Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Instructional Technology Blames Teachers

Instructional Technologists always give teachers a hard time. It seems like all the talk that I have heard lately about teaching practices has been negative toward the teacher who does the bad teaching practice. But bad teachers are too often an easy target and I think that they are only a small part of the reason for less-effective instruction in college campuses today.

In the many discussions that I had while completing my Master's degree in Instructional Technology, all bad teaching practices were attributed to the teacher who was doing them. It is really easy to blame the teacher, after all, they are the person who does the act, and as Master's students just getting into Instructional Technology, my classmates and I would look upon our limited past experience with college including our undergraduate classes. The most visible instructional component of these classes was our teachers.

But what if there were deeper roots to bad instruction than just the teachers themselves? After having taught and worked to create courses for higher education, I can say there are. I have never met a single teacher that would not like his/her students to learn something. This is no longer a question in teacher's minds. The real question is how to do this when teachers are put under the constraints that higher education imposes upon them.

"congratulations graduates, this diploma signifies that you have sat in your classroom seat for a certain amount of hours and have received arbitrarily fabricated grades from overworked and underpaid instructors. You are now ready to do something totally different than you learned in college ;)" (photo provided by Josh Thompson)

Instructional Technology has come up with some great ways to help students learn better, quicker, and in more depth, but few of these methods even consider the constraints that teachers in higher education are put under, fewer still help alleviate them. Many theories claim that they do when they really don't. I think that some of the most valuable work being done in Instructional Technology involves systemic change in public education.

A professor that I work with currently teaches several freshman classes full of ninety students each semester, is required to do research that requires extensive travel and time to write and submit manuscripts, and must serve on several committees for the university. He wakes up at about 4am each morning to get to work and usually stays there until 6pm. He then goes home to have dinner and then does reading and research for the rest of the night each day. This is typical here. I know of at least 3 other people whose schedules are similar. They do this work because they are required to by the university. This is a regular university workload.

The field of Instructional Technology generally defines behaviorist practice such as lecture and multiple choice tests as bad teaching and assessment practices. But these are the very same practices that help teachers be more efficient in their teaching. For instance, lectures can be the same every time allowing teachers to create it only once and then deliver it many times. Multiple choice tests in testing centers allow assessment of student's knowledge without having to involve the teacher.

Some Instructional Technologists sit there an wonder why more teachers are not doing more good instructional practices like peer interaction, group projects, authentic tasks, task-centered instruction and so on. Some become angry at teachers for their bad practices, but the reason is that they don't have time! All of those practices will ultimately take more of a busy teacher's time, and taking more time on teaching and less on research could put a college teacher's job in jeopardy. Imagine approaching the professor that I work with and telling him that he does not teach well, and he needs to change his curriculum to be more task-centered. You explain that this will take more time to do, but in the end students will learn more and enjoy the class better. Most professors would respond that they just don't have the time, and this answer is perfectly honest and acceptable. The time in one day cannot be increased even by a minute.

There is a lot that needs to change in colleges today, but I think that it needs to start not with teaching practices, but with the structures that are in place that do not allow teachers to engage in good teaching practices.


  1. I started writing a reply, but it ended up longer than I intended it to be. I posted it on my blog instead.

  2. I agree that there are systemic problems that inhibit innovative teaching. However, I know some excellent teachers and professors with balanced lives who have figured out how to be innovative despite the constraints on their time and resources. I don't think I'm as willing to let instructors (myself included) off the hook that easily.

  3. Do you not expect other college professor in other subject matters to use the good instructional design you try to teach them? Is the business unique to instructional tech/design world?