The Epiphany Project
Session Notes: Making Progress within Local Contexts

Washington, DC
Epiphany Workshop, Jan. 9-12
Dickie Selfe

We’ve all just spent several days enjoying some excellent sessions and fascinating speakers. This gathering has convinced me once again of how dedicated ES professionals are to changing and improving the learning/teaching environments for teachers and students. We now get to go back to our local campuses and begin to implement all the excellent teaching and learning practices we’ve collected here. In so doing we will have to deal with the practical realities of our home institutions. That’s quite a task but one we can all deal with as long as we keep our own and others’ expectations in line with local contexts. My purpose here is to illustrate how complex these local practical contexts can become and to illustrate how we might work productively within them. Let me begin to illustrate some of the dilemmas we face in the project of improving technology-rich teaching and learning environments. My remarks are based on a survey I conducted in the winter of 1995 of 55 post-secondary institutions around the country and the 191 people who participated in that survey.

One teacher taking part in this study described some of her experiences teaching composition courses in technology-rich facilities. (OH1)

Money and adequate facilities as well as campus wide support are problems. They want us to do it [teach using communication technologies], just do it without costing any money or having campus wide planning of technology and funding. Information technology [the administrative unit] which is responsible for the other labs on campus will not give technical support to the writing center nor to the teaching of English with computer enhancement. It is difficult to schedule or use lab facilities to even provide minimal training to whole classes of students in the use of technology on the net or on the campus network.

Another teacher/administrator from a large west-coast university might as well be following me around my institution: (OH2)

I walk the halls of my department very carefully these days, often at odd hours, trying to avoid the desperate hordes of people who clutch my arm and ask:

"How can I upload?"

"Some day--no hurry--will you show me how to get that attachment? I have to have the paper done by Friday and I've never seen an attachment before."

"What's the difference between the college network and the Internet?"

"Why can't you get us laser printers? What do you mean, YOU don't even get a laser printer? You had to buy that thing yourself?"

"Got a minute? How do I hook up a modem from home?"

These are comments made by experienced teachers, most, like you, who value the use of technology in the teaching of communication skills. On a scale of technological enthusiasm these two respondents classified themselves as very enthusiastic. Their two testimonials can be used to remind us of just how complex local conditions can make even successful efforts to incorporated communication technologies into our instruction. (OH3) Today, I’ll present a three step process that I hope will help us move closer to managing productively with local social, institutional, and technical conditions. The first involves setting goals. The second step involves connecting with colleagues and exploring the changing human and technical infrastructures at work behind teachers’ efforts to TWT. The final step has to do with implementation. I get at that step by describing MTU’s attempts to create what I’ll call a "culture of support" for technology users.

Step 1: Establishing the Goals for and Benefits of TWT
The first step toward working productively within local contexts is taking the time to establish goals for technology use. There are four different kinds of goals I am talking about here: techno-centric, educational, TR facility goals, and departmental goals. My contention, after examining the survey results of some 87 teachers’ experiences in technology-rich facilities is that we do our best work when we set goals in all four areas.

(BTW, I don’t often talk about using technology without at the same time, talking about the facilities in which they are housed. I would be glad to talk about why I’m think this is important later. )

Techno-centric Goals
Techno-centric goals are those focused on the technologies themselves and understanding their importance. They include such items as our ability to:

  • improve basic technical literacy;
  • make technology accessible to as many students and faculty as possible;
  • stay current with an expanding range of new technologies;
  • provide (technical) working-world skills for students; and
  • increase students’ technical facility on multiple platforms.

Educational Goals
Next, educational goals are those that we want to accomplish within these facilities. Among them are items like the following:

  • critical thinking skills;
  • a student’s sense of audience and the writing process (revision);
  • the fluency or amount of writing/communicating taking place in classes;
  • lifelong learning skills;
  • collaborative skills, both in the sense of collaborating on writing projects and collaborating synchronously or asynchronously in discussions with local audiences and audiences world wide;
  • our understanding of the influences that communication technologies have on our working and writing processes so that we graduate thoughtful users (and consumers) of communication technology; and
  • our sense of the aesthetic or humorous uses of these technologies.

By the way, from my own observations of sites and facilities, these are not objectives that should apply only to students. It is essential that faculty and technicians have a combined expertise in all these areas as well.

TR Facility Goals
There were also useful goals for the facilities themselves that will help efforts to TWT.

We need to provide:

  • user-centered consulting, tutoring, or coaching for both students AND teachers;
  • a range of "publishing" opportunities and environments for communicating with "live" audiences; and
  • sites for social action: opportunities for students to manage and maintain communication technologies.

Departmentally-oriented Goals
There were also goals that focused on the departmental use of TR facilities as well. That is, they enable us to:

  • conduct research into innovative technologies;
  • attract young, active scholar/teachers;
  • improve communication-across-the-curriculum programs through these facilities and the sharing of TR pedagogies; and
  • provide a site for synergy and community development for current degree programs (composition, literature, technical communication, ESL, and graduate rhetoric/composition programs, among others).

Each of these sets of goals are useful not only to sharpen our own educational direction but also to help colleagues new to the use to computers and to educate administrators who can help make technology happen. The process of identifying such goals can also help us convince technicians to work with us in our efforts and convince university and departmental committees to value the work innovative teacher/scholars working in these facilities as they come up for promotion or tenure.

I want during the break-out session to spend time with some of you developing a more substantial list of techno-centric, educational, and institutional goals.

From what I’ve seen at this conference you will return and be successful at implementing technology-rich curricula and helping others to do the same. At that point I’d say that we’re ready to take the second step: that is, learning about the human and physical infrastructures that surround TWT efforts and sharing what we learn with students, technicians, and administrators.

Step 2: Learning about the Human and Physical Infrastructures Surrounding TWT
One rather alarming, self-defeating dynamic reflected in the comments made by students, technicians, administrators, and teachers in the survey went something like this:

Students often said that they felt as if they knew more about technology than their instructors who they considered ill prepared to teach with technology.

Both administrators and technical staff also saw teachers as incompetent technology users, unwilling to learn new systems well (even when supplied with training sessions), unconcerned with instruction in new technological environments if they were on the tenure-track or had previously been tenured, and generally unmotivated.

When describing their own challenges, teachers, pointed to the lack of professional incentives; minimal technical support, a lack of systematic, specialized training; increasing workloads; static pay schedules, and a lack of access to convenient equipment and space for project work and training. This last issue seemed particularly important for adjunct and part-time instructors who were often responsible for many or most sections of composition or technical communication courses at an institution but were the least likely group to have adequate access to technology and technical support.

Caught in this dynamic, neither students, teachers, nor administrators were prepared to think critically or productively about the complex social elements surrounding TWT. Instead they were content to point fingers of blame at others without examining the working contexts that these others faced.

These stakeholders often seemed to be ignoring the important influence of infrastructure and institutional dynamics that lay behind a commitment or lack of commitment to teaching well with technology. Thinking critically about infrastructure and institutional dynamics cannot, of course, be best accomplished overnight or even by an individual teacher. Rather, under ideal circumstances, this kind of complex study requires building a team of committed, supportive colleagues. The concerns of the teachers I surveyed suggest a heuristic that could be used to focus the efforts of such a team.

Concern #1: Technology Training
How much training is available to teachers interested in using educational technology?

  • Are training sessions acontextual?

That is, are they simply showing teachers how to use a technology and not exploring why, when and how they might want to use it?

What percentage of training is acontextual?

Are training sessions tied to educational goals so that teachers can see the class-use value of a technology?

  • Is the training tied to actual projects of interest to teachers: professional, instructional, personal projects?
  • Are there supported times in the training process where teachers can plan on working in one medium or another on those personally motivating projects? By "supported times" I mean, are there knowledgeable support people around—paid technicians, student consultants, other practiced teachers—who can answer questions in context, in the context of learning while doing?
  • Do training sessions look at the rhetorical value of one media over another?
  • Is the training itself accessible; does it come during normal professional development times or is it tacked on to already demanding teaching/professional loads?
  • Is the training periodic so that teachers are not expected to become self-sufficient in one session but are encouraged to accumulate expertise over time?

Concern # 2: Preparation Time
How much preparation time is made available for teachers who are essentially revising curricula?

  • If technology requires more time and more work, how does this additional work get translated into
    ... professional development opportunities (time to attend, fees, & travel money)?
    ... release time?
    ... course loads?
    ... professional credit for curricular development activities?
    ...tenure and promotion guidelines for service work, innovative teaching, research into effective teaching with technology?

Concern # 3: Technical Support
What sort of technical assistance do teachers receive?

  • Is technical assistance available and in what form: other instructors; local, paid personnel; central IT personnel; knowledgeable student consultants?
  • Is assistance available
    ... as they learn technologies?
    ... as they plan for integrating local technologies into theoretical and pedagogical sound practices?
    ... as they use those technologies in TR facilities?
  • Is support available as they teach with the facility? By "teaching with" I’m referring to those times when teachers are relying on the technologies available at a site but may not be meeting in the lab or classroom during class time. Most distance learning makes use of systems in this manner.

Concern # 4: Access
What levels of convenient access to technology do various kinds of teachers have at this institution? GTAs? Adjuncts? Tenure-track?

  • What percentage of technology-rich courses do each of these groups teach in the department?
  • What sort of monetary support for TR professional development opportunities do each of these groups receive?
  • What special concerns will influence each of these groups’ decisions to invest time (and often money) in learning new technologies and integrating them into their classes
    ... office space?
    ... time spent (weekly) at the institution?
    ... average length of employment?
    ... salary level?
    ... teaching loads?
    ... other jobs or family responsibilities?

Concern # 5: Influence on Decision Making
Are teachers involved in the decision making that goes on in the TR facilities in which they are asked to teach?

  • Do teachers know and have input into the goals of the facility, how those goals are monitored or assessed, and how decisions about purchases and hires are related to those goals?
  • Do they know and consult with the person(s) who handles finances?
  • Are they aware of the sources of income for the facility, how much that income is, and what the primary expenses are, and what constraints finances place on classroom practices?
  • Do they know about the specifics of the budgetary process, and do they have a part to play in that process?
  • Can teachers see the educational implications of budgetary decisions beyond their impact on their individual classes?

Part of the decision making that goes on in TR facilities happens outside the department.

  • Do teachers know of the institutional relationships that currently exist between the facility that supports their TWT work and who the major players are in those relationships?
  • Do they have some access to discussions between the stakeholders who exert some influence on TR facilities?
  • Are they encouraged to imagine and develop new, productive relationships with other teachers, between institutions?

Step 3: Implementing those approaches possible within local constraints
The only way I can talk about this step is to describe how my own institution, the Humanities department at MTU, went about trying to create a culture of support for those working in TR environments. I should note that over the last 15 years each step forward in our situation, as in most schools, was accompanied by 1/2 steps backwards or by complications that make additional progress difficult.

Day-to-day Efforts

  • Faculty machines and upgrades connected to the net
  • Support staff on-line
  • Faculty support person (1/2 time)
  • Student support person (3/4) to run facility with a mind to TWT
  • Run departmental business over the net (with paper support for those who won’t otherwise participate--slow weaning process)
  • Department Chair participates on departmental and student e-mail lists
  • Travel $ for academics and staff willing to upgrade technology skills.

Faculty Development

  1. Weekly meetings: informal, self-determining, alternating between hands-on and discussions of theory and classroom practices, disseminate weekly meeting notes.
  2. Quarterly multiple-day workshops: Survey of faculty => topics for workshop => hands-on demonstration => a lot of supported project work time
  3. Learning from each other at a yearly, intense two-week workshop:
    massive reading list and book reviews
    + daily discussion sessions
    + daily supported hands-on work with technology
    + goal and strategy development up front
    + course-work development and mini-teaches
    + 24-hour access to technology
    + lots of optional mini-workshops from local, visiting, and participants experts.
Institutional Involvement
  • technology committees
  • institutional initiatives
  • local grant efforts

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