Challenging Narratives: Finding a Call to Adventure in Faculty Data

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How might technologists surface an actionable story from data? Here are some insights into the storytelling process and suggestions for how data from the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research can help to build narrative inquiries.

aviator in the cockpit of a sketched airplane
Credit: Sergey Nivens / © 2020

Every institution of higher education has a story. These stories are written and rewritten by the individuals who work, learn, research, and teach at their respective institutions. For those who work in digital spaces, understanding the institutional narrative is a multilayered commitment. To borrow from the theme of Joseph Campbell's 1968 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and, more recently, Christopher Vogler's 2007 work, The Writer's Journey, technologists must understand the campus technology landscape as it exists today and also forecast the calls to adventure (change) that may come their way in the next hour, the next year, or the next five years. Easy, right?

As one of those who finds herself simultaneously measuring the present and planning for the future—and in roles where I constantly wonder, "What's the story here?"—I've had the immense pleasure of helping administer Michigan State University's (MSU) participation in a number of EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research (ECAR) attitudinal and benchmarking reports. Each experience in collaborating with ECAR has helped me to better understand the academic technology landscape—both at the micro and macro levels. From 2015 to 2019, the need for faculty development and support has been one of the top three teaching and learning issues at higher education institutions.1 This trend indicates to me that we've not quite gotten the faculty support "story" right yet.

But data without a story is just data, right? So, how might we surface an actionable story from the data we have access to? Here are some insights into the storytelling process and suggestions for how to use ECAR data to help build narrative inquiries. For the purposes of this article, I'll use the 2019 Study of Faculty and Information Technology.2 Behold! The data hero's journey!

Understanding the Ordinary World

What does an ordinary day look like for you in your technology role? I'm not talking about a day like in the movie Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray's character lives the same day over and over again; rather, what does a day look like that just . . . is? How do you think your ordinary day compares to a faculty member's ordinary day? When we as technologists support faculty, who are we actually supporting, and what are their true needs (as opposed to what we think their needs are)?

More broadly speaking, what does your ordinary world look like? Sections one and two of the biennial EDUCAUSE Technology Research in the Academic Community (ETRAC) faculty technology survey gave me a better idea of what my ordinary world looks like.3 You can gain a similar perspective by imagining your last meeting. Who was in the room? What were their roles and experience levels? Who do they work with, and what technologies do they use? The answers to all of these questions are what we might consider important basics of an ordinary world. But guess what? Those basics surprised me. I thought the MSU responses to the ETRAC Faculty Survey would come largely from non-tenured and early career faculty. That wasn't the case. So how might we navigate the disparity between what we as technology professionals think the ordinary world looks like and what our stakeholders and partners think it looks like? How do we build our adventure map, as it were?

Trying Personas

To help build your "adventure map," you might try using personas. Institutions that participate in the ETRAC faculty (or student) and information technology survey receive a data set reflecting survey results from their institution. Institutions can use this data set to benchmark against the full study report published by ECAR later in the year. Using the EDUCAUSE data set for your institution (if it participated), or the data almanacs provided in the EDUCAUSE library (here's one example), build five to ten high-level personas that you can use in your solutions design. Personas should be as representative of your campus population as possible and be rooted in data in order to avoid stereotyping.

  • If you have more time, focus on five to ten full personas.4
  • Have less time? Consider building lighter-weight proto-personas.5
  • Want to practice first? Get a little experience by playing the Persona Design Challenge Game.6

Identifying a Call to Adventure (and Knowing When to Refuse the Call)

So, now you have a better idea of what an "ordinary day" in an "ordinary world" means in the higher education technology landscape, and you have a better understanding of how to use personas to identify some possible changes to the services or processes you provide to help key stakeholders. Awesome—that's huge! But it's not time to veer away from the data just yet.

Humans are inherently helpful creatures.7 We naturally want to focus on fixing the things that we see as the biggest problems. But what if our biggest pain points aren't the ones that truly matter? Data can help to identify potential paths toward the adventure inherent in seeking a better, more effective world. Remember, adventure, at its core, is change. As technology professionals who are immersed in a tech world, we need to make sure that we don't take the wrong path based on individual experiences or preconceived notions about what is right or wrong, or what is easy or hard. In this case, we can use the ETRAC faculty survey instrument as a guidepost to help us understand what our customers might need or want.8

Section three of the ETRAC faculty survey asks respondents questions about the teaching and learning landscape on their campus, as well as questions about faculty needs surrounding the technologies leveraged to create the digital learning ecosystem. From collaboration tools like Google Drive and Office 365 to the campus learning management system (LMS), the world of academic technologies can seem like the equivalent of leaving J. R. R. Tolkien's Shire to venture forth into Mordor. Okay, maybe it's not quite that extreme, but as researchers and technologists, we want to ensure that we're less like Gollum and more like Gandalf as we help faculty and students navigate complex technology solutions.

For example, I discovered that I have a technology blind spot. I learned that faculty on my campus want more help navigating collaboration tools and feel that they'd be more effective in their teaching if they had more knowledge of them. That surprised me. Since I use collaboration tools daily and have a high level of familiarity with them, I (wrongly) assumed that my faculty colleagues did as well. Had I made support, process, or documentation decisions based on my sense of what was needed, I would have missed a very important opportunity path.

Using Experience Mapping

Using your institutional data (or the EDUCAUSE report) from section three of the ETRAC survey, identify three to four opportunities that you think will impact the faculty and student experience. Then, assemble an interdisciplinary team of faculty and students (it can be small at first), and ask the team members to "map" the ways they find the support and resources they need and how they access and use them. This is referred to as experience mapping.

Experience mapping can be complex, and there are a number of methods. The experience mapping cheat sheet from the Nielsen Norman group provides a great overview of four commonly used mapping methods, how to apply them toward your specific desired outcomes, and the answers you need to achieve the desired outcomes.9

So far, we've briefly examined how to use sections of ECAR data within a storytelling framework to begin to understand faculty needs and opportunities that exist to support faculty. My next blog post will explore how leveraging ECAR data will help you to become the Yoda to your faculty Skywalkers and the Leia to their Resistance—that is, the wise elder or changemaker. My next post will also discuss how to use data to begin working through tensions and complexity to design a solution.

For more insights about advancing teaching and learning through IT innovation, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Transforming Higher Ed blog as well as the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative page.


  1. Malcolm Brown, EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative Key Issues Result All Years, updated January 25, 2019.
  2. Joseph Galanek and Dana Gierdowski, 2019 Study of Faculty and Information Technology, research report (Lousville, CO: ECAR, December 2019).
  3. EDUCAUSE Technology Research in the Academic Community, "2019 ETRAC Faculty Survey," 2019.
  4. Rikke Friis Dam and Yu Siang Teo, "Personas—A Simple Introduction," Interaction Design Foundation, December 2019.
  5. Jeff Gothelf, "Using Proto-Personas for Executive Alignment," UX Magazine, no. 821, May 1, 2012.
  6. Jess Knott, "Persona Design Challenge Game," Monomyth Online, November 7, 2017; for further reading, check out Kim Flaherty, "Why Personas Fail," Nielsen Norman Group, January 28, 2018.
  7. Adrian F. Ward, "Scientists Probe Human Nature—and Discover We Are Good, After All," Scientific American, November 20, 2012.
  8. ETRAC, "2019 ETRAC Faculty Survey."
  9. Sarah Gibbons, "UX Mapping Methods Compared: A Cheat Sheet," Nielsen Norman Group, November 15, 2017.

Jessica Knott is the Service Strategy Team Manager at Michigan State University Information Technology.

© 2020 Jessica Knott. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY 4.0 International License.