July/August 2001 // Commentary
Lessons Learned: Do You Have to Bleed at the Cutting Edge?
by Thomas A. Marino
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Thomas A. Marino "Lessons Learned: Do You Have to Bleed at the Cutting Edge?" The Technology Source, July/August 2001. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

After years of incorporating information technology in classroom teaching in the belief that it helps students learn, I have been asked whether I would recommend that other faculty members do likewise. Though using information technology is a good way for faculty members to rethink their teaching methods, most often my answer is no—not for the untenured and definitely not for those thinking of becoming totally engaged in teaching and technology. I like developing means to incorporate instructional technology in the classroom, and I think it helps students learn, but there are five factors that have stymied my attempts to do the job well. I discuss these five factors—resources, money, time, student evaluations, and support from colleagues—in the hope that faculty members will take them into account before spending time developing technology for teaching and learning.


In the world of teaching with technology, hardware and software resources are often scarce, especially in comparison to what is available in private industry. Since funding agencies expect colleges and universities to pay for information technology initiatives on their own, obtaining outside funding for these resources is difficult if not impossible. Therefore, instructors considering developing IT tools for classroom use should make sure that hardware and software resources are available before starting. Five years ago, two colleagues and I developed an IT-based active learning model with more than 1,000 digitized photomicrographic images for a course in histology. We did so without ensuring beforehand that we had all the necessary tools, which made completion a challenge and forced us to spend long and frustrating hours on the project. As the necessary tools became available, our goals become more reasonably and easily accomplished.

As Cooley and Johnston (2000) point out, it is often the case that an institution obtains valuable hardware and software resources without consulting those who will use them. New hardware is installed in classrooms, and new software is acquired, but teachers have no idea who made the decision to purchase the new equipment and are even less certain about its usefulness. Two years ago, a major classroom in one of our teaching buildings was refurbished without significant faculty input. Now teachers cannot see the screen when standing at the podium. To avoid this kind of situation, faculty, administration, and staff should work together to make decisions about resources, following models such as Steve Gilbert's teaching, learning, and technology roundtable (TLTR).


There is one question at the core of what K-12 principals and college and university presidents face: If we fund information technology initiatives, what will not be funded? As the Campus Computing Survey (Green, 2000) and the impact of the support service crisis indicate, IT at most schools, colleges, and universities is not going to save money, replace faculty, or create an influx of new funds (especially from online courses). Instead, IT raises serious questions about how technology is going to be paid for. The problem then becomes where to spend limited resources. As Green points out, colleges and universities often have no financial plan for funding instructional technology.

In addition to this question, there is the question of financial rewards for instructors. If a teacher asks for funding for IT infrastructure (either hardware or software), he or she cannot also expect merit pay for time devoted to developing technology tools. Administrators can overlook the hard work that faculty members devote to developing technology initiatives, so these efforts may not be rewarded. There is little in academic literature to substantiate how much time it takes to infuse technology into the classroom, particularly since some methods and some technologies are more time intensive than others. An administrator I know was surprised at the amount of time and support she needed to develop a 15-minute, technology-rich presentation. Only afterwards did she realize the efforts that faculty members regularly put in. To resolve this dilemma, I recommend that technology efforts be developed as a "contract" between faculty members and administrators, with agreed-upon goals, outcomes, and rewards. In this way, everyone knows up front what is to be done, what efforts are expected, how much time the project is going to take, and what the rewards are.


Developing information technology applications that help students learn takes time. But since it is becoming evident that using IT will not save institutions money, administrators are allowing less time to develop these tools. Instructors' efforts are measured by numbers of courses and students taught, grants obtained, papers published, and presentations given. What is rewarded is effort directed toward scholarly activity—which is fine for IT pioneers, entrepreneurs, and self-promoters. For these early adopters of instructional technology, time spent developing IT tools can be counted towards scholarship and teaching credits in the tenure hunt, and may even be used for service credit. But what about the next wave of K-12 teachers and university faculty? The next generation of instructors to adopt IT will not be able to turn their efforts into scholarly activity by giving talks on instructional technology or obtaining grants from funding agencies. But they will still have to put in time to develop IT tools—and that time may not be valued.

A solution to this problem is to negotiate release time or course reductions up front, acknowledging the significant efforts that go into these endeavors. Again, this is a matter of communication. Superintendents or deans who themselves do not regularly use IT tools cannot appreciate the amount of time such tools add to a teacher's day. Instructors should raise these issues in advance and ensure that an understanding is reached rather than assume that everyone knows what is involved in a technology-related teaching project.

Naturally, time is a difficult commodity to measure. I recently started revising a course I will teach in the fall. For each section of the course, I have developed computer laboratories, presentations, handouts, and self-assessment instruments. Working 4 hours a day, it took me 7 days to redo 1 section of the course—and I have 14 other sections to revise. Overall, it will take me 98 half-days or 20 weeks to finish this one course; the other courses I teach will follow. When I am done, I will produce a document that carefully details the time spent on this project so that my work will be acknowledged and assigned a value. Not only will I know that the course is improved, but my department head will have documentation of that improvement. I recommend that other faculty members keep a log of time spent using technology for teaching purposes.

Student Evaluations

Perhaps the biggest obstacle to the use of information technology for teaching and learning is the fear that students will respond negatively to your efforts. I have followed almost 20 years of student evaluations in a course I teach on embryology (see Figure 1). Evaluations have historically been positive, but any effort to bring about fundamental change has been roundly criticized by students. In 1993-94, for example, I decided to add a collaborative learning component to the course. It did not involve instructional technology, but it did call for students to collaborate to solve clinical problems. I set out tasks and goals to be met, but students did not like working together and made it a point to let me know this. Course evaluations went down dramatically, so much so that the school's curriculum committee took note of it. In fact, the dean of the School of Medicine told the chair of my department that I could be replaced because of the poor evaluations.

In response, I quickly went back to the lecture-memorize-test method of education. The ratings then improved until 1996, when I began using PowerPoint presentations rather than text handouts. What a revolution that caused! Students were furious, accusing me of withholding resources. I then gave students PowerPoint handouts and text handouts and waited for evaluations to return to previous levels. In 1998, I introduced a humanistic classroom approach, which involved online lectures, in-class face-to-face workshops, and online student assessments (Marino, 1998; Marino, Eager, & Draxler, 2000). As might be expected, course evaluations for the next two years plummeted. But this time I am holding my ground. When I was called before the school's curriculum committee to explain the decline in student approval, I outlined my goals and explained that it would take time to achieve them. Students do not like change. They want to be told how to succeed by students from previous years. When new methods are introduced, a grace period is necessary for revision and to give changes time to take hold.

Support from Colleagues

The final reason for my reluctance to encourage the use of information technology in the classroom comes from the reactions of faculty and administration. My colleagues often do not like infusions of new teaching and learning methods. I do not blame them: not only are faculty reluctant to take a chance on something that might fail due to student resistance, they also get little encouragement or incentive from administrators—and they certainly are not required by administrators to take on new technology and all the work it brings. My colleagues see these problems and are probably much smarter to choose not to become involved.

Administrators are also resistant to this new way of teaching and learning. Carol Twigg (2001) uses the pony express as an example of the pace of change in society. She points out that when the telegraph was introduced, the first thing the pony express did in response was buy new horses. When that did not work, it hired new riders. Of course, neither of these was an adequate or insightful response to the new challenge, which for Twigg demonstrates the reluctance of those in charge to explore new methods and approaches. Twigg states:

Joel Barker and others have observed that the "paradigm shifters," those who create the new rules, are almost always outsiders to the old paradigm community. Since they lack personal investment in the prevailing paradigm, they are often more successful in finding innovative ways to solve problems. (Paragraph 8)

Those of us in the academic community trying to bring about change occupy a strange and dangerous place—a kind of academic demilitarized zone. We are members of the academy (the "old paradigm" community in Barker's terms), while those trying to create the new rules—those in the private sector, in business, and at IT companies—are often outside academia. Those of us in between these two worlds, at the edge where both communities meet, may not succeed in either. We have often become the enemy of both.

This is a critical time in education, one of flux. But faculty and administrators alike need to take measures to optimize the infusion of information technology into the classroom. In addition, pioneers need to be rewarded for exploring the cutting edge; right now, many pioneers find that all they get is cut. But do we really have to bleed to make progress?


Cooley, N., & Johnston, M. A. (2000, September/October). Why can't we just get on with it? Forces that complicate the integration of technology into teaching and learning. The Technology Source. Retrieved May 28, 2001, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=428

Green, K. C. (2000, October). Struggling with IT staffing. The Campus Computing Project. Retrieved May 2, 2001, from http://www.campuscomputing.net/summaries/2000/index.html

Marino, T. A. (1998, March). A vision of a safe classroom. The Technology Source. Retrieved May 28, 2001, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=18

Marino, T. A., Eager, M., & Draxler, T. (2000). Learning online: A view from both sides. The National Teaching and Learning Forum, 9 (4), 4-6.

Morrison, J. L., & Twigg, C. (2001, May/June). The Pew learning and technology program initiative in using technology to enhance education: An interview with Carol Twigg. Retrieved May 28, 2001, from http://technologysource.org/?view=article&id=353

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