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.