educationtechnologyinsights

Collaborating with Partners to Explore Emerging Learning Technologies

By Nicole Weber, Ph.D., Director of Learning Technology, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

Nicole Weber, Ph.D., Director of Learning Technology, University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

When I first started in my current position as Director of Learning Technology I met with our CIO, deans, chairs, instructors, and whoever would talk with me about what they wanted from the Learning Technology Center (a key unit under this position’s supervision dedicated to supporting learning technology use on campus). What I heard from a majority of the people I met with was the same--that the Learning Technology Center (LTC) provided such amazing support for campus instructors regarding the learning management system, but they wanted the LTC to be more than a help desk. They wanted it to become a place where instructors could partner with staff to innovate around their teaching challenges. I knew I couldn’t get the LTC there alone--it would take collaboration with various people and groups to understand needs, identify solutions, and innovate in the most valuable of ways. 

"While we collaborate with individual instructors to innovate around their specific needs, we also choose one challenge and a related solution to explore each year. We realized early on that we could not explore technology solutions in a silo on our own in the LTC"

Understanding Needs

Understanding needs is no easy task--it’s often a messy process that necessitates iteration, but the focus is clear. Get as much information from your key stakeholders as possible to understand the campus’ teaching and learning needs. We decided to focus on gathering teaching challenges and interest areas. I asked LTC staff to increase sharing around their consultations with instructors. What were instructors hoping to do? Where were they struggling? I also collaborated with staff to develop our first instructor support survey (which we now do annually) to gather teaching challenges more broadly and facilitate student focus groups regarding their perceptions of learning and technology use in the courses they were taking. Besides working to better understand the needs of our instructors and students, I have found it important to become familiar with the campus strategic, enrollment, and academic plans, as well as key publications that report teaching, learning, and technology issues, challenges, trends, and developments nationally (e.g., EDUCAUSE’s Key Issues in Teaching and Learning&Horizon Report). 

Matching Needs with Potential Solutions

In much of the information we collected, we noticed that instructors were struggling with student engagement and the campus had a strong conviction to support student success. The more we talked to instructors, the more we realized that the learning management system wasn’t giving them all the tools they needed to be successful in engaging students. They wanted better ways to facilitate discussions, offer office hours, extend assignments, support group work, and connect with students to better assist them in their learning. With these needs laid out in front of us, we began exploring solutions. 

Identifying Technology Partners 

Over the past few years I have learned that there are differences in technology vendors. There are the ones who email and call me all the time about how their product is the best and will solve all my problems. Almost always, I delete these emails and voicemails quickly. What I realized is that with our big struggles, I’m not just looking for a technology vendor--I am looking for a technology partner. What’s the difference between a technology vendor and a technology partner? In my experience, technology partners have new tools and want to collaborate, forming a partnership to understand the use of the tool and make it better for real use in higher education teaching and learning. 

Leaving the Silo

While we collaborate with individual instructors to innovate around their specific needs, we also choose one challenge and a related solution to explore each year. We realized early on that we could not explore technology solutions in a silo on our own in the LTC. To make it as useful and as valuable as possible, we needed to collaborate with instructors to examine the tool authentically in teaching and learning situations in real-life courses with instructors and students. With that realization, the Emerging Technology Exploration Program was born. 

Creating an Emerging Technology Exploration Program

In this program, after the challenge and solution are chosen, our LTC works hard to learn as much as we can about the tool to create marketing materials to recruit instructors from across the campus to participate in the exploration. Instructors submit how they would use the tool in their courses to enhance their course objectives and we select a number of instructors to participate in the program. Once selected, instructors are provided a stipend for attending required instructional development sessions to prepare them with the pedagogy and technology skills to use the new tool, them integrating the tool use in at least one of their courses, and collaboration with LTC staff to evaluate the solution. This evaluation includes frequent check-ins with the instructor to see how they are using the tool and surveys with students to gather their perception of the tool.

While the Emerging Technology Exploration Program is not perfect and we constantly iterate to improve the program and its processes, it has provided our LTC an opportunity to show that we are more than a help desk. We are collaborators who partner with instructors, students, administrators, and technology partners to create high quality learning experiences that lead to student success.

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