Inchoate Agency: Technology, and the Liberal Arts

Inchoate Agency: Technology, and the Liberal Arts

Fail Whale

A few weeks back, I shared a few thoughts on being a Social CIO at a Liberal Arts College. The post had its genesis in a magazine article that I had been working on, and generated many subsequent conversations, offline and on… like the one below:

Twitter Convo

Which begs the question – why is it that at liberal arts colleges, those who have the biggest stake in the role of technology – faculty and students – are disengaged in the decision processes that govern institutional technology decision making?

Naturally, each school’s unique situation will be fact dependent and history-bound. But I’ll make a run at what I see to be the obstacles that keep stakeholders from actualizing their decision making agency.

The following are observations I’ve made directly, and are informed by my interactions with instructional technologists and CIOs at other liberal arts schools. My biases as an administrator are undeniable and unhideable.

  • Faculty experience technology from the perspective of their classroom… and personal abilities. Faculty members (like the rest of us) frame their views on technology from personal experience. Their comfort with technology informs their attitudes – pedagogically and professionally – with regard to the (proper) role of technology in their classroom. It is the role of instructional technologists, instructional designers, and professional technology services staffs to not dictate how and when technology is to be used in the classroom, but rather to support and inform faculty in their self-directed pursuits to effectively utilize technology, as driven by deliberate pedagogical purpose.
  • Student engagement is variable and inconsistent. Dawg-gone students. They keep wanting to graduate on time. Just when you train ’em up, they’re gone. Or: you go from one year of extremely high and talented engagement with student representatives on committees, to the next year when your students are MIA from each and every technology committee meeting. This is – and will remain – a perennial problem. Your only defense is to identify, and then develop, engaged student leaders for roles in technology steering committees. Once selected, you have to engage them not only during committee meeting times, but in a prolonged and cyclical process of discussion and positive reinforcement. They need to understand their importance – and stake – in the process. To be effective, you as a technology leader have to put in the time to help them recognize how their input and work matters.
  • Little opportunity for institutional conversations regarding technology. Honestly, we’re all focused on our jobs – or graduating – and most likely aren’t sitting around and thinking about the “big picture.” Especially, “big picture technology thinking.” And yet, how will faculty and students understand institutional effects of technology decision making, if there are never opportunities or outlets to hold those discussions? I’ve used two approaches that have yielded good results in the past: periodic surveys of students and faculty regarding attitudes and experiences with technology on campus; and, many, many conversations held directly with faculty department heads (usually, over lunch or coffee) to talk about how their technology needs were – or weren’t – being met, and sharing ideas on technology strategy as it related to budget, student experience, and teaching outcomes. You have to make time, and intentionally pursue opportunities for these conversations to happen. Otherwise, neither side of the dialog (admin and faculty) will be even relatively close to being informed about the real efficacy of technology on your campus.
  • Institutional / strategic priorities often don’t translate into immediate action. By their very nature, strategic initiatives are long-lived in scope and execution. Needless to say – so I’ll say it – It is exceedingly difficult to maintain focus and continuity, when projects span multiple funding years, experience drastic changes in leadership, or undergo non-trivial changes to scope over the life of a project. Enthusiasm and buy in can leech away, just when it is need needed the most. Poor decisions creep in, when tactical expediency overrides the overarching institutional strategy that you’ve thoughtfully put into place. Worse than that, a pattern of this type of disintermediation sabotages future efforts at getting institutional buy in for long range objectives. Keeping the main thing, the main thing, is a lot harder than it looks.
  • Governance is simply under-exercised and under-developed. This, I believe, is the number one challenge – and the number one reason – faculty exercise little voice in setting institutional technology priorities. Faculty workloads – advising, teaching, and committee work – naturally have an impact on levels of governance and committee participation. It is vitally important that faculty get – and remain – engaged at the institutional level, on matters involving technology, if a semblance of shared governance is to be maintained – and believed. Trust – and distrust – contributes or detracts from enthusiastic (or at least, willing) participation. The fact remains – faculty wield a tremendous amount of power and responsibility in helping set institutional priorities – not just technological ones – that go unactualized, unacted upon; faculty inaction effectively abdicates responsibility in their role in the outcomes. I say this not as an indictment, but rather as a recognition of a serious obstacle to effective governance.

In short, it’s complicated.

But not really.

The key to addressing inchoate student and faculty agency, is to promote, support, and maintain high levels of engagement at all stages of the institutional technology decision cycle.

Ultimately, without prolonged and intentional engagement and exercise of shared governance by students and faculty, lasting and sustainable technology delivery will be seen as dictatorial, rather than collaborative and collegial – which will lead only to further disengagement.

What do you think? Do these observations reflect what is happening at your institution?

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