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

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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.