Â When I think about technology, I always think about problems. Not problems with the technology itself, but about problems that technology can be used to solve. Far too often we technologists get enamored with a cool new technology (”It’s shiny!”) and we immediately begin looking for something to do with it. “Hey, this cool new hammer would work as a bottle opener if you hold it just right!”
But alas, a very long list of bad teaching & learning technology implementations can be cited to demonstrate why the “solution looking for a problem” approach is a bad idea. When I was an instructional designer at BYU’s Center for Instructional Design (now the Center for Teaching & Learning), I constantly fought this battle with faculty members who would come to the Center and announce that they needed a DVD, a website, an immersive 3D simulation, or some other such instructional technology creation. I would politely nod and we’d have a conversation that went something like this:
ME: Okay, so we can build the best (fill in the blank) possible, can you explain to me exactly what it is about your course that’s not going the way you want?
FACULTY: What do you mean?
ME: Well, once we’ve built (fill in the blank), what should be better about your course? Better yet, what should your students know or be able to do that they currently don’t?
FACULTY: Well, that’s a good question. What they really lack is . . .
From there, we’d spend some time talking about student learning and what the faculty member could do to better facilitate it. Then we’d explore how (fill in the blank) would help students learn better or faster. As often as not, we’d decide not to build (fill in the blank). Instead, we’d tweak some things in the course and build something else more appropriate to the problem the faculty member was trying to solve.
Based on experiences like this, I’ve developed a very simple approach to teaching and learning technology, academic technology and technology in general. Simply put, a technology is only as useful as the problems it solves. The trick for technologists, then, is to always begin with the end in mind. We have to get focused on the problem we’re trying to solve and stay focused on it. We have to constantly ask ourselves, “What am I trying to fix or improve? How will I be able to tell when I’ve succeeded?”
Once we know what we’re trying to improve, we have an objective. Let’s call it a “goal.” With our goal firmly in mind, we can then move to strategy formulation. I think of a strategy as a long-term plan of action focused on achieving a goal. From strategy we can then move to specific tactics or operational activities aimed at implementing the strategy.
Let me make this more concrete. Let’s say that the faculty and administrators on a campus are concerned that they’re using up too much classroom time on administrivia, e.g. collecting and returning papers, administering quizzes, etc. A GOAL aimed at addressing this problem would be to reduce time spent on administrivia during class time. One possible STRATEGY for accomplishing this GOAL would be to move most class-administrative activities to an online environment where they could be completed outside of regular class time. One possible TACTIC for implementing this STRATEGY would be to make a particular online course management system (CMS) available for faculty members and students.
The beauty of this approach is that it drives both goal-driven technology implementations (tactics) AND straightforward evaluations of those implementations. Was a technology implementation effective? That question can now be answered, first and foremost, by answering another question: Was the goal accomplished? If the problem is less severe or even non-existent after the strategy and tactics were implemented, you can declare success. If the goal wasn’t accomplished, at least you learned that the tactic (and perhaps the strategy) you picked didn’t work.
Admittedly, this is a simplistic approach to technology planning and evaluation. But it has served me well and I’ll continue to rely on it until something better comes along. The bottom line? Technology should be used to make the world a better place. If we’re not able to demonstrate exactly how and to what extent technology is improving things, all were left with is, “It’s shiny!”