Chooser Support

Individuals are making their own educational technology choices.  What they select is based on a combination of how they want to do things, where they decide to do them, what they prefer to use and the amount of money (if any) they are willing to spend in order to address a need as they perceive it.  They are choosers, not just users, of educational technology.  And the number of choices can be overwhelming.

For example, the Tennessee Board of Regents’ “TBR eLearning Initiative” provides a resource to help people find and evaluate mobile apps for use in teaching, learning, workforce and professional development.  There are more than 40,000 educational apps to choose from.  This doesn’t even include the number of mobile devices to choose from that are used in conjunction with the apps.

There have been some very useful blog posts and other reading on the “consumerization of IT” published in recent years.  Most focus on issues related to the consumer oriented adoption of technology within organizations that get characterized as “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) and “Bring Your Own Technology” (BYOT).  But there are some others that take an expanded view of the issue in terms of how value can still be added despite the diluted influence of imposed enterprise-wide standards and conditional end-user support policies.  The following EDUCAUSE Review article, blog posting (and both embedded videos) are good examples and well worth taking the time to go through:

  • EDUCAUSE Review article “From Users to Choosers” authored by Ronald Yanosky.  His writing examines “central IT and the challenge of consumer choice” and gives thoughtful suggestions on what could be done to encourage individuals to choose “certified resources” that help them make prudent decisions based on  considerations that go beyond features, functionality and cost.  The article is very informative, well written and provides useful ways to frame the issues.
  •  “Unlocking the Value of Choice in IT Decision Making” posted on The Higher Ed CIO blog.  The author, Jerry Bishop, raises some very insightful and leading questions with respect to the more general topic of choice and its implications for IT organizations.  He also shares two very interesting TED Talks by Sheena Iyengar based on results from research she has done; “The Art of Choosing” and “How to Make Choosing Easier”.

All of this taken together suggest that value can be added to the process of individual choice by introducing a “curator” and “certifier” function in between choosers and suppliers of educational technologies.

Value Added to Choice by Curators and Certifiers

Value Added to Choice by Curators and Certifiers

The combined value added by the “curator” and “certifier” functions could be used to generate recommendations that consist of the following:

  • Research and evaluation conducted by a review team that determines what qualifies as “educational technology” and the criteria for published recommendations (e.g. ADA standards etc.)
  • A high level taxonomy used to categorize educational technologies for browsing organized groupings of similar technologies[1]
  • A defined list of attributes used to “tag” recommendations for searching by characteristics such as sub-categories, typical uses, compatibility with other technologies, the level of support available, technology provider, and cost
  • Certified resources based on verified conformance with applicable interoperability standards, information security requirements and other risk management best practices

Providing a simple way for individuals to choose from a pool of certified resources can help improve the selection process based on the qualified recommendations of expert advisors and trusted colleagues.   However, there is a cost.  In order to implement this particular kind of support, organizations will need to determine (collectively or individually) how to enlist members of a review team and what methods and means will be employed to provide recommendations.  This takes time to plan and coordinate, it may involve expenditures, and participation takes time away from other important work.  But “chooser support” is more than an added convenience.  To quote Ronald Yanosky, it’s a way to “[…] assess vendor claims and sort out the institutional implications of what might be a confusing tangle of competing products and standards.  Influence of this kind could substantially reduce institutional exposure and improve the consumer computing experience for everyone.”

Practical solutions will emerge to address this unmet need that will go beyond app stores and educational marketplaces and will resemble simplified variations of Merlot and the TBR eLearning Initiative.  Even these valuable resources (and others) have expanded to the point where each can be cumbersome to navigate and making choices can be complicated.  This presents an interesting opportunity for a somewhat different approach.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) present a similar situation in many ways.  But that’s a posting for another time.

[1] A categorization system such as the Dewey Decimal System is not yet available for this purpose

Provision Alone ≠ Value

Information, technology and related support services employed by most higher education institutions are provisioned in a variety of ways.  Resources from centralized, decentralized, outsourced and self-provisioned sources are all used in combination.  They also overlap and change in relative proportion over time.  The diagram below illustrates one way to view these relationships:

The reality is that adopting a centralized, decentralized, outsourced and self-provisioned approach is rarely an all or nothing decision in the larger scheme of things.  But perennial debates about the comparative merits of each persist as if it were.  The options continue to often be framed as polarizing choices rather than optimal parts of a blended solution.

Value is not simply generated from how information, technology and related services are provisioned.  That’s why the provisional context at most institutions is not comparable to a utility like electricity or water.  There is far more to it than that.  One perspective on this was provided by President of California State University Northridge, Jolene Koester, in the EDUCAUSEreview May/June 2011  article she authored titled “Information Technology and Tomorrow’s University: A President’s Confessions and Advice”:

“For some time in my presidential role, I was comforted by the comparison of information technology to a utility.  Many of my colleagues in higher education told me that I simply needed to ensure that information technology, like electricity and water, was reliably available and functional for our faculty, staff, and students.  This seemed quite possible to achieve.  However, over the past several years, it has become clear to me that the role of information technology in my university is far more strategic, far more ubiquitous, far more integrated into multiple business practices, and far more integral to the core university functions of teaching and learning.  I no longer regard as valid the comparison of information technology to a utility.  And thus, disquiet occurs.”

President Koester’s disquieting reflections characterize the role of information, technology and related services as something that warrants “far more” consideration than an essential provision like a utility.

Ronald Yanosky expressed a similar perspective to President Koeser’s in his article titled “From Users to Choosers: Central IT and the Challenge of Consumer Choice” published in the November/December 2010 issue of EDUCAUSEreview:

“Though the utility metaphor may apply to some aspects of computing, it is a poor fit with others; computing involves processes and information regimes that cannot be reduced to the simplicity and fungibility of, say, electrical power.”

Apparently, the “Nine Core IS Capabilities” framework David F Freeny and Leslie P Willcocks developed from their research, which appeared in their “Core IS Capabilities for Exploiting Information Technology” article published in the Spring 1998 Sloan Management, still has relevance.  There is an overlapping dependence on an enduring core set of core functions and collective expertise that are vitally important to the organization – particularly as patterns of provisional context evolve.  An updated and modified version of the Freeny and Wilcocks framework might look something like this now, illustrating how core capabilities and competencies of the organization overlay the method of provision:

The following descriptions of the seven core capabilities shown within the provisional context above are derived in large part from the pioneering work of Freeny and Wilcocks as well:

  1. Consultative Support – The contribution of knowledge and expertise used to guide strategic uses of information, innovative applications of technology, development of organizational capability and evaluation of product and service providers.  (This value is added within a centralized, decentralized and outsourced provisional context).
  2. Information Resource Management – The application of agreed upon standards and obligatory controls for; the efficient capture, creation, use, transmission, retrieval, conversion, protection, and retention of shared information.  (This value is added within a centralized, decentralized and outsourced provisional context).
  3. System Design – The specification of an adaptive enterprise-wide technology infrastructure based on functional capability to support optimal performance as an integrated whole now and in the future.  (This value is added within a centralized, decentralized and outsourced provisional context).
  4. Making Technology Work – The resolution of problems disowned by product and service providers and the modification of prescribed solutions that for some reason are not fully adequate.  (This value is added within a centralized and decentralized provisional context).
  5. Supplier Management – The administration of contractual agreements to most efficiently satisfy demand, prevent cost overruns, ensure mutual compliance, and maximize the value of the relationship.  (This value is added within a centralized and outsourced provisional context).
  6. Service Management – The assimilation of selective best practices for; improving processes, developing software, providing customized training, delivering ongoing end-user support, ensuring adequate system performance, and coordinating changes.  (This value is added within a centralized and outsourced provisional context).
  7. Chooser Support – The promotion of compatible choices based on open standards and the personal responsibilities associated with the independent procurement and use of computational devices, software and online services that are not provisioned by the institution.  (This value is added within a self-provisioned context).

The seven core capabilities and competencies add value to the provision, regardless of the source, and they continue to distinguish the management of information and technology services as something far more strategic, ubiquitous, integrated and integral than an essential utility like water or electricity.

So what should the institution stop doing given the continual shifting of provisional context and the constant need to generate value from information and technology resources?  What should the institution start doing?  What should the institution continue doing?  What should be done differently?

Mobile Obligation

It seems apparent by now that mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets will soon be people’s first choice for accessing the Internet and making use of an expanding array of communications services, interactive media, and software applications.  In response, an increasing number of higher education institutions have accepted a “mobile obligation” to augment a student’s curricular and co-curricular experience by literally meeting them where they are with the information and technology services most often used.  For example, according to results from the 2011 Campus Computing  Project 55.3% of public universities have activated mobile apps or will do so during the 2011-12 academic year (compared to 32.5% in 2010).  The question for the other 44.7% is… if not now when?

Some of the higher education institutions that have accepted their mobile obligation are developing and executing “mobile strategies”.  Some examples include:

Online Convenience

EDUCAUSE President and CEO Diana Oblinger’s foreword to the 2011 ECAR National Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology surmised that “…convenience drives student technology use and perceptions”.  Allowing students to retrieve information, receive communications and securely complete transactions online from a smartphone or tablet all provide added convenience.  Examples of these things may include:

  • Communication:  e-mail and text messaging (including emergency notifications)
  • Public Information:  maps, news, events, athletics, transit, dining, directory, and course catalog
  • Personalized Information: account information, course schedules, advisor listings and grades
  • Secure Transactions: registering for courses and making online payments

Most mobile applications seem to be limited to repackaging what is already otherwise available from a laptop or desktop computer connected to the Internet.  However, there do not appear to be many mobile applications deployed by higher education institutions that provide personalized information or transaction processing that require authentication and secure transmission of protected information.  As more of these applications eventually get deployed maybe they end up providing what is currently available from web portal applications too.

Pedagogical Experimentation

Higher Education Institutions are exploring pedagogical applications of mobile computing as well by experimenting through pilot projects, as well as trial and error on a small scale, in order to test innovative ideas and gain insights that can be used to inform prospective adoption and support on a larger scale.  Some well publicized examples include:

  • The Seton Hill University Griffin Technology Advantage – “the creation of a teaching and learning environment that would go beyond the confines of the traditional classroom in time and space; widespread use of mobile technology for instantaneous access to information; deepening of critical and creative thinking through interactive teaching strategies; increased student engagement in learning; and decreased costs for students through the use of e-texts.”
  • The Duke Digital Initiative (DDI) – “a multi-year program of experimentation, development and implementation of new and emerging technologies to explore their use in support of the university’s mission.”
  • The Abilene Christian University ACU Connected Initiative – “studies how mobile technologies can be used to enhance learning”.

The 2011 Horizon Report also provides interesting examples of “relevance for teaching, research or creative inquiry” and “a sampling of applications of mobiles across disciplines”.

These pedagogical experiments and forays into the provision of more online conveniences (among others) illuminate the interwoven complexities introduced by using mobile computing to do things in new ways which in turn impact everything from technology and support infrastructure to faculty development programs.

So the multi-part question is what mobile computing platform(s) should the institution support use of, to what extent, for what purpose, and at what cost?  The answers to these questions will vary widely from one institution to another but the following considerations are common to all:

  1. What are the unique educational affordances and added conveniences that have specific application for potential use within the context of learning environments and provision of online services?
  2. What is the current level of interest among faculty to make use of the unique educational affordances that mobile technologies might offer within the context of courses they teach or the research they conduct?
  3. What are the prioritized preferences among students for co-curricular mobile applications they want the institution to provide?
  4. What is the current level of use of different mobile device types (equipped with internet access) among students, faculty, and staff along with the most prevalently used software and services accessed from these devices?
  5. What sort of methods will be employed for device management (where needed)?:
    • Determining what devices and software should be provisioned by the institution and how, who they will be provided to, and under what conditions
    • Procurement of hardware, software and 3G/4G network services
    • Tracking inventory and compliance with software licensing agreements
    • Managing machine images, patches, software upgrades and configuration settings
    • Ensuring information security and privacy management
  6. The impact on and required changes to the technological infrastructure (e.g. campus network, websites, course management systems, identity management, system interfaces etc.)
  7. The impact on and required changes to the support infrastructure (e.g. tech support, skills necessary to develop applications, integration with “back-end” information systems, etc.)
  8. The extent to which the institution is willing and able to license and/or develop new applications specifically for particular mobile platforms, versus expanding the institution’s mobile web presence
  9. All one-time and recurring costs for the above

In the end, an institution’s response to its mobile obligation should be in proportion to the demand for additional online conveniences, pedagogical experimentation and capacity to adapt technology infrastructure, support services and faculty development programs.


Technology enhanced learning environments aren’t ubiquitous yet.  Not in a literal sense anyway.  However, pervasive access to networked information within overlapping spheres of educational context from a diverse range of human-computer interaction is creating a habitat for more ubiquitous learning environments.  That’s at least one conclusion that could be drawn from the 2011 Horizon Report.

The annual Horizon Report is collaboration between the EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) and the New Media Consortium.  Each year, the Horizon Report is published based on research used to identify and describe six emerging technologies with considerable potential to both enter mainstream use and have a significant impact on higher education within one to five years.  The full report can be downloaded from here.

The following key trends, critical challenges and technologies to watch are taken directly from the executive summary:

Key Trends

  • The abundance of resources and relationships made easily accessible via the Internet is increasingly challenging us to revisit our roles as educators in sense-making, coaching, and credentialing.
  • People expect to be able to work, learn, and study whenever and wherever they want.
  •  The world of work is increasingly collaborative, giving rise to reflection about the way student projects are structured.
  •  The technologies we use are increasingly cloud-based, and our notions of IT support are decentralized.

Critical Challenges

  • Digital media literacy continues its rise in importance as a key skill in every discipline and profession.
  •  Appropriate metrics of evaluation lag behind the emergence of new scholarly forms of authoring, publishing, and researching.
  •  Economic pressures and new models of education are presenting unprecedented competition to traditional models of the university.
  • Keeping pace with the rapid proliferation of information, software tools, and devices is challenging for students and teachers alike.

Technologies to Watch

Electronic books continue to generate strong interest in the consumer sector and are increasingly available on campuses as well.  Modern electronic readers support note-taking and research activities, and are beginning to augment these basic functions with new capabilities — from immersive experiences to support for social interaction — that are changing our perception of what it means to read.

Mobiles enable ubiquitous access to information, social networks, tools for learning and productivity, and much more.  Mobile devices continue to evolve, but it is the increased access to affordable and reliable networks that is driving this technology now.  Mobiles are capable computing devices in their own right — and they are increasingly a user’s first choice for Internet access.

Augmented reality refers to the layering of information over a view or representation of the normal world, offering users the ability to access place-based information in ways that are compellingly intuitive.  Augmented reality brings a significant potential to supplement information delivered via computers, mobile devices, video, and even the printed book.  Much simpler to create and use now than in the past, augmented reality feels at once fresh and new, yet an easy extension of existing expectations and practices.

Game-based learning has grown in recent years as research continues to demonstrate its effectiveness for learning for students of all ages.  Games for education span the range from single-player or small-group card and board games all the way to massively multiplayer online games and alternate reality games.  Those at the first end of the spectrum are easy to integrate with coursework, and in many institutions they are already an option; but the greatest potential of games for learning lies in their ability to foster collaboration, problem-solving, and procedural thinking.  

Gesture-based computing moves the control of computers from a mouse and keyboard to the motions of the body via new input devices.  Depicted in science fiction movies for years, gesture-based computing is now more grounded in reality thanks to the recent arrival of interface technologies such as Kinect, SixthSense, and Tamper, which make interactions with computational devices far more intuitive and embodied.

Learning analytics loosely joins a variety of data-gathering tools and analytic techniques to study student engagement, performance, and progress in practice, with the goal of using what is learned to revise curricula, teaching, and assessment in real time.  Building on the kinds of information generated by Google Analytics and other similar tools, learning analytics aims to mobilize the power of data-mining tools in the service of learning, and embracing the complexity, diversity, and abundance of information that dynamic learning environments can generate.

I read the 2011 Horizon Report while on vacation at a Disney resort in Florida.  It provided an appropriate backdrop in many ways.  The Disney theme parks employ a variety of computational devices and information systems simultaneously in order to provide distinct entertainment venues.  Sometimes patrons may not necessarily even be aware that they are doing so.  At other times the interaction with the technology is the entertainment.  Some of the experiences offered by Disney are also meant to both educate and entertain (a.k.a. “edutainment”). 

There’s another interesting concept referred to as “u-Learning” or ubiquitous learning.  But what does a u-Learning environment consist of?  How does it differ from “edutainment”? 

The College of Education  Ubiquitous Learning Institute at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is one organization that is focused on exploring the concept of u-Learning.  Dr. Chris Dede, Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University, gave a presentation titled “The Evolution of Ubiquitous Learning: Semi-Smart Objects, Intelligent Contexts, and Cyberinfrastructure” at the Ubiquitous Learning Institute launch on April 7, 2010 which provides some interesting insights and visionary possibilities.  A 48 minute video of Dr. Dede’s presentation can be viewed here.   

But we’re still left with the question posed by Dr. Dede, “What would an expert model of ubiquitous learning look like if we saw one?”