DR. LEIF NELSON, Director, Learning Technology Solutions, Office of Information Technology, Boise State University
Educational technology-- as an industry, a field of study, and a profession-- has been growing over the past few decades. While the number of products and services have expanded, the adoption and use of them has steadily increased as well. These trends were, and continue to be, accelerated and amplified as the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to quickly pivot to online, remote, hybrid, and flexible instructional modalities. Established tools like video conferencing and learning management systems increased their overall usage, while new startups and smaller niche products seek opportunities for new markets. Meanwhile, IT staff and educational technology professionals have suddenly become among the most important and valued members of their organizations. For these individuals, edtech’s sudden “moment in the sun” is a double-edged sword. The tools and techniques long evangelized by edtech proponents are finally being embraced at scale. However, the rapid rate at which these tools are adopted makes it difficult to reconcile with the fact that effective use of edtech requires adequate training, support, planning, testing, buy-in, and opportunities for experimentation. It can be difficult for resource-constrained units to provide these important elements especially during a time that demands immediate implementation and ubiquitous access.
Fortunately, there are strategies and tactics to help mitigate the potential negative effects of rapid edtech (or any technology) adoption. First, innovation research has long suggested that people are more likely to embrace new technology if they have opportunities to try things for themselves in low-stakes situations (renowned innovation researcher Everett Rogers called it “trialability”). Pilots, beta-tests, and hands-on training sessions provide users with opportunities to see and experience things for themselves, while technologists can simultaneously discover insights and gaps during these activities.
For these individuals, edtech’s sudden “moment in the sun” is a double-edged sword. The tools and techniques long evangelized by edtech proponents are finally being embraced at scale
Related to this, agile project management and development methodologies have a built-in mechanism to respond to user-feedback and evolving requirements. A minimum viable product approach combined with continuous evaluation and improvement allows the adoption of new tools to be a fluid and inclusive process that adapts to changing environments while incorporating new needs of an expanding user base.
From an organizational standpoint, gathering input from employees helps leadership determine what works well and what can be improved as employees take on expanded responsibilities, support new customers, and adjust to new work environments such as working remotely or in spaces that have new health and safety guidelines. Taking employee feedback into account, organizational leaders should consider where it makes sense to realign staff responsibilities in terms of functional teams, product owners, or strategic business units. As a real-life example of how this can be applied, I recently conducted a climate survey in my department; the data from this survey prompted us to shift from a product ownership model to more of a functional team structure with emphases on service areas (like support and administration). This change has allowed us to more efficiently and effectively manage our expanding suite of enterprise tools in a more consistent and responsive way. The shift in our organizational structure was also successful because it was driven by the authentic needs, interests, and opinions of the employees themselves.
While it is important to include staff and stakeholders in decisions; more meetings are not necessarily a good thing. One might assume that frequent meetings and check-ins with remote workers helps fill the void of social presence; but, the absence of informal “watercooler” conversations is not sufficiently replaced with scheduled check-ins or recurring one-on-one meetings. The formality of the latter precludes the inherent benefit of an informal, in-person chat. Focused, topical meetings among functional teams yield more productive conversations.
From a support standpoint, embracing a knowledge centered approach has multiple benefits. A robust knowledge base provides new users with options to learn and troubleshoot on their own (thus reducing some of the burden on support staff). It also provides support staff themselves with a central, comprehensive resource to capture and access information as their portfolio broadens. The quality and quantity of knowledge increases as both end users and support staff view popular articles, find knowledge gaps or inaccuracies, and help improve search terms, tags, and categories. Group training and open drop-ins are an effective way to not only educate multiple users at a time, it also germinates communities of practice among users so they can learn and share best practices among themselves.
Major change presents challenges and opportunities. For educational technology workers, the past year and a half has been a time of both extreme challenges but also new opportunities. Using strategies for rapid deployment, scalable support, and inclusive evolution, technologists can reduce the disruptive impact of change and instead find opportunities to improve their own structures and processes while educating their user base and supporting the goals of their organizations.