Mind the Gap: Exploring and Establishing Criticality Within a "Service" Organization

Concurrent Session 1
Streamed Session

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Brief Abstract

In this session, we share how our organization has shifted from a service to a partner model in order to support our orientation toward critical engagement with the digital. Participants will leave the session with inspiration, ideas, and allies to support their goal of bringing critical engagement to their organization.


As the Director of Digital Pedagogy and Media at Middlebury College, my goal is to create digital learning opportunities and environments that support learner agency, inclusion, and equity. I am also keenly interested in supporting learners’ critical engagement with the discourses that surround educational technology and digital media. I received my doctorate in communication and education from Teachers College, Columbia University in 2008; prior to Middlebury, I spent 10 years as a professor of Instructional Technology in the College of Education at Towson University (outside of Baltimore, MD), where I taught on ground, hybrid, and fully online courses in instructional technology and qualitative research methods. Much of this work revolved around helping teachers and administrators to make thoughtful, research-informed decisions how best to use technology to support their teaching and their students’ learning.
Amy Collier received her doctorate in Family Studies from Texas Woman’s University in 2008. Through her graduate studies in social sciences and 10+ years working in faculty development, Amy has been an advocate for learners and teachers across a variety of educational institutions, from community-based service organizations to large public broad-access universities. Currently, Amy is the Associate Provost for Digital Learning at Middlebury College, where her strategic vision positions Middlebury as a leader in creating and sustaining a global learning community through digital pedagogies and technologies. Prior to this, Amy was the Senior Director for Inspiration and Outreach in the Office of the Vice Provost for Teaching & Learning at Stanford University, where she oversaw online and blended course design initiatives, conducted research to inform effective teaching practice, and was a strong advocate for evidence-based instructional improvement, strategy and planning.

Extended Abstract

As digital learning grows more connected to the academic mission of colleges and universities, institutions and their faculty are turning to digital learning organizations for support. Staff in those digital learning organizations bring their expertise to consultative and project work, but are often not invited to engage critically with the digital. The “service organization” mentality forces a transactional model between digital learning experts and faculty, rather than inviting a partnership where partners are expected to raise critical questions about the role digital learning plays in education, the intersection of commercial and ed tech platforms with student data, and the ethical challenges associated with using technology to address social and educational challenges.

At the same time, many of our institutions are plugging digital initiatives into strategic frameworks, often as part of “21st-century learning” goals or goals related to inclusion and engagement. This presents an opportunity for digital learning organizations to reorient their work toward criticality and to reshape their relationship to faculty, staff, and students on their campuses. This reorientation and reshaping necessitates a paradigmatic shift away from the “service” model toward a model wherein the digital learning organization staff are seen as partners and collaborators in the work. In their 2016 report on the changing IT organization, the EDUCAUSE Center for Analysis and Research describes the work of the IT organization when seen as a partner: “In this role, IT understands the core business of the institution, provides expertise to integrate across the campus and advance strategic directions, and spends less time focusing on wires and switches and more time building relationships and communicating about how IT can help” (Wetzel & Pomerantz, 2016, p. 18).  Similarly, digital learning organizations and their staff, when seen as partners in the academic mission rather than service provides, can provide much-needed leadership on emerging and strategic digital learning challenges.

In this session, leaders of the digital learning organization at multi-campus institution will discuss how they approach critical engagement with faculty, staff, and students. At a strategic/institutional level, the organization has closely aligned their mission the institution’s new strategic framework, which includes “digital fluency and critical engagement.”  In doing so, their approach has included structural changes to the organization as well as reorientation of the organizations’ areas of work and “service” toward a partner model. The digital learning organization leaders will also discuss how they infuse criticality into programming (professional learning), projects, and instructional design processes. Examples include:

  • The Addressing Barriers professional learning series for faculty was developed in response to what the organization saw and heard from faculty as an ongoing need for conversations, and opportunities for hands-on work, around designing inclusive teaching. 

  • The Digital Detox series of weekly email newsletters is an initiative to reduce the toxicity of personal digital environments and how we engage with them. This series was developed by the digital learning organization staff to bring thought leadership around critical engagement with technology to the campus.

  • CryptoParties are hands-on events that give participants a chance to take more control over their data and privacy, while asking challenging questions about the role of platforms and the attention economy in shaping our relationships to data and privacy. Aimed primarily at a student audience, these cryptoparties have also provided partnership opportunities with extra- and co-curricular student organizations.

  • The project charter document that instructional designers use at the beginning of a new project includes language that describes our organizational values as a partnering organization and invites conversation about what that looks like in the context of the project: “We believe that successful collaborations are built on shared goals, a willingness to listen and learn from each other, and trust. This document is intended to help guide conversations between collaborators  around project expectations, roles, timeline, and definitions of success...”

Plan for Reflection and Discussion

During the 5 minute reflection time, we will invite participants to reflect on the following questions: How can I develop an orientation for my organization that makes space for critical engagement? What values and beliefs about the work of my organization would need to drive a shift from a service organization to a partner model? How can I help to make incremental changes to programming, interactions, and/or processes that demonstrate these values?

The 5 minute small group discussion will allow participants to process their insights to the questions with others, and make connections with potential allies who can support one another in the process. We’ll ask for a notetaker at each table to document ideas from the discussion on a public Etherpad.

We will wrap up with a 5 minute lightning reflect and report out round that asks participants to identify their next step, and share it with the whole group.

Session Outcomes

We hope to use this time to share the ways in which our organization has shifted from a service model to a partner model in order to support our orientation toward critical engagement at multiple levels. Participants will leave the session with inspiration, ideas, and allies to support their goal of bringing more critical engagement with the digital to their own work and the work of their organization.