What is an instructional technologist?

Yesterday I was asked by a good friend and mentor the following question: “What’s next?” And it made me stop and think, I guess since I don’t have a Ph.D. and I’m in “IT” I should be thinking about an administrative position, right? I mean you can’t be an instructional technologist forever, right? It’s just a position you take until you become a bonafide administrator or decide to head back into teaching, it’s a liminal identity that ultimately one must surrender to make more money or have more independence or have a bit more power, right?

Well, I answered quite frankly that I really don’t want to do anything else. I do not want to be an administrator, it would completely divorce me from where my particular strengths lie: getting people excited about what they do and helping them muster the courage to experiment wildly. I really, really like what I do a lot, and I think I’m pretty good at it. In fact, I’m better at it than I have been at anything else I have ever done, perhaps with the exception of watching movies. But, there’s no future in it, right?  I mean, come on Reverend, you’re an instructional technologist for Christ’s sake. I’d say 99.99999999999% percent of the population has no idea what that title means, and 99.9% of the instructional technologists aren’t too sure either. Well, that’s what I am, and the more I look around the world of educational technology the prouder I am of this fact. But thinking of how to articulate this idea was immediately daunting. I really don’t have the energy at the moment to write it all up or re-think why I need to say how this question has moved me to the point of reflection and deep consideration.

Well, luckily I don’t have to, because Matt Gold (a dear friend) did something special for me today. He pointed me to a post I wrote almost a year ago that addresses this question head-on. It’s a post I had all but forgotten about, yet he remembered it and commented upon it this very evening (when I needed it most) as if he were intentionally pushing me to re-read it–which his too kind comments actually did. So, taking my inspiration from Matt I am going to “radically re-use” my own thoughts from an old post to answer the question of what an instructional technologist is, at least in my feeble mind. (As an aside, I don’t think I have ever realized the full power of blogging my ideas regularly for the last three years until this evening, where my own ideas come back to lift my spirits in a existential moment of uncertainty and exhaustion, so thank you Matt from the bottom of my heart!)


What is an instructional technologist?

The difficulty of such a question is in many ways tied up with the larger problems with such a conference as EDUCAUSE, and actually framed quite clearly the heart of the presentation Gardner Campbell and I gave yesterday: it all depends on whether you want to focus on teaching and learning within a community or the ease and efficiency of administrating a system?

The answer to this question will ultimately decide whether or not one professor or ten professors or an entire campus is willing to use dynamic, loosely joined open source tools like WPMu, Drupal, MediaWiki, etc. If the focus is on administration and not teaching and learning than an enterprise, “turn-key” solution 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, or how “open” it pretends to be, etc. I really can’t (or rather won’t) argue with anyone on this count, for the two ideas 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 demonstrates the limited capabilities of any one 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. 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. Moreover, 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 people at the conference 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 that technology and pedagogy “might” have a future on campus. 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. That is the invaluable role of an instructional technologist, and he or she may very well be one of the most crucial figures on college campuses today.

Yet, the position has been circumscribed and denigrated by IT directives and administrative exigencies to the point that this desperately needed space for freedom and experimentation on campuses around the world has become one of obedience, fear, and “service.” And I put service in quotes here because while my role is to serve the faculty and students, as well as to foster a community of openness, tolerance, and exploration (which I value dearly, and firmly believe is the role of everyone who works on a college campus–or in education more generally), an instructional technologist can only accomplish this in their particular field by being granted the freedom to follow their own imaginative and critical ideas about this constantly emergent space. Right now, this is seldom the case, and to be quite frank with you, I have seen the other possibilities out there, and they are meager at best. Mary Washington is one of very few models for what an instructional technology outfit should be doing on a college campus, and the UMW professors are arguably the best example of how faculty should be partnering with instructional technologists to explore the implications of the changing landscape of publishing, discourse, media, and socially created knowledge that everywhere surrounds us.

Instructional Technologists of the world unite; you have nothing to lose but your BlackBoard chains!

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26 Responses to What is an instructional technologist?

  1. Jared Stein says:

    Hear, hear!

    Just over 2 years ago I returned to UVU from USU. I took a pay cut, and I took a step down in title. But I went from being an administrator (don’t get me started) to being director of UVU’s instructional technology unit, IDS.

    I now have what I consider to quite possibly be a perfect position. Not only do I want to do instructional design and technology every day, our unit is so lean that I have to. It’s the place for me, and I enjoyed reading and agreeing with your description of this particular role.

    I probably will go back to school soon to aim for a PhD but because I hope it will help me excel in this field, not because I want to move further up (or is it down) the administration food chain.

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  3. Reverend says:


    Sounds like you are in a killer position, and one of the things i would be interested in pursuing is sharing out how different instructional technology teams approach there work. How do different institutions approach this position, how do the thriving groups thrive. I’ve been following your group’s work with Moodle, WP, and an assortment of open source and small pieces–and interestingly enough you blog regularly. How key is this to your relationship to your work, and your pride in this seemly obscure and transient position? I know for me it is key, and I write this post for fear of losing that relationship to what I do. Not from any internal disconnect, but given the constant and fickle pursuit of some ill-defined excellence that institutions, IT departments, and the more generally pronounced fear-based relationship to technology that proves a dangerous space that is fed upon by profiteers.

  4. Ken says:

    I remember, precisely, reading this post last year and saying to myself “This cat is rather passionate about this IT game”. Moreover, this quote right here is what stuck in my head “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.” Hell, that quote still resounds with me today.

    That right there is why I said what I said over lunch on Wednesday.

    Glad to know technology’s affordance of the archive has enabled deep, rich and active reflection.

  5. Scott Leslie says:

    You crack me up Rev. It must be a problem being so brilliant you can’t even keep track of all the brilliant things you have come up with already. You remind me of the Christopher Lloyd character in the ‘Back to the Future’ films. Maybe I should start calling you ‘Doc’ instead.

    When I read the title of this post, my first thought was – huh? Jim figured that out a year ago when he wrote that brilliant post about “what is an instructional technologist?” Then I thought it might be of the hackers again, or maybe just the Bava barfing up classic old posts.

    Still, glad you forgot you wrote this, because it got me to read it yet again. And I still love it! Funny too – I was just chewing over such worries myself tonight with the wife – “honey, you know it’s fine and all being almost 40 and still being the guy with the crazy ideas and the wild look in his eyes, but what about when I’m 50? Maybe it’s time I tried to be a little more straight, convince them I’m “dependable,” won’t rock the boat, aim for that admin job.” And you know what we decided, fuck it. A life worth living is worth living well, to the fullest, being the best you can be and helping all you can at what you do best. Wild look in your eyes and all. Seriously Jim, all joking aside, you inspire me to try harder AND have more fun.

  6. Alan Levine says:

    I don’t want to grow up to be an admin either; when I was at Maricopa (with the Instructional Technologist title), I told people I had a self-imposed glass ceiling.

    I do not begrudge those that aspire to be CIOs, Provosts, etc, and am thankful there are people who get jazzed by that as much as I love a good swipe of PHP code.

    Now I do have an administrative title at NMC, but we are so small an organization (<10 employees) everyone does everything. I joke when I am introduced as a “Chief Technology Offfice” … “wait a minute, I am the *only* technology officer!”

    Like you, I cannot see, nor see any reason to see, doing anything else, until some young edupunk knocks me off.

  7. Luke says:

    Jim: no one I’ve met in this field has your ability to de-center and re-center with such rhythm. Ron Carter’s got nothing on you.

    Thanks to you and Gold for bringing this back up.

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  9. Jon Mott says:

    Great insights. The passion I have for my work is a HUGE component of my life satisfaction quotient. And part of that passion is the opportunity to associate with people like you. Thanks for sharing.

    As an aside, I think there’s a growing need for people at an “administrative” level at institutions of higher education who share your world view and espouse your perspectives on education. The next generation of institutional leaders needs to be people who understand new technologies and their possibilities (and limits!) if we’re going to see a significant transformation of teaching & learning. Ready or not, like it or not, the broader leadership opportunities are going to come your way, methinks. You’re too influential / innovative for them not to . . .

  10. I don’t know. I mean, the crazy ideas and radical openness is fun and all, but the perks are pretty awesome, too. I was just talking with my driver on the way to campus this morning, how great it is to be able to do what we do. Was it you, or Alan, who was commenting on that very thing at the last Edupunk polo match in Monterey? I forget – all of those retreats get blurred together. The one where Brian got his ass kicked in the Ferrari race (oh, man. sorry dude. I promised I’d stop bringing that up – but seriously. PWNED!).

    Anyway, not important. The fame and fortune are pretty intoxicating. And the power – knowing that my work is so fundamentally shaping the activities of my institution. That the people who run the show (or at least _appear_ to run the show) are coming to me for advice on policy and strategy. Oh, and don’t get me started on the whole ed tech groupie scene. At first I was a little freaked out by the celebrity treatment, but then I realized that so many people really value what we do, and we just need to let go and enjoy the ride.

    Looking forward to the next retreat at Necker. Here’s hoping they have better yacht valet service than the last time – it took me forever to buff that scratch off the starboard bulwark after you sideswiped me last time. And stop making that annoying ARRRRR! pirate noise when you’re on board!

  11. Long time reader says:

    I started out in higher-ed as an instructional technologist and moved on to become a director. Every time I conduct a search an instructional technologist for my staff, I have a moment where I say to myself, “why don’t you just take this position yourself?” Being an instructional technologist of the ideal type the Reverend describes is a great place to be. Maybe I’ll go back there again some day.

    So to put it in movie terms, it’s kinda like how James T. Kirk is promoted to Admiral in Star Trek I. He has a lot more responsibility but his first love is command of a starship. He ends up having to deal with the V’ger thing, the Khan thing, the resurrected Spock thing, and the whale thing. Along the way he destroys a lot of Starfleet property and is busted down to Captain in Star Trek IV. But, secretly, he thinks it’s awesome.

  12. 5tein says:

    Love the Star Trek ref (just above), and not just because I’ll be sporting a Spock outfit for Halloween today.

    D’Arcy: From your post I’ve learned to fear the snapping of your towel in the locker room. Seriously, though, edtech initiation should involve some hazing.

    Jim, the only response I really have to your query is simply, It’s What I Do, and What I Do is Why I Do It.

  13. Reverend says:

    And that quote still holds true, here’s to hoping I never have to act on it!

    You use genius as lightly as I do, that said I know how you feel and sometimes it seems like careers are designed liked Ikea–>a pathway built to push you along in the name of consumption and progress. Sometimes it ain’t so easy to realize there is more than one way to approach your idea of a life worth living, and I think remaining focused on what’s important isn’t ever easy and always demands a struggle, and sometimes I feel myself slipping–so I go to the bavarchive.

    Oh yeah, well if was so good I wouldn’t have had to Google Ron Carter. The fact that he was a bassist is very interesting, cause Gardner recently was talking about Count Bassie, and suggested that it is the bassist that you tap your feet to, not the vocals, guitar or drums, so I take that as the highest honor. I guess my instrument is inanity.

    You’re not only an administrator, you’re a CIO! Scary! 😉

    Well that is too kind, yet the question of leadership is something that has always concerned me. I don’t necessarily have a problem with authority, I just don’t like to be told what to do 🙂 more seriously, I’m always afraid that a lot of what a write will be read as an attack on administration, which it is not. It is rather a consideration of thinking through the possibility and cultivation of innovation as yet another space that is fostered that might remain outside of the more focused work of administration, yet because the university is often neatly divided between teaching and administration spaces like the library and instructional technology often far outside of their scope–and by default their identity remains unclear within the structure of the university. Administration (and I am thinking IT here) often has more to do with scale, efficiency, and reducing risk–at least to some degree. Whereas, a provost is interesting in teaching, scholarship and promotion–I would think instructional technologists would be more relevant working under an academic banner than an IT one (which is currently the case at UMW–but who knows for how long).

    Are you bragging again? You have been doing a lot of that lately on your blog, but now you bring it here, to my blog? Obviously the fame and fortune is starting to get to you 😉

    Don’t get demoted on my account 😉 It’s funny how much folks here often miss the job they do once they have been promoted, with promotion often comes an insane amount of meetings. I’ve seen first hand how that sucks the time and energy away from experimentation –I know they are necessary, but damn they seem inefficient and ineffective.

    And I couldn’t ask for any more 🙂

  14. Laura says:

    So glad you posted this since I think I missed the first version. A couple of quotes I want to pull.

    “the role of the instructional technologist is effectively limited to routinized training that demonstrates the limited capabilities of any one system. All of which effectively makes the instructional technologist an administrative assistant providing technical help.”


    “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.”

    To put it more crudely: “I am not your Blackboard bitch.” 🙂

    You’ve basically described my reasons for leaving. Or at least about 70% of them. I believe there were probably faculty at my institution doing interesting things, interested in new technology, but the giant monster of the CMS swallowed up everything–my time, the conversation about learning with technology, etc. I’m proud of what I did with our WordPress Mu stuff and it’s being used a lot–but not by faculty. I don’t know. I still have issues, I think. 🙂

    The two forks you’ve described are ones I’ve described over and over again to the many administrators who’ve wanted to talk to me after I announced my resignation. For them, though, everything is administration. I think good administration is important and I commend those who do it well, because in theory, that frees up time for innovation. I found myself drifting into more and more administration and found that even with innovative technologies like Second Life, the first question people asked was not, “How can this help me teach or help my students learn,” but “Will you manage this for me if I use it?”

    I admire your continued enthusiasm for technology and learning within higher education. I just couldn’t maintain it any longer. I’m still enthusiastic about technology and learning. I’m just afraid that what we’re headed to is all about efficiencies. Learning is never efficient.

  15. Reverend says:

    The announcement that you would be leaving the world of instructional technology in higher ed was a blow for me. The idea that higher ed has lost yet another important agent of change at a college like Bryn Mawr is disheartening for me. I’ve been following your continued struggles trying to innovate from within the infrastructure of your college, all of which points towards efficiency–as you note, and being sucked in to the vortex that you really didn’t sign up for. And the fact that you are going at it alone and strapped with a million in one things besides teaching and learning represents a blind spot on the part of institutions—they can;t see what they have. And that is a key loss for them, at the same time the move towards a community centered approach for teaching and learning has been ever more interesting to me, and now knowing that Barbara Ganley will be unleashing some tricks at NV, and that you may be following this deschooled pursuit further intrigues me. This is a movement I am planning on joining, and while I am in no position to quit my day job and, honestly, I’m one of the seemingly few who gets the freedom the position demands–I’m still extremely interested. All the same, I’m waiting and planning accordingly, I hope to reproduce the logic of learning communities here in Fredericksburg as the model becomes clearer along the way. And I hope to have a collaborator in you if you can find your way out of baking muffins in the morning 🙂 Congratulations on a courageous first step towards the future, I wonder how many of us will eventually be following.

  16. Laura says:

    Baking muffins is all about educational technology, dontcha know! I’ll likely be at NV too and my voice will still be around, so any collaborations you want to get going, let me know. You’re in an enviable position in being able to edupunk right there in your own institution. I’ll be keeping an eye on what you’re up to, for sure!

  17. elisabeth says:

    Speaking as a “Blackboard Bitch” myself, you’re not far off from my experience.

    You see, I have a love/hate relationship with Bb. As an instructor, having a set of tools that I can pick and choose from in a closed environment is convenient- for those with basic tech knowledge it’s approachable (if not always intuitive). As a technical support lead, only having to deal with a set range of variables (and it’s a pretty wide set as it is) makes my life much more manageable.

    As an IT, however, I prefer to introduce faculty to possibilities rather than “point-and-click” tech training. What do you want to do? WHY do you want to do that? Here’s some options you can choose from… THAT’S the stuff I live for.

    I tend to describe my position as standing with my feet on two icebergs slowly floating away from each other- the disconnect just keeps growing. I must admit, I struggle with it more some days than others, and there’s nothing like a conference to remind me just how much is going on out there that I want to dig my hands into. *sigh*

  18. Jon Mott says:

    There’s an inherent tension in this work. Take my job for example. As I explained in a talk a week or so ago, my job is 50% keeping the trains running, 50% trying to figure out what trains will look like in 3-5 years, and do we have the right kind of tracks, or will we have something completely different than trains? Hovercraft maybe?

    In any case, it’s often difficult to be a work-a-day teaching & learning technologist while trying to envision and plan for a brighter, better future. We have 45,000 Blackboard users at my instituiton. They use the system A LOT. We consistently hit 2 million quizzes / semester in Blackboard. We have 1.5 TB of content in Blackboard. The average student views each of their courses about once a day. We HAVE to keep it up and running.

    There’s a lot of teaching and learning going on there. Does that mean I think we’ve achieved the ideal? Absolutely not. Is Blackboard everything it can / sould be? No way. We can all think of ways to make learning more open, flexible, dynamic, etc. Many of you are already doing things that move decidedly in that direction, UMWBlogs being a prime example. That’s what I love about this crowd.

    So how do we get from here to there? Isn’t that the real challenge we face? I think it’s got to be parts evolution and revolution. My approach, FWIW, is to continue to push practice and the toolset in new, more open and flexible direction. For example, we’re piloting UPortal here. We’re talking about ways to make the portal a more open landing spot for teachers and students, freeing them up (incrementally) from the CMS.

    That’s the evolution part. Then there are revolutionary things we can do / support. Our CS department on campus is using Moodle primarily because they want to us LaTeX. Dave W. on our campus teaches with MediaWiki. Others use blogs. How can we support these outside-the-lines efforts? We’re trying to do that by providing the connective tissue teachers and their students need to tie these various things together. For starters, we’re working on a stand-alone web-services-enabled gradebook. And we’re establishing a web services framework for our campus . . .

    I’m in no way trying to suggest we’ve got it figured out. I’m grappling with the tension much like the rest of you. But we need to keep the smart people in academia to find the right synergy between evolution and revolution, methinks. If we lose the innovators, we had all better be patient enough to wait for evolution.

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