinkers. Part of that is certainly administrative, but we that administrative process has taken over much of the landscape of teaching and learning technologies making the primary issues about efficiency and scalability which all too often chokes out the magical process of thinking hard about the unique challenges and possibilities we are currently faced with.

    In short, we are getting your class blog on Jami and lib guides for all my library friends 🙂

    (Like my post this is all over the place on a re-reading, forgive me but these thoughts are very much in transition and you are helping me tremendously to think through them)

  8. Jami Bryan says:

    It seems like you aren’t arguing against a marriage of the whys and hows in the role of instructional technology (which is what I had initially thought). It seems like you are arguing against training on the hows for systems, like Blackboard, that seem so completely divergent from the whys of teaching and learning.

    This I can understand. And I think librarians do this to a certain extent too. I don’t recommend databases or resources to students that I don’t think are useful to their research, of course. But I also don’t recommend resources or techniques that I think detract from the whys – I don’t often recommend what may be an easier resource or technique if it isn’t going to get students to quality resources or if it will set a bad example for them in terms of information literacy and evaluation. For example, I wouldn’t tell students to Google their research topics over using library databases just because Google’s interface is easier to use.

    So it sounds like you are trying to incite a rebellion of sorts. You aren’t happy with Blackboard, you don’t think it is a quality teaching and learning tool, so you don’t want to include it in your teaching and learning repertoire. I can respect that.

    I wonder if there is a happy medium to be reached though – because I do worry that rebelling against Blackboard (or whatever resource seems inadepquate) leaves a lot of folks who are using the system without help. And this may put a bad taste in their mouth and they won’t want to ask for help in using other systems.

    There are a lot of librarians who rebel against Google and Wikipedia. But a lot of students who still use them. My stance is “I’ll be happy to show you how to use Google or Wikipedia for what they do best, but give me a few minutes of your time to show you some other things too”.

    To use a bad analogy (and one that is probably in poor taste – forgive me): you’ll reach more sinners by passing out church flyers in front of the whorehouse than you will in front of the church. Go where your target market already is and lead them away.

    I am thinking that much of the difficulty in your job probably comes from having to recommend or find systems that work for the university as a whole – you don’t have the funding or staffing to offer all of the CMS’s that are out there.

    Anyone in a position of selecting resources of any kind (books, databases, CMSs, accounting systems) in the public academic arena has a tough job. Budgets and staffing so severely limit what you can offer people. So we often end up with inadequate systems and resources. And reference librarians and instructional technologists are often stuck helping their community use these systems. Maybe this is what you mean when you talk about the administrative burden on instructional technologists?

  9. jimgroom says:


    I have to say that your analogy is a beautiful one, god I love it! And there is much wisdom to sitting in front of the whorehouse handing out WordPress fliers. In fact, I think your call for a happy medium is something my propensity for zealotry robs me of at times. I think taking people who really want to do something with teaching and learning through various other tools is essential. Yet, I often find it is hard to approach this without falling into the trap that WordPress or whatever else is a replacement for Bb, in fact it really isn’t, It is a different frame of mind all together that requires a certain amount of re-conceptualizing a virtual spce for teaching and learning. I think making the application as simple as Bb is one way to make the pitch, but another is some focused examination of what we think about online tools more generally and what thy offer higher ed in this day and age. I can’t help but thinking the conversation needs to be broader and more focused at the same time. Does this make any sense?

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  11. Matt says:

    I came back to this post today — searched for it — because it is such an important statement of the role of technology in expanding the scope of teaching and learning in the academy. It’s even better than I remembered. BRAVO.

  12. Matt says:

    And “still birth of a profession that’s still gestating”? Beautiful.

  13. Reverend says:


    Wow, I’m really glad you re-directed me to this post, this idea is at the forefront of my mind after a conversation I had with Gardner at EDUCAUSE 2008, and I want to thank you for bringing me back here. I forgot I even wrote this, and I’m frankly shocked it came out half as gogent as this seems to me on a re-read. I think I mght just re-purpose it thanks to your comments here, damn I love you. And damn how powerful is the blog for just this reason? Thank you, Matty!

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