Educators’ Roles: A Wicked Problem

Each year, the New Media Consortium (NMC) publishes its Horizons Reports that predict key trends, significant challenges and important development in educational technology.  These reports attempt to outline some critical considerations for different learning environment including library, museums, K-12 schools and institutions of higher education. I have a habit of collecting these reports and examining their predictions over the years.  For instance, the 2008 Higher Education Edition predicted that “grassroots video” would have a significant impact on education.  Considering the number of online tutorials that faculty make and the growth in flipped and blended instruction, it’s pretty clear that their prediction was on the mark.

I came across the 2017 Higher Education Edition the other day.  While I tend to check out the educational technology predictions closely, in this edition, I was really interested in the “significant challenges” that they outlined.  The NMC groups these challenges into three categories: solvable, difficult and wicked.  Solvable problems are ones that the NMC says the systems “understand and know how to solve.”  By contrast, difficult challenges are ones that we may understand but for which solutions are more “elusive.”  Wicked challenges are those “that are complex to even define, much less address.”  In the 2017 Higher Education Horizons Report, the NMC identified “Rethinking the Roles of Educators” as a wicked problem.  Here’s their argument.

Educators are increasingly expected to employ a variety of technology-based tools, such as digital learning resources and courseware, and engage in online discussions and collaborative authoring. Further, they are tasked with leveraging active learning methodologies like project and problem-based learning. This shift to student-centered learning requires them to act as guides and facilitators.

While the problem seems pretty simply stated, it’s much more complex for a variety of reasons.  There are social, economic, cultural and political ramifications to this dramatic shift in educators’ roles.  As an individual faculty member at a public university, however, I don’t have much impact on these areas. It’s also hard for me to wrap my head around the complexity and interplay of these dimensions.  Working in professional development on campus, however, I need to consider how to successfully build faculty capacity to prepare them to make this transition successfully. Which is a pretty wicked problem on its own.

In his book Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study, Lortie (1975) introduces the concept of apprenticeship of observation, which may be a huge factor that influences the “wickedness” of this problem.  As they navigate their education as students, Lortie argues, budding instructors are actually being apprenticed into the practice of teaching.  They observe how classrooms are used and how their content is taught.  When these students eventually enter they own classrooms as teachers, this apprenticeship informs how they use technology, how they engage students in the learning process and how they use classroom spaces.  Since many of us don’t have models of “student-centered instruction” in our personal learning histories, we can’t really envision educators’ roles in these types of learning environments.  Few of us have personal experiences with active learning as students.   Factor in the minority of faculty members who have direct experience with online, blended and flipped learning environments as students and the problem becomes even more complex.

Readers may be reaching this part of the post and hoping it will end with some solutions to this problem.  But that’s one of the challenges with these “wicked problems.” As we start to unravel them to identify possible solutions, we just end up seeing how complex and interwoven the problem really is.


Adams Becker, S., Cummins, M., Davis, A., Freeman, A., Hall Giesinger, C., and Ananthanarayanan, V. (2017). NMC Horizon Report: 2017 Higher Education Edition. Austin, Texas: The New Media Consortium.

Lortie, D. (1975). Schoolteacher: A sociological perspective. Chicago: University of Chicago.


Risk, vulnerability and change

Last week, as I stood on the perilous edge of a metaphorical cliff, I wondered whether I should take the jump.  Should I hit “Publish” and expose my poor teaching evaluations to the world?  Sure, I had written an in-depth reflection and reaction to my fall evaluations and outlined my plan for improvement. But, was I really ready to have the world know that my teaching didn’t cut it?  Moments before publishing that post, I can remember consciously worrying about people’s reactions and decided that I needed to put my thoughts out there. I wanted to hold myself accountable for my evaluations and to make sure that I’d live up to a plan of action for improvement. As I clicked to publish the post, I figured that I’d deal with the criticisms later.

Here’s the surprising part.  I didn’t receive a single criticism. Not one.  Instead, I received emails from former students, texts from colleagues and a phone call from a former professor. While many were reaching out to make sure I was okay, most were contacting me to thank me for putting it out there. They admired me for taking the risk, showing my vulnerability and tackling my emotions so openly.  It was not the reaction I expected.

I also wasn’t expecting the post to be viewed by hundreds of readers or be retweeted on Twitter as much as it was.  In my moment of vulnerability, I took a risk and it resonated with loads of other teacher.  One new faculty member even emailed me to ask if she could meet with me to discuss her Fall teaching evaluations so we could come up with a plan for improvement for her classes.  The reactions were honestly pretty inspiring.

As I’ve been reflecting on last week’s post, I decided to reread a post I wrote on August 2013.  Titled “the birthplace of innovation?” the post examines Dr. Brene Brown’s TED Talk on vulnerability and shame.  In her presentation, Dr. Brown says:

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”

While I definitely felt vulnerable as I wrote and shared my post, I also saw it as a route for improving my teaching and fostering personal change.  While I worried about criticism, I should have kept in mind President Theodore Roosevelt and his moving words from Citizen in a Republic.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

Strive valiantly, my friends.  Be willing to enthusiastically put yourself out there and to fail while daring greatly.  I’m sure you’ll be as inspired by the reactions as I was.

Thanks to all.

Online education: bias, hope and reality

A post on Inside Higher Education today discusses faculty’s continued reservations to teaching online.  The author, Robert Ubell, shares several studies that examine professors’ resistance to online education and how they view virtual learning environments as being inferior.  As the vice dean for online learning at New York University’s Tandon School for Engineering, Ubell is a proponent of online learning.  In his role, however, he also recognizes some challenges that faculty face when teaching online.  For instance, he explains how many professors have very little experience with online education and therefore have very little personal experience with how to teach well online.  Ubell writes “going online is like moving to a foreign country, where you must learn a new language and assimilate a new culture.” To him, teaching online isn’t just about navigating the technical aspects of learning management systems or attempting to “migrate the campus experience online.”  Instead, Ubell challenges educators to visualize online learning as “an entirely new way of teaching with new methods of engaging students.”

The challenge is that many professors see face-to-face instruction as the gold standard and create a false dichotomy between physical classroom spaces and online ones.  The reality, however, is that we often compare our best face-to-face classroom experiences with our worst online ones.  Also, since many of us don’t have online experiences upon which to draw, we visualize a confusing, highly technical environment where students independently work through low level content in isolation from their classmates.  But these beliefs largely do not reflect reality.  Ubell cites a research study from the US Department of Education which found “on average, students in online learning conditions performed better than those receiving face-to-face instruction.” (Means, et al, 2009).  Despite this evidence, some educators like to pit online and face-to-face education against one another, as if they’re battling for dominance in some instructional arena.  Rather than focus on whether “physical nor virtual education will triumph,” Ubell writes, we must shift our attention to “the best pedagogical practices that support active student learning” in whatever learning environment students are enrolled.

So, what are the best pedagogical practices online? One of the things that is becoming abundantly clear is that online learning is more than just accessing content.  Many educators like to think that content is the currency of their courses.  Sure, students enroll in our classes to learn English, physics and mathematics.  More than content, student learning and success is dependent to a large degree on their ability to interact with their classmates and with their instructors.  That’s one of the critical shifts that educators need to make when teaching online.  Interaction is the currency of online learning.  In many ways, this statement is true in almost every learning environment. But interactions happen naturally in face-to-face classes. They don’t have to be intentionally designed. In our physical classes, we don’t have to plan for students to see each other or hear other.  By sharing the same physical space, the interactions occur without educators planning for it.

Online learning environments, however, require that educators plan for interaction.  To be successful, online educators have to build opportunities for students to interact with their peers.  This interaction has to be intentional and purposeful.  In past posts, I’ve written about the Community of Inquiry framework and the importance of building social presence in online classes.  By focusing on these aspects and increasing interaction and engagement in our virtual classes, online teachers can better rise to Ubell’s challenge of making “digital education transformative” for students.


Means, B., Toyama, Y., Murphy, R., Bakia, M., & Jones, K. (2009). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. US Department of Education.

Diffusing Innovation

Regular readers of the 8 Blog know that I spend a fair amount of time focusing on innovations in educational environments.  I work to promote innovative instructional practices and focus on emergent technologies of promise.  By communicating these areas, I hope to help to spread innovations.

I came across some research recently that estimated the “innovativeness” of individuals within a social system.  In his work titled Diffusion of Innovations, Rogers (2003) categorized five different groups based on the degree to which they would adopt new ideas.  The groups included: innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards.  In Rogers’ conceptualization, innovators were the risk takers and the ones most willing to test uncharted waters. Despite representing only 2.5% of the population of a social system, innovators play a critical role in spreading new ideas. Innovators bring new ideas from the outside and serve as the gatekeepers and prophets for change.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, however, laggards are the ones most resistant to change.  They are skeptical of innovations and need proof that a new idea works before they try it themselves.  In Rogers’ estimation, 16% of any social system could be categorized as a laggard.  “What about the other 81%?” you may be wondering.  Roughly, 13.5% would be categorized as “early adopters.” Early adopters are similar to innovators in that they are open to experimentation and change.  One key difference, however, is that early adopters are more likely to hold leadership positions and can help to spread innovations by dedicating resources to fuel the diffusion.  The other 68% of the social system are evenly distributed among the early majority and late majority groups.

While categorizing people into different groups may help leaders identify some of the challenges with diffusing innovations, I think it might be more helpful to look at some of the other factors that influence the spread of new ideas.  While Rogers identifies several elements that impact the spread of new ideas, I thought I’d focus on the one element where we may have the most impact: the social system.  In her recent blog post on Edutopia, Alyssa Tormala identifies several strategies that school leaders should employ to create a “culture of innovation.”  School leaders, Tormala writes, need to model innovation by communicating “when we’re taking a risk, asking for feedback, sharing any data that we gather, and then visibly self-assessing and reflecting on the results.”  Additionally, school leaders need to empathize with the challenges that educators face when they encounter new ideas and celebrate whenever educators are willing to take risks.  In his work with establishing the “innovator mindset,” George Couros identifies five characteristics of innovative organizations.  While some of the characteristics are reflected in Tormala’s post, I think two characteristics stand out.  Couros writes that innovations spread through relationships and in environments where sharing of ideas is supported.  Innovations don’t spread if individuals don’t know (or trust) their colleagues or if they aren’t comfortable sharing their successes and failures.  While I agree that leaders need to model this, they also need to create environments where supportive, collaborative relationships are developed.

Fostering Risk and Innovation

Last week, I discussed a study by the Educational Advisory Board (EAB) which outlined some of the challenges and obstacles that faculty face when seeking to employ innovative teaching practices.  The predominant perspective was the faculty had to negotiate several fears (pedagogical, technological and social) in order to incorporate instructional practices that reside outside of traditional classroom approaches.  This week, I’m going to discuss a few of the strategies that we have used on our campus to foster more risk-taking and innovation by faculty and draw some parallels to the strategies that EAB recommends.

1.  Recognize and celebrate efforts.  In the EAB report, the authors encourage institutions to “empower faculty to reward innovative peers.”  Recently on campus, I’ve worked with some colleagues to create a monthly “Innovative Practices Spotlight” on our institutional teaching and learning website. This spotlight recognizes a different faculty member each month who is examining their teaching practices, taking risks and incorporating new teaching strategies to support student learning.  To date, we’ve featured faculty who are using flipped classroom instruction, expanding online education and creating more student engagement in their lessons. While a page on a website might not seem like much of a “reward,” the public acknowledgement can help to raise awareness of the creative and innovative activities happening on campus.

2.  Gather the troops.  The EAB report discusses the need to “identify innovation outliers.”  Most of this section of the EAB report draws on the kind of data that can be collected from a learning management system and how it can be used to identify innovators on campus.  While I think this unearthing process can be useful, it’s also important to bring those “outliers” together with other like-minded individuals.  For several years, my campus assembled a team called the Community of Digital Innovators (CODI) that grouped together the outliers who were exploring different online and hybrid models of instruction in their classes.  This group helped to foster other innovations across campus.  Examining the nature of the “social fears” explored in last week’s post, gathering the troops makes sense.  While individual instructors may feel some isolation in their home department when they try something new, gathering together kindred spirits can better support their initiatives.

3.  Seed innovation.  The EAB recognizes the need to “lower threshold for seed funding” to help spark the purchase of new devices for teaching learning.  As part of a larger “transformation process” on campus, we created Innovation Block Grants that were designed as low cost catalysts for risk taking and pedagogical exploration.  The block grants helped to fund a wide range of different technologies that could transform the learning environments on campus.  To “close the loop,” Block Grant recipients were asked to share their innovative work with the larger campus community.  This sharing process also addresses another EAB strategy, “generate proofs of concept.”  By providing successful models of innovation developed by other faculty members, other instructors are more likely to explore new initiatives themselves.

Risk and Innovation

A colleague shared a study from the Educational Advisory Board that examined the roadblocks to innovations on campus.  The study drew on several other publications that examined instructional innovations in higher education and highlighted some of the challenge that impeded their adoption.  For instance, the study referenced work from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that only 5% of faculty felt they would be adequately rewarded for incorporating learning innovations in their classes.  8% of responding faculty report that their school leaders effectively supported changes in teaching.  This may be why adoption of educational innovations is slow to be adopted.  In the study, the researchers found that while many faculty members knew about emergent instructional techniques (online and hybrid teaching, flipped classrooms, student response systems, open educational resources, etc.), the vast majority did not adopt them.

Innovation takes risk and most faculty identify this.  The EAB study identifies three main types of risk that most faculty must navigate in order to adopt instructional innovations in their classes.  The first type of risk, pedagogical risk, involves an instructional strategy failing in a classroom strategy.  Few instructors want to stand in front of a group of confused students as a new instructional technique flops.  Compared to incorporating something like a collaborative, problem-based learning activity, lecturing is a low risk strategy.

The second type of risk involves technology.  Instructors are fearful that technology won’t work when they need it to.  This may explain why many faculty members avoid using student response systems (clickers) in their classrooms.  They fear that the devices won’t work and they won’t have enough background knowledge to troubleshoot the technical issues.

The last type of risk involves social dimensions.  While some faculty may want to explore innovative instructional practices, they fear social backlash for employing methods that their colleagues may perceive as being ineffective or as watering down the rigor of the class.  Despite the overwhelming evidence for its effectiveness, active learning strategies are not widely used in collegiate classes.  While pedagogical fear may be impacting the adoption, social fear may also play a role. Consider this scenario.  There’s a course at your institution that students typically find very challenging.  Students often do poorly and struggle to grasp the content. After attending a teaching and learning conference, a faculty member decides to incorporate some innovative instructional strategy and students start to become more successful.  How would your institution react? In some industries, the individual’s success would be embraced and the institution would try to promote more widespread adoption of the innovative practice.  In higher education, however, instructional successes are often viewed skeptically.  In this fictional scenario, some of the instructor’s colleagues may accuse her of watering down the content.  Others may say that she was teaching to the test or simply inflating students’ grades.   Factor in the fact that many institutions don’t value teaching ability as heavily as they value research ability and you have a wide continuum of social risks that instructional renegades have to navigate to adopt more innovative strategies.

So, what’s the solution?  How do we help instructors navigate these risks and become more innovative in their practices?  Next week, I’ll identify some of the different programs we’ve tried on our campus.