Is there value in strategic plans for educational technology

Dave Cormier has recently published a blog post titled Dave’s wildly unscientific survey of technology use in Higher Education. There’s a bunch of interesting stuff there. I especially like Dave’s note on e-portfolios

eportfolios are a vast hidden overhead. They really only make sense if they are portable and accessible to the user. Transferring vast quantities of student held data out of the university every spring seems complicated. Better, maybe, to instruct students to use external services.

Mainly because it aligns with some of my views.

But that’s not the point of this post. This morning Dave tweeted for folk to respond to a comment on the post by Diego Leal on strategic plans for educational technology in universities.

Strategic plans in educational technology are a bugbear of mine. I’ve been writing and thinking about them a lot recently. So I’ve bitten.

Summary

My starting position is that I’m strongly against strategic plans for educational technology in organisations. However, I’m enough of a pragmatist to recognise that – for various reasons (mostly political) – organisations have to have them. If they must have them, they must be very light on specifics and focus on enabling learning and improvement.

My main reason for this is a belief that strategic plans generally embody an assumption about organisations and planning that simply doesn’t exist within universities, especially in the context of educational technology. This mismatch results in strategic plans generally creating or enabling problems.

Important: I don’t believe that the problems with strategic plans (for edtech in higher education) arise because they are implemented badly. I believe problems with strategic plans arise because they are completely inappropriate for edtech in higher education. Strategic plans might work for other purposes, but not this one.

This mismatch leads to the following (amongst others) common problems:

  • Model 1 behaviour (Argyris et al, 1985);
  • Fads, fashions and band wagons (Birnbaum, 2000; Swanson and Ramiller, 2004)
  • Purpose proxies (Introna, 1996);
    i.e. rather than measure good learning and teaching, an institution measures how many people are using the LMS or have a graduate certificate in learning and teaching.
  • Suboptimal stable equilibria (March, 1991)
  • Technology gravity (McDonald & Gibbons, 2009)

Rationale

Introna (1996) identified three necessary conditions for the type of process embedded in a strategic plan to be possible. They are:

  • The behaviour of the system is relatively stable and predictable.
  • The planners are able to manipulate system behaviour.
  • The planners are able to accurately determine goals or criteria for success.

In a recent talk I argued that none of those conditions exist within the practice of learning and teaching in higher education. It’s a point I also argue in a section of my thesis

The alternative?

The talk includes some discussion of some principles of a different approach to the same problem. That alternative is based on the idea of ateleological design suggested by Introna (1996). An idea that is very similar to broader debates in various other areas of research. This section of my thesis describes the two ends of the process spectrum.

It is my position that educational technology in higher education – due to its diversity and rapid pace of change – has to be much further towards the ateleological, emergent, naturalistic or exploitation end of the spectrum.

Statement of biases

I’ve only ever worked at the one institution (for coming up to 20 years) and have been significantly influenced by that experience. Experience which has included spending 6 months developing a strategic plan for Information Technology in Learning and Teaching that was approved by the Academic Board of the institution, used by the IT Division to justify a range of budget claims, thrown out/forgotten, and now, about 5 years later, many of the recommendations are being actioned. The experience also includes spending 7 or so years developing an e-learning system from the bottom up, in spite of the organisational hierarchy.

So I am perhaps not the most objective voice.

References

Argyris, C., R. Putnam, et al. (1985). Action science: Concepts, methods and skills for research and intervention. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education: Where They Come From, What They Do, Why They Fail. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Introna, L. (1996). “Notes on ateleological information systems development.” Information Technology & People 9(4): 20-39.

March, J. (1991). “Exploration and exploitation in organizational learning.” Organization Science 2(1): 71-87.

McDonald, J. and A. Gibbons (2009). “Technology I, II, and III: criteria for understanding and improving the practice of instructional technology ” Educational Technology Research and Development 57(3): 377-392.

Swanson, E. B. and N. C. Ramiller (2004). “Innovating mindfully with information technology.” MIS Quarterly 28(4): 553-583.

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