Technology & Change: Perspectives on the Role of Faculty

I just got new glasses. It’s amazing what I can see now that I couldn’t see before.

I begin here because I am going to advocate that all of higher ed get some new glasses. Because the way we are looking at the role of faculty isn’t helpful to moving forward. We all want the same thing—student and institutional success—so what’s the problem?

Apparently, it’s the faculty.

Apparently, they are resistant. They don’t seem keen on technology and change, according to Inside Higher Ed’s Survey of Faculty Attitudes on Technology. And they are, evidently, the stumbling block to “successful implementation of campus-wide assessment of student learning” according to Jeffrey Alan Johnson, an IHE guest blogger who was summarizing the tone of IUPUI Assessment Institute in a very thoughtful piece on assessment.

Well for starters, we know this is not categorically true. The EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research (ECAR) recently published a survey on faculty attitudes to technology that indicates a strong segment of those who teach in our colleges and universities actually value and embrace technology in their work.

At the same time we know, and Johnson acknowledges, that there is a kernel of truth in this sweeping generalization. Technology-driven change in higher education does meet with faculty resistance at times.

How can we use this to our mutual benefit?

Resistance is a common experience in all organizations—non-profit, for-profit, business and education—and one that came up regularly in my prior career as a leadership coach. I would pass along all of my  own wisdom on the subject at this point, but a couple of articles in Harvard Business Review—an oldie, by Paul R. Lawrence, How to Deal With Resistance to Change and a newer one by Jeffrey D. Ford and Laurie W. Ford, Decoding Resistance to Changesum up what I’d have said nicely.

Instead of ‘Balkanizing’ academia into fragmented groups that do and do not support innovation, all of higher ed can use these salient points about reframing resistance:

  • Allow for meaningful participation. Participation is almost a requirement for any change management plan, but nothing will backfire faster than efforts that serve as window-dressing. It’s hard to hold the plan loosely enough to incorporate feedback in a way that actually changes the plan, but it pays deep dividends. Innovation arises from clashing ideas and the grafting of ideas onto each other.
  • Use resistance to improve your plan. If we ask ourselves, as the authors posit, “what could we learn from this feedback to refine and make our plan better?” then the flak becomes useful grist for the mill. Often detractors hold in complaints that could be the beginnings of great solutions if we can manage our own reactions well enough to hear the useful parts.
  • Find the source of the resistance, and address it. Resistance is usually less about the technical changes coming and more about the “…social change—the change in their human relationships that generally accompanies technical change.” It’s always the third answer to the question, “What’s really bothering you about this idea?” So dig deeper.
  • Revisit the purpose, mission and vision. The ECAR study on faculty found that most faculty (59%)—especially those without recent online teaching experience (73%)—do not view their institution as having a clear strategy for online learning. I bet their institutions think it’s clear as a bell. Point being, it’s good to continually connect actions and requests for actions to the bigger plan. It’s much easier to move toward a goal if everyone is seeing the same thing. If you’re not, it’s time to get your glasses checked.

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