What is Instructional Technology?

It’s not your grandfather’s Instructional Technology.

The Office for Information Technology is organized into four branches: The Desktop Systems group focuses on personal computers and runs the Help Desk; the Admin Systems group focuses on the big, back-end databases that track grades, manage payrolls and so on; the Networks and Systems group focuses on the cabling, servers and services that connect the campus to the Internet, provide email and so forth; and the Instructional Technology group does… what exactly?

ITech at Williams is the group charged with helping faculty make good use of technology in teaching and research, but the broader field of Instructional Technology is an academic discipline in its own right, taught at over 130 graduate schools in the U.S. alone. In Instructional Technology: The Definition and Domains of the Field (1994), Seels and Richey defined Instructional Technology as “the theory and practice of design, development, utilization, management, and evaluation of processes and resources for learning,” the definition that was adopted by the Association for Educational Communications and Technology (AECT). AECT narrowed its definition in 2004, pointing out that instructional technology is a more focused subset of educational technology, and stating that “Instructional technology refers to the concept, theory, and field that focus on facilitating learning through technology under conditions that are purposive and controlled.”

Even with the clarification made in 2004 though, it’s not immediately apparent how to translate these theoretical objectives into a practical program. Here at Williams, the goal is to take the historical trajectory of the department, make it intentional through the application of the principles of design and evaluation, and develop programs and technologies that support faculty and genuinely facilitate learning. As with most things that have their roots in technological innovation, the rate of change in instructional technology seems to be accelerating. Twenty years ago, instructional technology was little more than mimeograph machines and slide projectors- the pre-cursors to today’s electronic classrooms. While the electronic classroom is arguably still ITech’s most visible and widely used service, the emphasis today is placed as much on the “instructional” than on the “technology”. It’s oriented toward the services and collaborations- the verbs- rather than the machines and artifacts of technology, the nouns.

This orientation is reflected in the internal structure of the group. A little over a third of the group has the development and maintenance of the electronic classrooms and labs as their primary responsibility. Around another third of the group, the Instructional Technology Specialist team, is charged with working directly with faculty, both to understand how faculty are currently teaching and doing research and to help them leverage technical tools in more effective ways. As much as possible, members of this group have educational backgrounds and teaching experience that overlap with the disciplines they support. The last group supports both faculty and the rest of ITech, with project management and development skills, by collaborating on the development of applications and tools that further the pedagogical goals of the faculty.

Working together, ITech has as its mission to help faculty use the existing technologies of the classroom and the network more effectively. But going beyond the obvious examples of technology, the larger mission is to help faculty envision ways that intransigent problems , of teaching or within the discipline, can be re-envisioned and addressed.

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