The Misnaming of the Crisis

Go to original version with critical reviews

The technology “Support Crisis” is misnamed.  In fact, the misnaming of a very real crisis exacerbates the issue.  It exacerbates it because it implies that the problem reflects educations’ inability to meet the expanding quantity of faculty’s unmet needs when the real crisis is rooted in the ways our institutions and faculty perceive and then pursue technology support needs.  We don't need to hire more support professionals.  We need to provide better support for the technology professionals we've hired.  In particular, there is an urgent need for administration and faculty to reassess their responsibility in this effort if we are to constructively ameliorate the crisis.  This recognition emerges from a close reading of Gilbert’s (2000) new vision, a study from Wharton (2000), reports from Edutech (2000) and Educause (2000), and a sample recommendation from a campus strategic planning effort (2000). 

To arrive at an understanding of this phenomenon, it is useful to examine Gilbert’s “New Vision Worth Working Toward Connected Education and Collaborative Change” (2000).  Gilbert, who has been active for several years as a leader and advocate for humane approaches for teaching and learning with technology, calls for “a vision that embraces change, sets a direction for the integration of new applications of technology, makes the most of the resources we've already got, and recognizes how important it is to choose a future based on realistic analysis of where we are, where we've been, and where we want to go.”  At the heart of Gilbert’s “realistic analysis” are complexities and contradictions that suggest reexamination of faculty roles and responsibilities as we work toward the “new vision.” 

Gilbert identifies the root of the problem: “Most faculty have had very little training, incentive or opportunities to think about making choices among different combinations of technology, pedagogy, content, and education purpose.”  Gilbert is perhaps overly optimistic, however, when he contends that “many” do think about new pedagogies “after” they begin to use new technology.  He says that often faculty who have had “no intention of changing the way they taught and the way their students learned” still have been enlightened when “they became aware of…pedagogical options.”  Evidence of that “awareness” in the “many” is not forthcoming.  Gilbert does note, however, that even though Course Management Systems now make it “ever easier, more popular, and more expected for faculty members to place some course-related materials on the Web for students,” he also observes that so far these practices have been “simple duplications or slight extensions of what was already being done in the traditional classroom.”  The prevailing use of technologies in ways that merely extend traditional pedagogies, it seems clear, indicates that significant educational transformation will not come from technology alone.  It follows, it seems to me, that supporting faculty in what they want to do, particularly those who have “no intention of changing they way they teach or the way students learn,” does not generally result in the kind of transformation that justifies the full costs associated with providing that support. 

If supporting technology alone does result in significant pedagogical returns, Gilbert argues that there nonetheless may be a great deal of potential for pedagogical transformation emerging from the work of “Compassionate Pioneers.”  Compassionate Pioneers, Gilbert explains, are faculty “who feel a commitment to help their colleagues learn to use new technology/pedagogy combinations.”  He says, “Compassionate Pioneers can be among the most valuable resources for change at a college or university.  Academic support services often benefit from the informal efforts of these unsung heroes.”  In fact, “Compassionate Pioneers could be instrumental in aggregating and focusing those efforts to help avoid some of the wasteful duplication.”  Gilbert also observes that “thousands of faculty members are beginning to build their own modest course related collections of materials.”  But a realistic analysis also has to note Gilbert’s qualifications in the previous observations as an indication of what is so far emerginga generally “unfocused” collection of “duplicate” materials that reflect, again, a “modest” extension of traditional pedagogies.  To the extent that compassionate pioneers really are “benefiting” academic support services, their impact, at least as Gilbert envisions the worsening crisis, is, by his own evidence, minimal.  Further, to the extent that these compassionate pioneers are producing innovative materials, the materials tend to be more varied in platform and systems requirements than they are rich in innovation and collegial carryover.  Such innovations, therefore, generally create an added burden for those who are responsible for maintaining them.  Today’s cutting edge, as Ehrmann (2000) explains, is tomorrow’s legacy.  And since the costs of supporting an innovation are roughly equal to the costs of creating it, this aspect of the “cycle of failure,” as Ehrmann describes it, finds interesting purchase in the larger context of Gilbert’s vision of the “Support Service Crises.”

Clearly, the gap between support and expectations, as Gilbert recognizes, extends well beyond issues of technical support.  “Pedagogy experts and faculty development professionals” and even students have not “nor are they likely to” reduce the need, as Gilbert identifies it, for more professional staff.  Gilbert laments, “The gap is widening between the level of support services available and the expectations of faculty members, administrators and students.  With uncommon pessimism, Gilbert concludes, “The Support Service Crisis is getting worse.” 

If throwing a greater and greater quantity of resources at the problem doesn't solve it, perhaps it makes sense to redefine the problem.  Cappelli’s (2000) study, “Are Information Technology Workers in Short Supply,” does just that.  Cappelli argues that the quantity of available technology workers is not the problem; instead, “There is a shortfall in the ability of companies to recruit IT employees, to assess their talent and to make their jobs rewarding enough to keep them from quitting.”

Cappelli’s study casts a light on many issues that impact the supply of technology workers, including immigration policies, the disinclination to hire older workers, the risks of retraining workers in ways that often enable them to leave for better opportunities elsewhere.  He points out that “the number of workers who quit the programming field every year, for example, exceeds the number of new programming jobs.”  He adds, “It’s peculiar to have a field that’s thought to be so hot, yet where so many people are leaving in droves.” 

Still, the emerging and most compelling point Cappelli’s study makes is that IT workers are often “poorly managed,” that their jobs are “ill-designed and boring,” that frequently IT workers find themselves working “in isolation on fragmented tasks that do not allow them to see the larger purpose of a project or to interact with other people,” and that, finally, “Many employers treat IT employees poorly and undervalue their contributions to companies.” 

Cappelli argues that it is “premature” to call, as many companies do, for colleges to “churn out more IT-trained people in less time” or to “expand immigration to attract foreign IT workers.”  He suggests we also consider redesigning IT jobs.  “The shabby treatment of workers contributes to high turnover rates and can lead to higher costs, since IT workers may demand more wages in exchange for doing tasks that offer few rewards of other kinds.”

Cappelli’s analysis of IT workers in industry comes home to education in a recent report from Cornell to Educause (2000) that acknowledges the drain of IT professionals who are leaving higher education.  The report identifies several dimensions of the problem, including the fact that “priorities are not set based on good stewardship of overall resources, but based on "prima donna” and "squeaky wheel" standards. The report concludes:  “Climate issues, more often than salary, seem to be the precipitating factors for staff leaving Cornell.”

Even more pointed, a recent Edutech (2000) report says:
“Perhaps most disappointingly for IT, cooperation in staffing has also been very difficult to advance. . . .  End-user support positions are inevitably tied to direct relationships with the people they serve. Faculty and administrative staff have both insisted on near-captive relationships with IT staff.”

The disturbing implications of this “climate” of “near-captive” servitude, embedded in and probably even encouraged by the unfortunate “support staff” designation, are baldly revealed in a recent communication circulated to a planning committee in which a professor asserts, “We need to focus on faculty services. I would like [a central unit] to serve faculty desires whatever they may be” (Anonymous, 2000). 

Of course such a position belies obliviousness to the rationale and the movement toward student-centered learning.  It belies, at best, a haphazard and capricious approach for allocating scarce resources in a time of harsh, public scrutiny.  And it reveals, acutely, the missing ingredient in Gilbert’s analysis and call for more coordination and collaboration of support services--an expanded vision and appropriate incentives for increased faculty responsibility.  Specifically, the lack of informed and truly compassionate administration and faculty who recognize that education now requires a new, broader team of professionals working together points up, by contrast, the ugly underbelly of the “support service crisis”the dominance of a small but squeaky, prima donna ivory caste, the purported purveyors of life-long learning, who insist on approaching the process of teaching and learning with technology as if they have little of value to learn from educational research let alone the peons who ought to be content pulling their wires or putting a little flash in their animations.  Until that aspect of the vision is embraced, we should not be surprised by the continuing exodus of professionals who have been charged with serving a too often contemptuous faculty (use the back door when you leave, please).  Nor, by extension, should we be surprised to be impacted by other tell-tale signs of the ivory caste who are no more inclined to listen to their students than they are their IT colleagues.  Now as budgets shrink and expectations in all quarters rise, we all have to sort through this crisis, by any name, and address the persistent legacy of a small but potent crash of cantankerous scholars who favor those automated aspects of instruction that exacerbate the truly problematic distance in education and who find little enthusiasm for the prospects of new partners and pedagogies that require they relinquish their stage and, instead, listen and learn from their students’ unique, if more and more remote and disengaged, voices.   


Anonymous.  (2000).  Personal Communication.  Available E-mail:  Message:  Weaknesses.

Cappelli, P. (2000).  Are tech workers in short supply?  CNET News.Com.  Retrieved October 5, 2000 from the World Wide Web: &

Educause.  (2000).  Information technology professionals at Cornell: Is there a "Brain Drain"?  Retrieved December 19, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Edutech International.  IT in the consortium setting (2000, October). (Volume 16, Number 7).  Bloomfield, CT: Author.

Ehrmann, S. (2000).  Technology and educational revolution:  Ending the cycle of failure.  The TLT Group Website.  Retrieved November 12, 2000 from the World Wide Web:

Gilbert, S. W. (2000).  A new vision worth working toward: connected education and collaborative change.  The TLT Group Website.  Retrieved October 6, 2000 from the World Wide Web:^NewVwwt2000--2-14-00.htm