Although institutions continue to invest a considerable amount of time and money in technology-enhanced learning strategies, many aren't seeing widespread adoption. Two Carnegie Mellon professors sought to understand why.
Higher education institutions continue to invest a considerable amount of time and money in technology-enhanced learning strategies. Yet, despite multimillion-dollar commitments to edtech implementations, many of these resources remain underutilized (or, in some cases, not used at all). New research findings from Lauren Herckis and Joel Smith of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) may shed some light on reasons behind the slower-than-anticipated spread of these initiatives.
Smith, a philosophy professor, was uniquely positioned to investigate the barriers to the implementation and utilization of technology in higher ed. He was formerly the CIO of CMU and was director of its Office of Technology for over a decade. As Smith said, "I was kind of the person who had the career-long question: Why isn't tech-enabled learning spreading faster? [It] was important to me to understand why this is a more difficult process than [faculty] think it should be."
Smith was especially perplexed as to why technologies that had already proven to be effective repeatedly failed to be embraced by faculty. He pointed to the example of CMU's Open Learning Initiative courses: "They tend not to be sustained or to propagate, even when they seem to be quite successful in terms of improving learning."
Two questions in particular concerned him:
- Why aren't the technologies in wider use?
- How could he and other faculty members overcome the inertia of launching new edtech initiatives?
Smith and his colleagues had attempted to answer these questions before. Indeed, their past hypotheses had resulted in concrete changes designed to remove roadblocks. These policy amendments were only partially successful, however, and several unidentified roadblocks remained. He came to the conclusion that part of the problem lay in research methods themselves, whether employed at CMU or in studies at other institutions.
The Role of Institutional Culture in Tech Adoption
Smith believed the largely quantitative research conducted to date had failed to identify issues more closely tied to the nuances of institutional culture than to practicalities, such as technological limitations or a lack of resources. His training and interests as a social scientist led him to contemplate the use of methodologies from an entirely different field: anthropology. He believed the answers were more likely to be found by the types of qualitative research methods associated with anthropology, such as ethnography. This led him to seek out the help of Lauren Herckis, an anthropological researcher and faculty member who is also affiliated with CMU's Human-Computer Interaction Institute.
Smith and Herckis planned out a strategy, with Herckis taking primary responsibility for the research. She employed an array of qualitative research methods, including extensive interviewing. "I sat down and spoke for hours with faculty, with staff, with administrators, with developers, with technologists—folks who are trying really hard to figure out how best to develop some innovative tool," Herckis explained. "Or how to make sure it was being used well. Or trying to decide whether or not they were going to use it in their classroom."
She spent a year following four tech-enhanced learning projects, each with distinctive characteristics. Two were highly collaborative efforts conceived at the administrative level involving a number of people at each stage of the process. The other two projects were created and driven by individual educators to meet their own particular needs. Herckis was able to identify one important factor all four projects had in common: "The definition of success for each of those projects changed over time. Everyone's idea of what it would mean to do what they were trying to do was shaped considerably by their experiences in the context of trying to get there."
The discovery of this shared characteristic proved revelatory, helping identify several major barriers to wide use of tech-enhanced learning. Those included:
- A lack of alignment among project stakeholders: Herckis cited a disconnect between faculty and administrators as one key example: "At the institutional level, whether the things that faculty want to achieve in the classroom match the things that administrators want faculty to achieve in the classroom is sometimes less clear than we might assume." A relative absence of common goals in the process of improving learning outcomes clearly presented a barrier to the wider adoption of new learning technologies at CMU.
- The changing definition of success over the projects' life cycles: The technology the programs were based on was often not adaptable enough to keep up with the pace of change. The needs identified at the start of a project frequently evolved over time. Personnel changes and the resulting alteration of the definition of successful teaching played a big role, said Herckis: "The faculty involved in using anything on any campus, or in any institution, changes. There are new faculty entering the academy every day, and there are faculty who leave it. So the ideas about what constitutes good teaching change with the faculty."
- A fixed faculty mind-set regarding instructional methods: In reviewing Herckis's research, Smith was surprised to learn just how deeply committed CMU faculty study participants were to teaching their respective subjects in a particular way. This was linked to "mental models" often formed in the course of their own educational experiences. Smith cited the example of an educator who retains teaching practices inspired by a former professor from undergraduate studies.
The Impact of Individual Perceptions About Instruction
This fixed belief in a particular teaching methodology is hard to shake, and Smith realized he had inadvertently contributed to the creation of this roadblock while an administrator at CMU: "Asking faculty to do something that conflicted with that model in any way, which I have done and realize now that I have probably done in my history with this business, is a mistake."
Instead, Smith recommended what is perhaps a better strategy: to help faculty members with innovations that are not a perceived threat to their preferred model. His advice for higher ed CIOs seeking to provide this support is to build processes that include the kind of research Herckis conducted at CMU. "If you are apprised of those details, you are in a much better position," Smith said.
Indeed, the kind of methodologies that Herckis used could be widely applied by higher ed institutions to enable them to better understand the campus culture influencing their own attempts to integrate tech-enhanced learning. The prospect gives both researchers hope for the future of these learning strategies.
"If higher education can get serious about scientifically studying implementation. . .[it] can improve [its] success rate at implementations and sustaining effective innovations," Smith said.
Kristi DePaul of Founders Marketing provides editorial support and regular contributions to the Transforming Higher Ed column of EDUCAUSE Review on issues of teaching, learning, and edtech.
© 2018 Kristi DePaul. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-NC 4.0 International License.