Archive for February, 2009

The Case for Strategic IT Leadership

February 21st, 2009 jonmott Comments

Lev Gonick, a friend and the CIO of Case Western, is the author of a piece in that appeared today in the Chronicle of Higher Ed today about IT leadership at colleges and universities. It’s a thoughtful, provocative piece which, coupled with a previous piece about leadership in the “wiki-way,” provides an excellent set of principles and directions for university IT leaders.

IT leaders must play an increasingly strategic–and not simply a tactical–role at colleges and universities. Accordingly, I agree with Lev’s assertion that IT leaders deserve a central, strategic role in presidential cabinets at colleges and universities. However, you have to have the right kinds of people (people like Lev) in these positions if that is what you expect of them. The day is past that we can consider IT merely a “support function” of the university. If we think of it as simply auxiliary, we will miss significant opportunities to transform (for the better!) our practices through strategic (not simply tactical) IT initiatives.

I would however, make one addition to Lev’s list of strategic directions for IT, and I’d put it at the top of the list. CIO’s should take an active role in working with the academic community to create a more a flexible, open, integrated toolset to support authentic teaching & learning activities. Our current tools help us manage courses and grades, but we can and must do much more than that to meet the challenges of educating the rising generation.

It is not enough to provide faculty & students with tools to manage the activities that occur inside semester-long courses. That might have been sufficient 5-10 years ago, but it is not today. Today, we need tools that allow students to build relationships with each other, with their teachers and with the content they access. Just as importantly, we need to support students’ creation of new content in the learning process and the discourse around that content. And we need to proactively build bridges between the tools we build, license and provide and the larger, often more dynamic online world in which our students live. CIO’s, IT personnel, and academic technologists must be critical players in the conception, creation, and implementation of tools that support such activities. Otherwise, we’re likely to see repeats past failed technology implementations that were tactically sound but that missed the mark because they were not strategically aligned with the mission of institution.

Technology is Still the Bogeyman

February 13th, 2009 jonmott Comments

In a recent Science Daily article, Patricia Greenfield’s research on the impact of technology on learning was summarized under the banner “Is Technology Producing A Decline In Critical Thinking And Analysis?” The piece depicts Greenfield’s research as casting technology in a decidedly negative light when it comes to facilitating the development of critical thinking and analysis skills. The original research report was published in Science (2 January 2009:Vol. 323. no. 5910, pp. 69 – 71), which you may or may not be able to access (depending on rights provided by an educational instituiton or libary with which you are affiliated).

There was an energetic discussion (provoked by Clay Burell’s blog post) about both the Science Daily article and the original research over at I won’t rehash in detail here whether or not the Science Daily write-up was a faithful interpretation of the underlying research or not. (For the record, I agree that Clay would have been on firmer ground had he read the original Science piece before writing his critique. But I’m also sympathetic to some of the comments about access to Science being limited.) In any case, it struck me that there are still a lot of folks out there who want to make technology the bogeyman. The Science Daily headline clearly implied that technology was the reason behind declining critical thinking skills. When laptops don’t work in the classroom, it must be that the technology wasn’t appropriate for the classroom. When wireless network initiatives result in distracted students during lectures, we blame the wireless technology. When kids don’t read for pleasure, we blame technology too. If they just weren’t so distracted by video games, cell phones, mp3 players, and social networking sites, maybe they’d read more and think deeper thoughts. Again, we blame the technology, and not the environment in which kids are educated and nurtured.

If you’re even an occasional reader of my ramblings here, you’re probably anticipating the soapbox I’m about to climb up on. Wait for it . . . Here it comes . . .

Technology can’t do anything by itself!

Neither can money! Or cars for that matter! These are all things that humans use for good or for ill. Technology doesn’t “produce” anything! It is the ways we use technology or the ways it is implemented that produce particular kinds of results.  As I said in my response to Clay’s post, you get what you design. If people design boring, process-driven, mindless “learning” experiences for students (with or without technology!), they shouldn’t be surprised that students hate it (or quickly tune out when there’s something more interesting to do, like browsing the web).

This is all simply a design issue and virtually every technology at our disposal is a design tool. If we want critical thinking we should design learning activities that promote and assessments that gauge critical thinking, using the appropriate mix of technologies. Technology can’t do anything by itself, but it seems to be an increasingly convenient bogeyman for people who don’t want to do the hard work of improving learning design and reforming education so learning–and not teaching–are the center of it all.