Technologies Need to Graduate and Move On

A few weeks ago, I was at a meeting with Kevin Morooney (Penn State’s CIO) and Cole Camplese (my boss, senior director of Teaching and Learning with Technology). At the meeting, Kevin said that he is increasingly thinking of contracts with vendors in terms of extended pilots instead of permanent arrangements. That idea has been knocking around my head ever since.

I have begun to think of it as the same cycle that a student goes through when they attend Penn State. First, we evaluate their performance to make sure that they can be successful in our environment. We orient them to the university. They start as Freshmen and have a lot of support to ensure that they get off to the right start. They perform well as sophomores and juniors. As they approach their senior year, they prepare to move on – and by moving on, space is prepared for a new student who is being oriented to our environment. Exemplary students may serve two extra years (master’s degree), four extra years (PhD), or more (post-doc). Those that stick around more than four years will be a small number and we should always keep in mind that sooner or later, they are leaving.

This way of thinking has several advantages when applied to educational technologies:

1. Lowering Requirements: We are often faced with a situation where it is difficult to select a direction and move forward because we have several options, none of which are optimal. Any new service would need to meet legal requirements such as protecting student records. But when we think of them as temporary tools that will never have to scale to 100% of university users, then we can select something that looks right for now and go with it. It won’t be perfect. We know that going in. [To mix metaphors a bit, this is also a lot like "serial monogomy" - which is also part of college life.]

2. Constantly Scanning the Horizon: Now that we have selected a new tool, we don’t forget about the selection process. We constantly keep an eye out for the next tool that may come along and improve upon what we have in place. That doesn’t mean jumping to it right away, but we should scout it out so we are prepared to bring in a new class of recruits.

3. Meeting Student Expectations: One nice thing about a new service is that it is more likely to represent more modern interface standards that students have come to expect from the services that they use on a regular basis (currently tools such as Facebook and YouTube). Students want a flow-like experience where the technology is smart enough to anticipate their needs and aware of other helper-services (I do too!). For example, if I paste a link to a video or image, a preview or thumbnail appears without requiring additional action.

4. Meeting Faculty Expectations: We spend a lot of resources on customization requests, largely because faculty, like students, also want tools that match their flow and reflect their pedagogical practices. Instead of investing an increasing amount of effort into propping up 10-year-old tools, we should put that effort into helping faculty tap into a broader array of services, which may be hosted by the university or may be hosted externally, but connected to university systems.

5. Focusing on the Function: Right now, we have ANGEL, MovableType, Adobe Connect, iTunesU, etc… When we start to think of all of these services as temporary, our thinking can shift from the tool to the function that we really and what that tool should do. We need a way to evaluate student progress. We need a mechanism to encourage discussion in the open. We need a way to connect groups of people for synchronous experiences. That way of thinking will lead to much better discussions about course design.

6. Exit Strategy: When we know that something will only be here on a temporary basis, we will go into an agreement already thinking about how we get out of it in a few years and what will come next.

7. Reflecting Reality: The truth is that we are already switching tools every few years. The problems arise when either a) we’re caught off-guard with something that forces a change or b) something has stuck around FAR past its useful lifespan. We need to acknowledge that, “Except for death and paying taxes, everything in life is only for now” (from Avenue Q). Every tool that we currently use will be replaced at some point in the foreseeable future. We need to embrace that reality and plan accordingly.

In closing, here is a rough timeline for those who are still skeptical:

  • 1993 – Broad adoption of the Internet with the spread of user-friendly web browsers. Older technologies such as Gopher and NetNews begin their decline.
  • 1997 – Presence of a variety of Web-based and network-based educational tools at Penn State such as QuizWizard, CourseWeb, FirstClass, and WebCT
  • 2001 – Beginning of the migration of tools into a single system as the university adopts ANGEL
  • 2005-2007 – ANGEL adoption is high, tech-saavy users begin expanding into new social network tools
  • 2010-2011 – Use of wikispaces and blogs systems rapidly increasing, University looks for a system to replace ANGEL

… and some projections into the future:

  • 2015 – ANGEL is gone, new LMS adoption is steady at 50%; rising number of open course experiences; if it isn’t mobile, it’s dead
  • 2019 – LMS use decreased to 25% and only used for key functions (e.g. quizzing); majority of courses hosted on externally-hosted collections of services, tied together through university authentication

Those are my thoughts. I’d be interested in hearing what others think.

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One Response to Technologies Need to Graduate and Move On

  1. Brad K says:

    I really like the idea of staying in the mindset of extended pilots. Like imply above, it is too easy to get paralyzed looking for tools that can meet everyone's requirements, give us the modern features users expect, and be supported at a large university scale. I think part of the equation is cultural. How do we accept, prepare for, and come to expect change.

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