White Paper

Division of Science and Mathematics Education

Instructional Technology Vision Statement

Mark Urban-Lurain




Executive Summary

  • The Division of Science and Mathematics Education (DSME) instructional technology research and development program should be integrated with the mission of DSME to improve science and mathematics education.  
  • STEM faculty's theoretical assumptions about teaching and student learning may be implicit and are embedded in practice, including their uses of technology.
  • Instructional design must come before technology – technology must be integrated with instructional design.   If you build it they will not necessarily come.   Costs only increase by adding technology to existing practice.
  • The DSME instructional technology research program should contribute to better understanding of the optimal pedagogy for improving student outcomes, how STEM faculty theories of learning impact their pedagogy and their uses of technology, and how student uses of technology can be designed for improved learning and retention in STEM courses and majors.   
  • The DSME instructional technology development program should help graduate students and new faculty integrate technology as part of an overall instructional design predicated on theories of learning and sound pedagogical practices to produce improved student learning and retention while reducing costs through a team model of course and curriculum design and implementation.


I begin with the premise that instructional technology, like all other information technology, is contextually situated and cannot be considered in isolation from the organizational and cultural context in which it is used.   Therefore, the Division of Science and Mathematics Education (DSME) instructional technology research and development program should be integrated with the mission of DSME to improve science and mathematics education.   This white paper reviews the research on instructional technology in higher education, proposes a model for understanding instructional technology use, and makes recommendations for integrating instructional technology research and development with the mission of DSME.  


For over two decades, higher education institutions have invested enormous resources providing instructional computing, networking and technology support infrastructures to faculty and students.   Here at Michigan State University , President McPherson pledged “a new age of access” with the MSU Technology Guarantee that included “an intensive, quality-based technological experience” for all undergraduates from admission to graduation (McPherson, 1996) .   Technology advocates often assume that providing access to technology would be sufficient to induce faculty to use technology in their instruction.   Furthermore, it is often assumed that using technology will result in improved learning and / or reduced costs.   Yet hundreds of studies show that student outcomes in technology-based courses are not significantly different from student outcomes in traditional classes (Russell, 1999) .   This lack of improved student outcomes was initially attributed to lack of access to technology – for faculty or students. However, now that access to technology is no longer the primary issue, many studies have focused on institutional support factors that impact faculty adoption, such as faculty training and support for using instructional technologies (Mitra, Steffensmeier, Lenzmeier, & Massoni, 1999; Signer, Hall, & Upton, 2000) . Other studies of impediments to adoption focus on the conflicting demands on faculty time (e.g., research vs. teaching) concluding that faculty who do not use technology in teaching do not have the time or interest to devote to learning to use technology in their teaching (Novek, 1999) .  

The Pew Trust, through its course redesign program, shifted from institutional factors that impede or promote faculty adoption and instead focused on three outcomes as defining success in online learning: improving quality, increasing access and reducing costs.   Through their analysis of several exemplary online learning projects, they have identified five factors that contribute to these help move technology projects beyond “no significant difference” (Twigg, 2001) .   1) Individualization: moving from teacher-led to student-centered instruction. 2) Improving the quality of student learning: instead of imitating a teaching model they suggest a “resource” model of student learning materials with pre-, ongoing and post-assessment. 3) Increasing access to higher education by eliminating the constraints of the standard semester and moving towards a modularized curriculum. 4) Reducing costs of teaching and learning.   Universities often have a “craft” mentality about instructional technology, with faculty being their own developers, technical support, etc. They suggestion more division of labor (e.g., the open university team model.) 5) Sustaining innovation by individualizing student learning and standardizing faculty practice.   This implies a need for new kinds of institutional research to determine the most effective path for each learner.

Epper and Bates (2001) examined some of the “best practices” of faculty integrating technology into their teaching and note that the most important finding is that best practices institutions keep the focus on teaching and learning issues rather than on the technology (p. 144).   However, they also note that, in spite of these findings, university faculty resist formal training in instructional design and suggest that professional development around instructional technology be embedded in multidisciplinary teams working on teaching projects in which faculty can concentrate on subject matter.  

These studies address the importance of institutional support for faculty that goes beyond providing the technology.   However, as Clark has pointed out for years, media (and technology) are “mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition” (Clark, 1983, p. 445) .   It is important to move beyond considering the superficial attraction of the instructional medium to the deeper (and much more challenging) issues of the instructional method.   What instructional methods improve student learning?   Only after thinking about the methods is it appropriate to then consider how those methods might be implemented using instructional technologies (Clark, 1994) .   Viewed in this light, the question is not “how can we encourage faculty to adopt technology?” but rather “what instruction can improve student learning and how can technology be used contribute to that instruction?”

As many studies of undergraduate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education have shown, faculty attitudes about student learning are crucial to student success and retention (National Research Council, 2002; Seymour, 2002; Seymour & Hewitt, 1997; Tobias, 1990) .   However, higher education faculty, particularly STEM faculty in research universities, do not typically receive any training in pedagogy or learning theory.  

“Graduate degree programs should provide graduate and postdoctoral students with training in the pedagogical skills they need to teach undergraduates effectively in classroom, laboratory, and field settings. …However, it is more frequently the case that graduate programs in SME&T do not systematically prepare masters or Ph.D. candidates to work with undergraduates. Nor do these programs expose these advanced students to current issues in SME&T education that they will need to know for successful academic careers …” (Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, 1999, p. 54)

Thus, STEM faculty often have implicit “folk” notions of pedagogy (Bruner, 1996) , rather than explicit, formal pedagogical theories and attitudes about student learning. This results in faculty viewing curriculum from a disciplinary perspective, focusing on the sequencing of topics that constitute the canon, rather than viewing curriculum from the perspective of student learning. However, the importance of moving to a student-centered view is reflected not only in such recommendations as those of the Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, but in the evolving accreditation requirements for both undergraduate and graduate STEM programs that require ongoing assessment of student learning outcomes and revisions of programs in light of those assessments (Engineering Accreditation Commission, 2000; Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association, 2003) .  

Model for Instructional Technology Use

A proposed model for technology use is shown in figure 1.  

Model for instructional technology use 

Figure 1 : Model for Technology Use

For many years, colleges and universities focused on the technical infrastructure portion of the model, devoting resources to ensure that faculty and students had sufficient access to computers, putting networking infrastructure in place and providing the support to keep it running.   Initially, most institutions assumed that it was only necessary to have sufficient infrastructure in place for faculty to adopt technology and student outcomes to improve. “If we build it, they will come.” For some time now at most institutions such as MSU, the technical infrastructure has moved well beyond the experimental stage and is now becoming a ubiquitous part of the other infrastructures like buildings and electricity.  

Indeed, some faculty were “innovators” and only needed to have access to technology (Rogers, 1995) .   But generally, as institutions put the technical infrastructure in place, they became aware that faculty adoption rates were not linear; the “early adopters” joined their colleagues but adoption and use were not keeping pace with the infrastructure.   Most institutions then realized that faculty who were not “early adopters” needed additional faculty support .   They provided technical assistance to faculty to assist them with their technology problems, created training programs to help faculty learn to use various software packages, and provided other professional development in the use of technology.   This encouraged the “early majority” (Rogers, 1995) faculty to use technology, but institutions soon found that they were not experiencing the outcomes they had anticipated.  

To understand why the outcomes were not as expected, some research focused on the faculty use of technology , moving beyond the mere dimension of use — non-use to looking at the ways in which faculty use technology. Garrison (2000) distinguishes between “strong” and “weak” influences of technology on learning outcomes.   The most frequent use of technology is to enhance or extend traditional pedagogy that focuses on the transmission of information.   This is a “weak” use because it “generally represents a significant additional cost with marginal increases in the quality of learning outcomes” (p. 27).   In contrast, “strong” uses of technology are predicated on fundamental changes in teaching and learning by moving the focus from transmitting information to a more learner-centric perspective.   “Ironically, the stronger, transformational influence of technology is an opportunity to remain aligned with the traditional values and goals of the university -- including the facilitation of critical reflection and discourse” (p. 25).   Therefore, it is crucial that the focus shift from technology per se, to faculty theories of learning and their associated pedagogies.

Recommendations for DSME's Research and Development in Instructional Technology

In the past four years the mission of DSME has shifted dramatically, from an emphasis on outreach and service, to an emphasis on research and scholarship. The mission of DSME is "to improve mathematics and science learning and teaching at all levels, through research and design in instruction, technology-based instructional materials and professional and faculty development."   Therefore, DSME's research and development efforts around instructional technology should be grounded in sound learning theories and instructional design principles and should make foundational contributions to the overall mission of the unit.   Furthermore, these efforts should focus on areas that play to, and build upon, the unique strengths of DSME, rather than duplicating instructional technology efforts that are provided by other units or centrally at MSU.  


The thrust of DSME's research foci should be on “improving mathematics and science learning and teaching” so the instructional technology research should concentrate on the faculty theories of learning , pedagogy and outcomes portions of the model (figure 1), rather than on the technical infrastructure , faculty support and faculty uses of technology .   This is best accomplished by an interdisciplinary research program drawing on the domain expertise of faculty from within DSME and across the College of Natural Science (CNS) and the educational expertise of faculty in DSME and the College of Education (COE.)   The goals of this research program should be to better understand the optimal pedagogy for improving student outcomes, how STEM faculty theories of learning impact their pedagogy and their uses of technology, and how student uses of technology can be designed for improved learning and retention in STEM courses and majors.    

DSME, as a bridge between CNS and COE, is in a unique position to build such a research program.   In my grant writing efforts to date, I have been building collaborations with faculty from CNS, COE and Engineering with the goals of developing the synergies needed for such a research program.   My research interest has two main strands.   First, I am interested in understanding faculty uses of technology in the context of their pedagogy.   This is reflected in the research I am doing with the Freedom To Learn program evaluation with colleagues in COE and in proposals with colleagues in Engineering on engineering curricular reform through integrating technology tools across engineering courses.   This interest also motivated the IRGP proposal for researching STEM faculty's implicit and explicit theories of learning.  

The other research strand in which I am interested is the broader area of cognition with technology.   This is exemplified by the research I did on student conceptual frameworks with performance-based assessment in CSE 101, the IRT proposal on extending this work to other disciplines, and the PT3 grant on which I am working with colleagues in COE to understand pre-service teachers learning about technology in the context of their TE courses and internships.  


Instructional technology is often seen as a way of producing educational reform, a way of reducing costs, or both (Center for Academic Transformation, 2003; Phipps & Merisotis, 1999) .   Yet, there is little evidence that simply providing – or mandating – instructional technology does anything other than increase costs.   This is consistent with the uses of information technology in all fields.   Simply using technology to replicate existing “business practice” does not reduce costs.   In education, using technology to extend the “craft” model of instruction, where individual faculty are responsible for everything from creating content, assessment, delivery and now web site construction results in higher costs, with no savings because of the inefficiencies involved (Twigg, 2001) .   To realize savings requires a change in structure, much like the models adopted by the Open University and the University of Phoenix .   Rather than having individual faculty create courses from “scratch” whenever they teach them, both institutions use a team-based approach to instruction with faculty who are content experts, instructional designers, technology experts, assessment experts all contributing to creating courses.   The courses repurpose existing materials both internal and external to the institution, and refine and evolve the instruction to amortize the development costs across hundreds or thousands of students.  

As educational costs continue to escalate, this model will become more advantageous.   Institutions that find ways to change their culture to adopt these models are likely to attract more students.   There are already some examples of this model in place at MSU.   The faculty in the Integrated Studies in Physical Science courses have begun to cooperate by sharing resources, refining them and feeding the improvements back into a pool of materials.   When we designed CSE 101 , the structure of the course provided multiple places for collecting data to be used as part of a Continuous Quality Improvement.   Given the rapid pace of change in computing, this structure has allowed the content to evolve since the course's inception in 1997 to keep pace with changing technology.   Using expensive faculty resources for course design and training of TAs and applying technology within the context of the instructional design allowed us to keep the costs for delivering the course considerably below most courses at MSU.  

Keeping with DSME's mission, the instructional technology development thrust should apply sound learning and pedagogical theories for mathematics and science instruction to help faculty design instruction that will result in improved learning.   The courses offered by DSME are exemplars of sound instruction and these efforts are being disseminated into the wider CNS through contacts such as the Integrated Science courses and the introductory biology courses.   Additional efforts should extend beyond supplying technology support for faculty –   “weak” use of technology –   to overall instructional design and support, with technology being an integrated component of overall instructional design – “strong” use of technology (Garrison & Anderson, 2000) .

Given that there is often a resistance among established faculty to professional development that questions, or asks them to change, their pedagogy (Epper & Bates, 2001) the most effective area of development is potentially with graduate students and new faculty (Committee on Undergraduate Science Education, 1999) .   However, traditionally, graduate student training, faculty recruiting and tenure and promotion decisions are the province of individual departments.   This closed system tends to damp deviations from the norms established within the unit, leaving little opportunity for substantive change.   Furthermore, during these times of shrinking budgets and increasing demands on faculty time, there is little motivation for established faculty to push beyond their comfort zone around issues of teaching and technology.

There are two places that DSME might have impact on teaching across the college.   The first is with the graduate student TA certification program.   Graduate students who participate in this program are self-selected and – hopefully – predisposed towards becoming reflective about their teaching.   Integrating technology with instructional design in this program will help the TAs begin to think first of choosing their instructional method based on desired outcomes and sound pedagogy and then think of instructional media as a way of implementing their instructional method (Clark, 1994) .

The second area where DSME may have an opportunity to impact teaching in a broader way is with the new CNS policy on open faculty positions (College of Natural Science, 2003) .   CNS expects to develop a process for reviewing unit position plans and wants to manage the positions to focus on the units' research, teaching and service missions with input from relevant units and colleges.   DSME should have a substantial role in the recruitment, professional development and tenure and promotion of new faculty across CNS.   DSME could work with new faculty on the development of the courses that they teach, providing guidance on instructional design, pedagogy and instructional technology.   This would provide support for teaching that may not exist within the unit, reducing demands on their already scarce resources.   It would provide a professional development opportunity for new faculty that is grounded not only in sound educational theory, but also in the pedagogical content knowledge of their disciplines.   To help departments and the existing faculty to take this seriously, DSME should sit on the tenure and promotion committees to evaluate the teaching of the new faculty.   This will not only communicate to new faculty that teaching is crucial, but will motivate established faculty to support the new faculty in these efforts.     Structuring such a program will require cooperation and commitment from the various units within CNS and the dean's office.   However, it should reduce redundancy, improve instruction and encourage cross unit cooperation, all goals of the CNS strategic planning process.


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