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!