Toward an Understanding of Scalability, Innovation and Academic Culture

By John Alexander.

Published by The Technology Collection

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Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

In this analysis, I shall work at two levels. At the level of metaphor and analogy, I hope to describe these issues in ways that are evocative and accurate, much like my faculty colleagues in the humanities might do. At the level of technological and business lexicon, I hope to describe and define issues like scale and innovation to clarify how they work and don’t work in a university setting.
There is a disconcerting tendency by administrators of higher education to ignore some key facets of our own academic culture. Concepts like “scalability” may apply to businesses and many businesslike aspects of higher education, but if they are carelessly imposed on teaching and learning, they not only do a disservice to education but also can drown out the still, small voice of the learner.
A related impulse, our common impatience with the slowness of change and the lack of innovation in teaching and learning, similarly threatens violence to the delicate combination of trust and risk that is at the heart of effective teaching and learning.
Academic culture is at least as much craft and art as it is business and science. Clear thinking and solid grounding in academic culture can serve as a vital touchstone as we test ourselves, stretch ourselves and strive to improve this ancient, all-too-human enterprise.
Scalability, which can be cynically defined as an infinite expansion of service with flat or decreasing budget or effort, applies unevenly to higher education, where personnel costs are always a sizeable majority of the budget. Channeling and supporting the genius of individual minds and hearts is the greatest challenge in higher education. Still, there are specific problems in the academy where scalability has great promise. I am currently working on such a project at the University of Virginia, the Virtual Exhibition Tool. This tool will allow faculty members to effectively marshal mountains of data, texts, images, and sounds, to craft rich instructional experiences for their students or to enable the students themselves to grapple with “original” sources, or their digital facsimiles. But even if this tool exceeds its goals by 200% it will still not take care of two of the major reasons that faculty shy away from using instructional technology more aggressively: time and rewards.
So scalability, which is directly applicable to some of these issues, brings others into sharp focus. Innovation, as we have approached it at the University of Virginia, is best when it is faculty driven, faculty “owned”. And given that the faculty members have extremely limited time and expertise in technology, those innovations will necessarily progress slowly. More slowly, at any rate, than we prefer.
I sometimes feel that the innovation expected by upper administration is more about fundraising than creating new knowledge or expanded learning opportunities. Our institution needs to regularly command the cover of various national publications with good news and beacons of hope that will make friends and alumni eager to write checks to support that brighter future. Innovation, then, becomes a part of expanding business operations because it provides the bright stars and hopeful stories that better support generous private giving. The business pressures are unavoidable (the State of Virginia, for example, continues to cut its funding for higher education even as it’s and the University’s own expectations and ambitions rise. Scalability, indeed.) But courageous leadership and a clear understanding of the scale and scope of academic culture are vital if we are to set and keep a pace that is sustainable, honorable and sound.

Keywords: Scalability, Innovation, Academic Culture, Sustainability, Centralized Support, Decentralized Support

The International Journal of Technology, Knowledge and Society, Volume 4, Issue 3, pp.159-168. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 885.342KB).

John Alexander

Manager of Instructional Technology, Information Technology & Communication, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, VA, USA

John Alexander is currently the Manager of Instructional Technology at the University of Virginia. This work necessitates his immersion in many of the most interesting and pedagogically advanced projects at the University. John’s educational background is in the humanities. He has taught at four institutions of higher education and served as a general manager at UVa for the past 20 years. Currently, in addition to the management of the Instructional Technology Group of ITC, John has team-taught a course for the past 8 years that compares folklore and material culture in Slavic studies with African American and Native American literature and folklore. He has also recently developed and taught courses for UVa’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies: “Communications and Team Development;” “Project Management in a Technology Environment,” and “Hot Button Issues for Technology Mangers.”

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