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4/23/2013
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CIO Profiles: Ellen Borkowski Of Union College

Ellen Borkowski's CIO responsibilities at small liberal arts college include her twin technology objectives: make teaching and learning more effective.

She sought out the CIO role partly to advance her career but also because she wanted to move back to the Northeast for family reasons. She liked the idea of serving as CIO at a smaller institution and the character of Union College appealed to her, with its mix of liberal arts, engineering and multidisciplinary programs. She replaced a CIO who had retired after 23 years and whose leadership style was very different.

"I bring much more focus to the teaching and learning side, whereas the prior CIO was focused more on the administrative computing side," Borkowski said. Whether the search committee that hired her was specifically looking for that different focus, the timing was good, she said. "There are so many things that are commodity services and that we can easily outsource. The one thing that I think we can't outsource is that teaching and learning piece."

In general, Union College is nowhere near as aggressive in the use of instructional technology as her former employer, but it doesn't need to be because class sizes are not as large, she said. She just wants to make sure those it does use are effective.

[ What's so great about online learning? Read 8 MOOCs Transforming Education. ]

I asked Borkowski about the research study that found professors are highly skeptical of the value of classroom technologies. She said she wasn't surprised.

Although there have been great leaps forward in the availability of technology and ease of use, "it's still a pretty large time commitment to get started," she said. "The faculty have a lot of responsibilities. Some of them are actually interested in new technology, but what they don't have is time. The problem is when you start using a new technology, that's what you need, is time. You can only make the technology so easy. There's a tradeoff, where the interface can only become so easy before it becomes complex. If you give them something that's easy to get them in, then it doesn't have the deep functionality they want."

The best compromise often is to present the faculty with templates that simplify the delivery of educational content, Borkowski said. A learning management system (LMS) is a complex collection of tools, and it's a mistake to push instructors to learn every feature of the system at once, she said. It's better to get them managing a few simple daily tasks through the system and introduce more complex functions later.

"For me, it's about understanding where [students'] struggles are, because that's where you want to help. It's a mistake to start with the tool, when really you should start with the problem," Borkowski said. For example, she said, if a professor reports that every year students struggle to understand one particular concept, maybe that's a topic where new technology could help.

At the level of instructional technologies such as online tutorials, the choices are usually faculty driven, based on experts selecting the products that make the most sense for their fields. However, Union's I.T. department expects to be consulted on issues such as hardware requirements, licensing, and integration issues such as compatibility with the LMS.

"That's the challenge for IT -- we can only keep up with so much. We have to be generalists in many ways," said Borkowski. "So mostly they come to us from their own niches with products their colleagues are telling them about. Then the question is: is this just for you, or will this benefit other people on campus?"

If others have a similar requirement, the IT group will try to drive the selection of one product or maybe a couple of alternatives -- but not 10 products because that would be impossible to support, Borkowski said. Often the choices have to be framed as recommendations, rather than requirements, but faculty members who choose to ignore the recommendations can't count on support from the IT staff, she said.

Although the current surge of entrepreneurial interest in education technology is exciting, Borkowski can't help noticing there is a lot that hasn't changed since the time of her teaching theater project in Maryland. "I still hear a lot of the same phrases being thrown around," she said. "Move from the sage on the stage to the guide on the side -- we were saying that in the early 90's! How come that hasn't changed? The flipped classroom is just another name for something people have been trying out in classrooms for years."

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