As part of InTRO’s initial survey of UO technology service providers, we asked each unit to describe the scope of their services. The vast majority of them, when asked, had a single answer: “Oh, we do everything.”
Ask University of Oregon technology staffers any question about their work for the institution, and they are quick to champion the effort being made by their service units on a daily basis to keep essential systems (such as the wi-fi network, the learning management system, or classroom technologies) up and running, and they almost universally point out the excitement and joy of bringing new tools and ideas to the rest of campus.
At the same time, many technology staff feel pressured by insufficient resources and overlapping missions between service units. There is a widespread sense of “mission creep;” each unit’s capacity must be expanded as needed, but is rarely, if ever, reduced or made specialized. This is compounded by the desire of many campus users for a single, generic point of contact, “my IT person” rather than a nameless, faceless help desk, however helpful that desk might actually turn out to be. Many IT units on campus therefore feel they must serve as a one-stop destination for their client base. As a result, they stretch themselves thin in an effort to provide all potential services, rather than be perceived as a unit with too narrow a scope to be helpful.
That gut response of “we do everything,” however, not only masks a real disparity in resources and scope of services between technology units on campus, it impedes efforts to build community or a sense of shared mission among technology staff. It is only through extended conversation that the necessary limits or conditions placed on that support are ever articulated.
The data we collected on service provider perspectives was limited to our informational interviews with campus units and poll responses from informal working groups of educational technologists. We recognize all the information we collected is observational –no single comment, opinion or result can be taken as definitive on its face. Nor did we intentionally set out to survey or interview every single UO staff member who works with technology–we simply kept an eye out for opportunities to gather information from a broad cross-section of university staff. As with faculty requirements, a more comprehensive needs assessment of campus-wide instructional technology services ought to be conducted in the future.
We found two specific opportunities for data collection in AY 2014-15:
- a survey of educational technology staff from the Pacific Northwest who prepare faculty to teach online, which we administered via Qualtrics in February-March 2015, and which had a high UO participation rate.
- an icebreaker activity at the first meeting of UO’s new Educational Technology Community of Practice in April 2015, which brought together staff from a wide range of service units to share and discuss the successes and challenges of their particular roles.
Virtual Learning Community: Poll Data
In February 2015, we created a Qualtrics survey for technology service providers, with questions based upon the categories already in use in our comparator research. The survey link was e-mailed to participants in a virtual learning community, designed for those who prepare faculty to teach online at colleges and universities across the Northwest. The initial survey results were then shared with those participants at their March meeting via web conferencing, as part of a longer presentation we put together on the topic of instructional technology and local institutional culture.
University of Oregon technology staff accounted for 7 of the 17 respondents–the largest number of participants from a single institution. In most cases, the views of UO technology staff were in alignment with those respondents from institutions in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana. Moments of divergence will be noted in the summary below.
Overall, the results of this survey indicate a desire to provide more consistent services across the university (which mirrors the data collected in the notecard activity conducted at the first meeting of the Educational Technology Community of Practice, below), but substantial confusion about the best path forward, along with a strong desire for leadership on this issue from the UO administration. There is a concomitant desire to be progressive and forward-thinking, but only if campus technology providers are afforded the resources (including funding and staffing) to implement progressive change in a lasting, sustainable way.
Current Approaches to Instructional Technology
When asked to describe their institution’s current approach to instructional technology, the top 5 terms used by non-UO respondents are variable. A little over half feel under-resourced, but the responses of “small,” “conservative,” “faculty-oriented,” and “chaotic” were nearly as popular.
In comparison to their regional peers, UO staff who participated in this survey felt more challenged by a lack of resources and a decentralized organization, though they do not necessarily link the two:
In addition to assessing the perceptions and aspirations of technology service providers at UO and elsewhere, this survey asked all participants about local technology processes and organizational structures, as well as where the impetus for improving those processes and structures might come from.
Two-thirds of non-UO respondents noted the current existence of a central online learning unit at their institutions (67%). This mirrors national trends towards the centralization of e-learning services, often within or as a reorganization of a distance learning unit. Six of the seven UO respondent stated that the University of Oregon does not have a central online learning unit.
We asked participants to describe how their institution currently organizes itself to support online education, defining the structures as decentralized (department-driven, with most efforts residing within individual academic units), centralized-shared (motivated academic units are supported through collaborations between service units), or independent (a separate unit controls online course development, quality, and faculty training). UO staff responded 86% decentralized and 14% centralized-shared, while non-UO staff responded 11% decentralized, 44% centralized-shared, and 44% independent.
We also asked all respondents in the virtual learning community which campus unit runs their LMS. The University of Oregon is the only institution in the VLC group where LMS administration is assigned to a library unit (though there was some division among respondents about whether or not CMET is a central educational technology unit or a library unit). At other institutions, administration of the LMS is located in distance education, central IT, or central educational technology units. It should be noted here that UO runs multiple Learning Management Systems, including Blackboard (now Canvas), Obaverse, and an Edublogs WordPress install that is used by many individual instructors.
Question 12. Who is responsible for the installation and administration of your institution’s LMS? Possible responses included central IT, library, educational technology unit, faculty development unit, or other.
Non-UO: 22% central IT, 33% educational technology unit, 44% other
UO: 14% central IT, 57% library, 14% educational technology unit, 14% other
To a certain extent, neither dataset from this survey mirrors our national peers, who largely assign LMS installation and administration responsibilities to central IT.
Growth and Change
Given our general interest in promoting thoughtful growth at UO, we also asked respondents to identify the impetus for change at their institutions. Nationally, our comparator data indicates that strong digital education programming often requires a top-down approach, either from the upper levels of university leadership and administration, or sometimes from the state government. While such mandates are generally informed by grassroots energy and experimentation, they are integrated into an institution’s mission through messaging from the offices of university president or provost.
Non-UO respondents to this survey split their responses, identifying top-down mandates, grassroots initiatives, or some combination of both as the primary engine of change at their institutions in equal numbers (33% top-down, 33% grassroots, 33% combination). In contrast, UO respondents to this survey stated that the impetus for change at our institution remains almost entirely a grassroots phenomenon (14% top-down, 86% grassroots).
Ideal Approaches to Instructional Technology
Survey respondents were asked to imagine possible futures at both the beginning and the end of this survey.
At the top of the survey, when asked to choose from a list of terms to describe the ideal state of instructional technology at their institutions, non-UO respondents offered a diverse set of responses, while UO respondents felt a perceived scarcity of resources must be addressed before other positive changes could be made. The size of the words in each chart to the side indicate the frequency with which they were chosen.
The final questions of our survey of the VLC, in contrast to the open-ended starting point, asked participants to make either-or, “gut” decisions about what their institution’s attitude towards instructional technology ought to be–the kind of decision-making that happens in an era of increasing needs and stagnant resources. The UO respondents to this survey (in chart below) overwhelmingly indicated a need for coordinated and centralized services and for top-down leadership, while also expressing a desire to provide an innovative variety of tools and approaches, as well as improved student services.
Community of Practice Notecard Activity
The results of our informal qualitative survey of the strengths and weaknesses of the University of Oregon’s current technology services infrastructure, administered via a structured “icebreaker” activity at the first lunch meeting of UO’s new Educational Technology Community of Practice, also provide interesting insight into the university’s educational technology environment.
Technology service units from across the university were represented in this activity. The twenty participants included employees from IT support units in the School of Architecture & Allied Arts, the College of Arts and Sciences, the Lundquist College of Business, and the College of Education, as well as staff from the Teaching Effectiveness Program, Center for Media and Educational Technologies, Instructional Technology Referral Office, Yamada Language Lab, American English Institute, Office of Global Education, Accessible Education Center, Academic Extension, Information Services, and the UO Libraries.
When asked to describe the most exciting aspects of their work here at UO, words such as “new,” “variety,” “dynamic,” “diverse,” and “change” showed up repeatedly. Local IT staff value the opportunity to work in an evolving field, and appreciate the fact that being in this occupation means that they are always learning. The intellectual energy involved in keeping up with change is a highlight for most employees surveyed. Survey participants not only reported that they sought opportunities to add new skills or explore new technologies, but that appreciation for novelty and growth spilled over into an appreciation for the campus community, and a desire to provide good service to all of the different users who make use of UO’s technology services.
That positive energy persists in the face of a number of challenges. To a certain extent, the hurdles mentioned by survey participants are a microcosm of the challenges currently facing the University of Oregon. The difficulty of communicating their skills, roles, and sense of what’s possible, especially to UO faculty, is a persistent thread amongst the comments. Maintaining a balanced perspective, key to the successful application of new technologies at any scale, can be difficult to foster in others when technology staff already feel overburdened and under-resourced, directed towards a commitment to providing quality customer service and improving staff training, policy development, or marketing. When asked to speak to current challenges, nearly all units reported insufficient budgets or FTE. This is manifesting in terms of inadequate support or development of specific types of technologies (video support was mentioned by staff from multiple units), professional development, and physical plant.
When asked how they might meet their challenges and improve local technology units, a majority of the participants in this survey wanted to play a larger role in the university’s growth—whether that was through eorking to support new technology tools, helping to develop better policy, designing new organizational structures, or advising on the building of new physical spaces. They are interested in creating better training and instructional materials, developing and sustaining makerspaces, implementing service management procedures, and building cross-campus community. In nearly all cases, that desire to shape growth comes from a service mindset, a desire to implement tools and procedures that will streamline technology workflows and enable local staff to provide better, more consistent services across the University of Oregon.
A Culture of Scarcity
It is important not to underestimate the prevalence of the scarcity mindset amongst technology staff here at the University of Oregon, but if that mindset might be addressed, both through the acquisition of additional resources and an appropriate realignment of unit mission/ resources with institutional mission/resources, the staff here are prepared to support innovative teaching and learning at the University.
Improving Internal Communication
Silos are structurally created problems–units, committees, and groups that only speak to and amongst themselves, and which do not communicate with others because they do not have systematic methods of interacting. Through very long-standing tradition (which creates institutional resistance to change) UO has numerous units, committees, and groups who have simply had authority to tend to their own needs, or who only advocate for their own interests. These groups do not consistently communicate between one another even when they are nominally connected. Structural divisions like this can be overcome through strong, collaborative communication, but communication methods at UO are idiosyncratic, divided, and controlled to opaque levels, which only increases the problem. A move towards open, collaborative communication would help address the often-mentioned “silo effect.”
Enabling Cultural Growth
Significant changes to technology infrastructure (such as the current migration to Canvas) bring with them a limited window of opportunity, during which broad changes to an institution’s approach to digital education can be more easily achieved. UO’s investment in digital education would be maximized through improved communication between service units and faculty, as well as between service providers.
In the case of the transition from Blackboard to Canvas, the brevity of the migration period has demonstrated the deleterious effects of the scarcity mindset, fragmented communication, and limited opportunities for growth. There are many other institutions that have gone through this same transition in recent years (OSU and UW are just two comparator institutions in the region) which could be accessed for shared experience.
In October 2014, InTRO hosted technology staff from across campus for a two-day webinar on Re-Imagining Active Learning Spaces. Our survey of UO participants following the webinar indicated broad interest in ongoing internal sharing and cross-campus events, with unanimous support for monthly lunch discussions and a UO best practices “showcase.” There was also strong interest in inviting speakers from other institutions, hosting a regional instructional technology conference at UO, and participating as speakers/presenters (rather than simply as attendees) in a webinar similar to this one. There is significant interest in both continuing to collaborate internally, and in promoting our achievements to other institutions.
Some of this community building has already begun (see the launch of the new Educational Technology Community of Practice, described above).