At the suggestion of my colleague, Ed Webb, I’ve just read bavatuesday’s post, “What is an instructional technologist?” It is brilliant. It gets to the heart of the matter about what is wrong with how instructional (and academic) technology is often framed by administrations who insist on modelling it on the ERP paradigm of central IT. I would only add that the problem is not central IT per se, or its mindset, or its institutional imperatives. The desire to model academic technology after ERP — essentially the Blackboard model, in which the enterprise application becomes the focus — makes a great deal of sense coming from a world in which business processes are well-understood, the risks are high, the costs are very high, and the rewards are relatively low. In that world, system failure can be catastrophic, whereas success is often measured in terms of absence — as with email, success is silence. When things work, no one thinks about it.
In the world of academic technology, the risks and rewards associated with disruption are often what we are looking for. Instructional technologists don’t just deliver prepared solutions to the classroom context, they experiment every time they help a professor develop a course with new media. It is tempting to think of this constant experimentation as the result of the rapidly changing nature of technology, or as the result of the relative youth of instructional technology (compared with enterprise IT, which goes back to the 1950s). However, I think that the difference is, as bavatuesday suggests, structural. Education is not a business process. Teaching and learning are different than working and executing a business process because the former is an inherently liminal process.
I am reminded of a series of post-structuralist oppositions from my anthropological background — Victor Turner’s concept of liminality vs. structure, Lucy Suchman’s contrast between planning and situated action, Marshall Sahlin’s idea of the “structure of the conjuncture” between structure and event, Bourdieu’s concept of improvization and the messy, quasi-structural dialectic between objectification and embodiment.
As academic technologists, we occupy the liminoid space between formal structures — encoded in org charts, assessment rubrics, enterprise software design (see Lessig’s principle that code = law), etc. — and the “event” of learning, which is always partly green (William Carlos Williams) and which is why those who teach are attracted to the classroom. That is why we favor open source software. Not becuase it is free — we know it isn’t — but because it is flexible, agile, and adaptive to the situation of teaching and learning, which not only changes over time, but from professor to professor. It may be messier than proprietary solutions, but then, we herd cats, not dogs.
To borrow another anthropological trope, perhaps instructional technology is to enterprise computing as celeritas is to gravitas:
Celertas refers to the youthful, active, disorderly, creative violence of conquering princes; gravitas to the venerable, staid, judicious, priestly, peaceful, and productive dispositions of an established people.
Marshall Sahlins, “The Stranger-King,” in Islands of History.
Reference to conquering princes may sound a bit extreme. But that’s not too far from the concept of a change agent, which is what we are. And maybe it’s not too bad of a model for the kind of leadership we seek to have.