Technology, learning, and institutional mission statements

May 19, 2014, 12:25 pm

13164220234_91e79f4575_mRight now I’m preparing for a talk I’m giving next month, in which I’ll be speaking on using technology to connect students, faculty and institutions to the fundamentally human activities of learning and growth. Of those three groups – students, faculty, and institutions – I’m finding it to be a lot easier to talk about students and faculty and their relationship to technology than it is to talk about institutions. I’m wondering: Why is that?

After all, people are messy – we are a combination of social backgrounds, economic statuses, geography, past learning experiences, attitudes, preconceptions and more. When we advocate for the “use of technology” in learning, this phrase has to take all of these aspects of each person involved into account. That’s what makes the “use of technology” hard – and it explains why simplistic applications of technology in student learning often fall short.

On the other hand, institutions – while not homogeneous – have worked hard to create a vision for themselves involving a coherent, consistent experience for students as they learn. You can find these in the mission statements of the university or college. While all of us who actually live and work in these institutions know that there is plenty of messiness at the basic ground level, in the trenches where students encounter learning, at least on the top level where the carefully-handcrafted mission statements live, there is a coherent conceptual framework for the institution that should guide how all of us go about our work. Right?

And yet, even though universities and colleges have frameworks for defining the work and mission of the institution, it turns out to be devilishly hard to figure out where technology fits into that mission.

This past year, I was tasked in my department – a mathematics department of 30-ish full time faculty with a long history of innovation and effective use of technology in the classroom – with leading a task force to craft a coherent vision of the role of technology in the instruction of our three-semester Calculus sequence. This is a pretty narrowly defined scope, and we have at our disposal not only our university’s mission statement but also a departmental strategic plan to help us. I think we did good work on this task force, but even so, in presenting our recommendations to faculty, there was considerable disagreement on aspects that I would not consider to be “details”. So I can only imagine what it would be like to do something similar – come up with some coherent framework of how technology fits in to an educational mission – at a larger scale.

Given that for the foreseeable future, technology will play a crucial role in the way that students interact with the world around them, you’d think that a college or university – whose stock-in-trade is helping students acquire an educated form of that interaction – would be thinking hard and carefully about where technology fits into its educational mission. Not necessarily by laying down mandates for how faculty should teach, of course, but at least saying something like, “We value technology as a means of active learning” or even “We don’t want students to be passive consumers of information”. And so you’d expect technology-focused statements to show up in these mission statements or strategic plans.

But, in fact, I looked around on the internet (so you know this is well-informed) and I couldn’t find a single instance of a college or university mission statement or strategic plan that specifically addressed how technology would be factored into student learning, in terms of classroom instruction. There are mentions about building technological infrastructure, sometimes about supporting student computer use (giving all incoming students an iPad, etc.), but as far as articulating the role that technology plays in the educational mission of the institution: Nothing.

This non-finding stopped me in my tracks. Really? Your institution (and I include my own here) has nothing to say about technology in terms of student learning that applies on an institution-wide scale? I was trying to think of reasons why I wasn’t seeing anything like this, and I came up with a list:

  • I wasn’t looking hard enough or in the right places, and maybe people in the comment section of this blog post can clue me in.
  • Technology is too specific to include in a mission statement, which deals solely in abstractions.
  • The role of technology in instruction is something that is too discipline-specific to include in an institution-wide mission statement; check the mission statements or strategic plans of the individual departments instead.
  • Institutions disagree with me about the central importance of technology.
  • All those mission statements are just B.S. anyway.

Some linear combination of these may be the right answer. But I ask you, the reader: What do you think? First of all, are there good examples where a clear statement of the role of technology in student learning is made on an institution-wide scale? Secondarily, should institutions be making such statements on this scale, or at all?


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