The Responsibility of a Tech Evangelist: Or, should I help people use a technology I don’t?

Intellagirl’s recent comment on the EDUPUNK discussion highlights an issue I’ve been struggling with lately. Her comment raised a concern about the notion of “non-cooperation” with more standardized forms of closed/proprietary educational technologies, specifically exploring the issues with non-cooperation as they relate to helping faculty who aren’t interested in ed tech (and/or are not tech-savvy). This gets right at a question I’m interested in hearing from others about.

I stopped using our out-of-the-box CMS system nearly three semesters ago, but many of my colleagues in the department and the institution still do. It meets their basic needs for course management (dealing with distributing readings, syllabi, assignments, grade posting, limited discussions, digital drop-off, etc.) However, as one of the people seen as an informal departmental (and building) ed tech resource I get lots of questions about how aspects of the CMS works. People want help on the grade book, on arrangements for discussions, on how to best set up online assignments in the CMS, or just basic troubleshooting.

Some of these questions I can answer, but since it’s been 18 months since I used it last, and since the school has upgraded to a new version of the CMS since then, there are a number of questions I can’t answer.

This raises the following questions:

  1. Should I spend some valuable time diving back into the campus’s proprietary CMS in order to better help them do what they need to do in it?
  2. Should I just send them off to campus tech support, knowing that in doing so, at least some of them will stop looking to me for advice on tech issues?
  3. Should I use these moments as opportunities to make a hard sell for going outside the CMS for options, knowing that for some of these faculty, even going to the CMS was more change than they were interested in, and knowing that for others, the issues of lack of stability/uniformity/secure access, etc. would make their outside-the-CMS experience at a minimum frustrating, and potentially a deal-breaker? [I’m aware that’s a ridiculously long question, but I see this as a fairly complex issue.]

How do we help faculty who are at least nominally interested in engaging with educational technology, when we don’t always see that particular tech as being the best way to approach these questions? And how do we approach a technology resource that others use but we don’t? Should we just dismiss it, or should we continue to facilitate its usage?

Any feedback on this issue would be greatly appreciated.

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  1. My approach has been this:

    If a faculty member wants a gradebook/course roster without too steep of a learning curve, or if they want to give their students practice quizzes and easily track how their students are doing on the tests, then I point them to the CMS. In other words, if they’re looking to manage learning in a way that integrates with the registrar’s system, they get the CMS.

    If they want students to collaborate, innovate, and think critically and creatively, I talk about how the CMS isn’t the best place for that, and I show them other options and examples.

    If I do send them to the CMS, I always emphasize the difference between managing a class and allowing for student collaboration and curiosity. And that piques some faculty members’ interest, but some really want the management solution. Of those, some are innovating in the classroom rather than online, while others are kind of stuck in a rut both online and off.

    Depending on the faculty member, I may nudge them until they’re ready to at least acknowledge the rut. But there are so many more faculty who are eager to learn, and my limited time is, at least for now, best spent with them so that I can get more examples of best practices to show to the more recalcitrant faculty. 🙂

    The most important thing is not to challenge a faculty member’s tech skills too much, or they get turned off. For example, I’d definitely point a faculty member to Blogger before telling them to manage their own installation of WordPress, even on a third-party server like Bluehost. Baby steps! (You, fortunately, have UMW Blogs, but we aren’t so lucky here.)

    Hope this helps!

  2. Oh–and I no longer show faculty how to use the CMS itself. I send them to one of the two folks on our campus who specialize in integrating pedagogy and the CMS.

  3. Leslie’s approach makes a lot of sense to me. I agree wholeheartedly that one’s limited time and attention should be directed to those who are eager to learn. There’s a danger of clubbiness, sure, but there’s little point in neglecting the many who would like to know more in favor of those who have made up their minds that there’s nothing of value in teaching and learning technologies beyond basic course management.

    Your question has an extra ethical twist, though, if I’m reading you right. Perhaps an edupunk twist? I think it’s important to meet people where they are. I’d just say that meeting them there isn’t the same thing as giving them the impression that they can live there forever. Speaking out is risky, but silence can be taken for consent.

    Hard to find that balance.

  4. Great question, Jeff.

    A couple of analogies came to mind. One: if you’re a Mac user, do you want to help PC users, knowing that you need to get up to speed on some platform differences?
    Two: you use Gmail, but are asked to help with Outlook, or whatever.
    In both cases the other tool is one used widely, and by the mainstream population. In both cases you could feel you had made the right decision in relying on a relatively marginal alternative. What would you do in these situations?

    From a different angle, I wonder if Moore’s _Crossing the Chasm_ applies here. CMSes are certainly mainstream, now, not early adopter stuff. If Moore’s right, mainstream users won’t listen to an early adopter, so, in answer to your question, you need to find one of their ilk and point her out to them.

  5. Good points, Bryan, but I still think the question is not one of majority-platform vs. minority-platform. Even Mac evangelists would admit that one can do very useful and creative things with a PC. (Well, the honest ones would!)The thornier question, and the one I think Jeff and Leslie are wrestling with, is whether one should support a platform that is counterproductive to teaching and learning. Maybe one analogy is whether one should supply a list of dull, mediocre, uninspiring, and expensive textbooks to colleagues or talk to them about other ways to get students engaged with the content: undergraduate research, work with primary texts, work with documents and recordings outside textbooks.

    Not a perfect analogy by any means, as I reflect on it–but in both cases, the idea is that there are some things that can’t be polished, and some business-as-usual that can’t be fixed. What’s truly concerning to me is that CMS adoption was so rapid that we hardly had a chance to consider the deeper questions. Indeed, the speed of adoption suggests that we didn’t have a robust or imaginative paradigm for online learning in the first place. I’d say that was because the tools weren’t there–and that wouldn’t be completely wrong–but I also think it’s because visionary documents by V.Bush, Engelbart, Kay, Papert et al. were simply not in the conversation or the curriculum.

  6. Thanks to everyone for their input on this post. The post began out of the question of when should one push faculty colleagues toward something new (and perhaps game-changing) and when does one just solve the immediate problem at hand? Gardner and Leslie are right, however, that the core of my post is more than just about the issue of answering the particular question at hand, but the larger dilemma of continuing to facilitate the usage of an (expensive) system/resource in which I don’t really believe.

  7. I like your textbook analogy, Gardner. That’s a different angle, and a very important one.

    Following that angle, then, what do you make of that “gateway drug” argument for Blackboard etc, Jeff? That’s the one which sees a CMS as getting people to use digital tools who normally wouldn’t. Once they’re there, they can move on to better ones.
    (Not an argument which convinces me, but a popular one nonetheless)

  8. Bryan,
    I actually buy that argument much less than I used to. I’ve come to think that many of the examples of “CMS-as-gateway drug” are actually just people who start off using the CMS because it’s what their colleagues and/or students expect them to use, but then move away from (or even dump) the CMS as soon as they can find something more flexible/open/easier/better. [If we offered other possibilities to those faculty from the start (in an encouraging culture of flexible tech options), then I suspect fewer would choose to use the CMS at all.]

    Unless, of course, all they want is a gradebook/course roster, and/or quiz/test tracker (i.e. Leslie’s point in the first comment). In that case, the CMS is the way to go. But I suspect that if that’s all they want, the CMS would never work for them as a gateway to other academic tech.

  9. So CMSes aren’t gateways, but a niche product. Interesting!

  10. Bryan, yes, as long as we’re talking about restrictive, closed, course-only CMSs.

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