The Broad View of Pedagogy: Teaching, Instructional Technology, and the ATS

After so many years of watching other areas reap the benefits of technology, like e-commerce, using new tools to improve education seems to finally be a genuine focus for many people. It is easy to see that the Internet will change education in very profound ways, just like it changes everything. The ability to access information online is as revolutionary as the introduction of printing, book-binding, and libraries, all of which were fundamentally tied to education as well. Even beyond insiders, most people also realize that the promise of instructional technology is not just wide access to famous professors’ lectures, it is something much more important. The opportunities for collaboration, formative and summative assessment, and deep analysis of student progress are probably just the tip of the iceberg.

It might be a useful exercise to return to one of the most basic concepts of education: teachers want learners to make a certain specific realization about something that the students don’t know, but the teacher and many others do. In the past, this process was actually facilitated by the lack of information, and teachers could be confident that learners would sit down to work out a problem, since finding a previously created answer would take a long time, if it was possible at all. Teachers sharing problem sets and tests in resource books was also quite easy, but students sharing answers faced the technical barrier of how to do it quickly and covertly, as well as the ethical barrier of “cheating.”

But now teachers are faced with the dilemma of trying to find a way to elicit a realization when it is so difficult to hide key information, if not the desired answer. One approach is to shift the focus to search skills, but it is clear that our future does not lie in search alone. The constant change in hardware and user interface design also presents learning needs, but, again, it is difficult to imagine that learning to use devices will be our only challenge. In a real sense, now that everything is available all the time, we are being forced to re-examine the goals and value of education.

My own field of language education seems to have gone full circle in the last few years, with the proliferation of translation tools. Even as many mocked their inaccuracy and the reliance on connected computer, we can see that ubiquitous networks, shrinking storage devices, and powerful (mobile!) processors have brought us closer to the Holy Grail of the Star Trek Communicator. And now, finally, many are seeing (once again) that it isn’t translation that we want after all. As humans, we seek, we need raw and emotional face-to-face communication between two intelligent and feeling beings.

So classroom teaching is not dead, not by a long shot, and it probably never will be. There are still plenty of problems to think about, such as how can teachers and learners use the new tools we have, and what parts of education beyond the teacher-student interaction can technology facilitate? As we focus in on pedagogy, using the lens of technology, we can start to think about the next and even the eventual set of solutions we would like to see.

The ATS Program at Stanford has found that it is often quite useful to have an individual that can help negotiate the implementation of technology in instruction. Specifically, someone that has extensive teaching experience combined with broad technical skills can make significant contributions to a department or other instructional unit, especially if that individual also has regular opportunities to teach in that unit. That individual, an ATS, can use their background in both areas to help facilitate connections with other parts of the campus in order advance projects. In addition, the ATS can make connections across institutions in order to stimulate the broader spread of ideas, and even, hopefully, similar projects in other places.

If we take a few steps back and view the situation from a broad perspective, there are several key factors that make an ATS the best choice. The first is that for a project to have a lasting effect, it must be sustainable and scalable, which necessitates local control at the institutional level. This condition is especially true with technology, since IT infrastructure is by definition local. Pure research projects often make use of innovations that do not take local systems into account, since they are often more on the level of proof-of-concept, and are therefore not scalable. On the other end of the spectrum, innovations that are local on the classroom level are quite common, since they can be initiated and controlled by a single teacher, but this is often not scalable because of human resources – it is difficult to put a similarly motivated teacher in every single classroom. Finally, technology developers and users are almost always completely separate groups, without any real incentive to help each other, unless there is some mandate, institutional or commercial. Apache and Linux are often given as examples of successful open source projects, but in almost all of these cases, the developers are the ones who use the systems. Wikipedia is an example of a more public-facing project, but we could argue that the technology itself is so simple and ubiquitous that it is not the key innovation.

Looking around, there are not only precedents for this kind of position, but also compelling reasons to advance it. While they don’t use the same terminology, labs in engineering departments and medical schools have long employed post-docs, researchers and technicians in order to facilitate the implementation of new methodology, to assist with compliance processes for institution regulations, and to connect with related areas like industry. Unfortunately, the efforts of these labs often do not extend to pedagogy, and, needless to say, fields in areas like the humanities do not make use of such a model. From another perspective, educational research at the K12 level often must address local circumstances in order to ensure that interventions actually do result in a difference that makes a difference. We see this happening in higher education as universities create and expand administrative units responsible for online education, which often employ instructional designers in a similar role. Others have pointed out that one of the reasons that online education holds so much promise is that its open nature finally breaks the curriculum out of the control of individual faculty and brings it into an arena where other factors must come into play. Similarly, one of the roles of the ATS is to facilitate connections within and across institutions in order to make projects as relevant as possible.

Despite the clear need for staff positions like ATSs, and the proven results that existing cases have produced, the position is not without challenges. First, since it is not yet part of the traditional hierarchy at most universities, and because we necessarily operate in a supporting role in most cases, the innovations and realizations that we contribute to the field do not gain the attention that they would if they had come from faculty. Similarly, it is sometimes quite difficult to get support for opportunities that we see for improvement as a result of our broad view of a particular field. Aside from our own blogs and some new online publications, there is no broad, public forum for these suggestions, if they are not part of any specific project. Finally, on a more practical level, these positions are not part of traditional budget processes, so it is difficult to find a way to give stability, either to individuals who do them, or to departments who employ them.

At the most fundamental level, the goals of a university are research and teaching and learning. As such, positions that facilitate these goals, supporting methods to make them more efficient, should be a priority not just at the departmental level, but at the highest academic level. In order to maximize the impact of these positions, it is important to make them broadly available. This availability will include both filling in the gaps in projects that require domain-specific experience, but also finding a way to respond to the non-domain-specific needs of faculty. Because of their broad view and practical experience, ATSs are especially well-suited to contribute to the solution of large-scale problems such as video and online tools for courses such as websites, blogs, assessment and learning management systems. However, they may also be able to give guidance for medium-scale problems that can help to get rid of barriers to larger level success. Specific areas include cross-unit collaboration, construction of protocols for hardware, software, and security, and ongoing prioritization of existing needs.

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