Principles of CBTE: Flexible Technology

March 8, 2021

by Greg Henson, President

When it comes to theological education, schools are notoriously slow to adopt new technology. When we do, it tends to be technology designed for institutions rather than humans. As such, the technology we use often reinforces the operational, educational, and financial practices that have come to define higher education. As with the organizational practices of affordable programs and unified systems, the practice of flexible technology invites us to move past institutional thinking and onto networked, collaborative thinking that fosters integration and customized learning.

That is our conversation for today – the organizational practice of flexible technology.

Here’s the problem. The technological systems that support most of higher education, no matter how integrated they claim to be, still assume each aspect of the institution is a wholly-separate function. As a result, the software tends to be designed not around humans but around the departments of a school.

For example, learning management systems (LMS) are often designed to integrate with student information systems (SIS) that assume students enroll in particular terms and pay a particular amount per credit hour. The “automation” that comes from such “integration” means that student information from an SIS is shared with an LMS so that when is a student is enrolled in a course in the SIS she is also given access to that course in the LMS. To aid in this “automation” or “integration” of systems, companies have sought to develop software packages that offer everything – a learning management module, a student information system module, a financial services module, a fundraising module, etc. The goal in this approach is that schools will purchase an entire system from someone like Jenzabar or Blackbaud or Populi (and the list goes on).

It’s not that these systems are bad. In fact, some of them have cool features that do in fact aid in the institutional management of students. The issue is they unintentionally reify educational structures that end up having undue power and influence on students’ learning. Their goal is to streamline institutional workload and do to that they must make assumptions about what learning is, how it is structured, and how access to it is managed. In short, the driving force, therefore, is the institution not the student or learning.

CBTE invites us to become more aware of what it means to be student-centered and thereby more aware of how our systems, structures, and processes have a tendency to be focused on the institution. As a customizable journey of discipleship, CBTE requires technological systems that encourage customization and consistency, are built using a mobile-first stack of solutions, and are designed around the learner (human-centered) rather than courses or institutions. Let’s take a brief look at a few of those aspects.

Encourage Customization and Consistency
In our conversations with people who are exploring CBTE for the first time, we have noticed that two common assumptions are made. People either assume that 1) it is just a new kind of distance learning wherein students sit in front of a screen to complete online courses or 2) students never use traditional learning experiences like seminars, courses, or intensives. While our experience is not exhaustive by any means, students in all of the CBTE programs of which we are aware participate in myriad learning experiences ranging from self-paced, asynchronous and project-based learning to seminars, intensives, and traditional semester-long courses. Some learning may take place on the campus of a school, portions online, and other bits at a church, nonprofit, or local business. CBTE encourages (we might say requires) participation in a wide range of learning experiences. As a result, the software used to support CBTE programs must be designed to handle everything from live online events to on-campus residencies to asynchronous endeavors – all while tracking progress toward customized proficiency and involving mentor teams. That means the technology needs to allow extensive customization and support consistency.

Many believe that this paradox of customization and consistency creates a technological challenge because the technology to encourage customization is often assumed to be much different than the technology required to support consistency. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Software that puts the student (i.e., human) first, we will find it is possible to do both at the same time.

Embracing flexible technology may be difficult at first. We may find it is more cumbersome for us as administrators. That feeling often stems from the fact we have been formed to believe quality is best governed by segmenting learning into disciplines, generalizing understandings of proficiency, controlling the path a student takes, and departmentalizing organizational functions – all of which leads to technological solutions that are designed to simplify how control is enforced. As a paradigm shift in educational philosophy, CBTE requires a similar shift in technology.

One way to lean in to the idea of flexible technology is to begin thinking about a mobile first stack of solutions. Doing so will make us more responsive and open to ongoing and unending change.

Mobile First Stack of Solutions
In the past, schools hunted for single pieces of software that would handle “everything” we do as an institution. Often, these pieces of software assumed people would be using them while sitting at a desktop computer or a full-size laptop. These assumptions resulted in high costs (such systems which were exorbitantly expensive and often sold as capital investments), high commitment (such systems required multi-year commitments often trading reduced costs over time for locked-in contracts), and experiences that varied based on the type of device being used (which increases costs related to IT support).

The promise of these legacy systems was that everything in the institution would be integrated. In reality, however, the systems didn’t fit with the day-to-day realities of serving learners well. As a result, staff created “shadow systems” to achieve basic tasks thereby eliminating the hoped-for integration. In fact, I was once a culprit of such work! I built an entire automated financial aid system using Excel rather than using the module embedded in the software the institution had purchased.

A better way forward is to embrace a “mobile-first” and “stack” approach to software. The “mobile first” part of that statement means working with software that is designed based on the assumption that it must first work on a mobile device (smaller screens) and then work on a laptop or desktop computer. Traditional approaches to software development for schools tend to assume that users sit at a table or desk and use a computer with a large screen. Today’s reality is that students, mentors, faculty, administrators are engaging in work and the learning process using mobile devices more than any other type of device. In short, if the software doesn’t work seamlessly on a mobile device (e.g., smartphone, tablet, etc.), then it doesn’t work.

The “stack” portion of the statement invites us to stop searching for and investing in one piece of software that attempts to do everything. Instead, we build a stack of software solutions in which each part of the ecosystem does one thing very well. In this approach, a school looks for simple and task-specific solutions that leverage modern data architecture with things like REST API’s, Zapier triggers and actions, and ready-built integration with other tools. The root idea is that each piece of software can focus on a specific purpose which means the institution can switch out pieces of the stack as necessary rather than hitching the wagon, so to speak, to an expensive legacy system. A stack approach does mean staff and faculty need to have a different (and often growing) relationship with technology. Rather than seeking to master a particular technological system, we must master the ability to adapt to and leverage an array of technology that will change over time. Being student-centered means recognizing that technology is not stationary. This non-stationary reality fosters a human-centered approach.

Lastly, we need software that is human-centered rather than institution-centered. By this statement, we are attempting to call attention to the fact that software designed for educational institutions tends to be developed around the assumption that the institution is at the center of the learning experience or at least that the institution is the most important part of the equation. As a result, the software tends to reinforce long-held assumptions about how education should work thereby placing dis-integration and institutional concerns at the center of the equation.

Given the fact that CBTE challenges this institution-centric approach to education, we should not be surprised that a paradigm shift in technology will invite us to think differently about everything from learning experience design and engagement to learner assessment and onboarding. We contend that human-centered software, which places the learner’s needs above institutional needs, will require institutions to make wholesale changes to everything from their financial models to registration processes and credit hours to learning artifact collection – and this is a good, even necessary, thing!

Human-centered technology that supports CBTE is built around how people learn in real life rather than simply digitizing content and “delivering” it to learners. CBTE is not about delivering something. It is about walking with someone. It will allow mentors, students, faculty, and administrators to develop learning pathways that meet people where they are and help them get to where they need to be in light of their call, context, and community.  Software that is human-centered empowers mentors and faculty to adjust developmental pathways in real time as opportunities for integrated learning present themselves rather than being trapped inside static pathways.

How all of this works will vary based on practice and context. The key, however, is that we put humans at the center of the design process rather than searching for software that enables us to “automate” or “integrate” conventional approaches to education. As an organizational practice, flexible technology requires us to recognize that education is about humans interacting with other humans in real time and at the same level.

Next week, we dive into collaborative governance!

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