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An interesting question was posted recently on a bulletin board in the Math-Science Division at SCC: "Have computers made us more productive?" This is not the question of an active resistor to technology innovation. Rather, it is posed by a longtime user/developer in a Division noted for its long-term commitment to technology. In that context the question needs to be taken seriously.

Remove the word 'computer' from the question, so it reads "Has made us more productive?" To be able to answer that question we need to be able to articulate not only what we mean by productivity but how, and in what units, it would be measured. Now the focus is on productivity, and not on the particular technology itself.

For an individual, increased productivity may be described as doing more in a shorter time, doing work of higher quality, or doing additional tasks that were simply unthinkable (or needed to be farmed out to specialists) in a pre-x era. Using x, individuals may be able to point to anecdotal evidence of improvement in one or more of those areas. For example, in the mid-80s I was pleased to be able to prepare better-looking math tests, incorporating graphic elements and typeset quality symbols, as opposed to handwritten tests earlier. The change reflected, I believe, an improvement in the quality of the test. But, I have also witnessed improvements in quantity, in particular the quantity and speed of communications within the college, across the district, and around the world. E-mail keeps more people in touch on both significant and insignificant issues. While some would argue that the quality of the communication has declined, the telephone and E-mail have combined to put me in closer contact with more people, more often.

Many faculty have increased the quantity of time they have available to their students. Tutorials and simulations (extensions of their instruction), targeted to the students in courses they teach, are available to students 17-24 hours per day. I suggest to my students that the tutorials are like an automatic teller. The students won't get full-service instruction; on the other hand the tutorials are available when I'm not.

For work groups, increased productivity is often described as doing the same tasks, or even more and of higher quality, with fewer people. The experience of the Math/Science Division at SCC may be typical in this regard. By 1980 we had 14 full-time and 19 part-time instructors with a Division Secretary. In 1993 we've grown to 25 full-time and 55 part-time instructors, and 4 early retirees, served by the same secretarial position. This has been made possible by two technology investments: 1) a network of office computers, where most faculty create their own tests/handouts to final form and 2) a new phone system which does not demand the intervention of the Division Secretary.

But the anecdotal evidence is not enough, is it? There surely were a few losses along the way. And what were the costs of implementing the productivity tool, x?

In the Math/Science Division at SCC, we have probably saved hiring additional clerical personnel during the past decade, while maintaining a satisfactory level of service because of technology investments. What have been the costs? Consider $2500 per faculty workstation, replaced every 6 years, for 25 full-time faculty members. This amounts to an annual capital cost of about $10,000--barely half the average annual cost of an additional Division Secretary. Even if the desktop computers were only used for office/clerical tasks, they would be a good investment. In fact, many faculty use these computers for directly instructional matters: with software students will use for class assignments, or with professional contacts across the country.

Were the changes worth it? Were other changes also possible? Should we have done even more x than we did? To answer these questions we need to carefully define what we mean by productivity, in measurable terms.

But that is not enough, either. We need to also address whether the tasks we've been doing are worth doing at all; whether (and how much) they served the larger mission, and at what cost. For example, have my better-looking tests and handouts really served to improve student learning in some way? Perhaps they have given a more professional/commercial look and feel to instructional materials and, by extension, to the department/college. And perhaps that has had an effect on student attitudes toward the college academic culture. Perhaps the ease-of-reading has improved student learning. But by how much? And was it worth it? Was the personal touch lost in the change from the informality of the handwritten materials? And what was the impact of that loss?

So there are two kinds of productivity questions: a kind of internal productivity that needs to be articulated and measured. Assuming I want to write a math test, how can I improve its quality (in presentation), shorten its production time and lower its cost of production? And a second kind which includes some larger questions like, "Is giving this test at this time productive for student learning?"

Of course, it's not fair to ask these questions only of technology's impact. What is the productivity value, so to speak, of all the tools we use? These questions are both important and daunting. Clearly a systematic approach is needed to begin to answer these questions. Top-of-the-head answers just aren't satisfying.

The past decade has been a time when we (students, faculty, administration) learned much about the possibilities of computer and video technology for learning. It has been a decade of exploring these possibilities. And in the Maricopa Colleges we've done some serious exploring. What we're finding is that using computer and video technology demands persistent training (to be creative in this technology we need to continually improve our facility with it), access to instructional design expertise, access to programming expertise, and spacious gifts of time to reorganize our 'art of teaching'. We've been limited, often, by our own limited imaginations as much as by our limited access to the technology itself.

In other words, we're finding that the use of these technologies places different demands on our time and on the kinds of resources we need.

What is the use of technology like from a student perspective? Students are certainly witnesses to our scattered implementation across the curriculum. But have students themselves become computer users? Does the student who learned to use a function plotting program in physics use it easily in preparing a supply/demand chart in economics, or a demographics analysis for sociology? Or is word processing the only skill that moves across the curriculum! What cross benefits have students experienced? Or do computers and video technology simply reinforce the divided nature of instruction that departments embody?

Said another way, have students become more productive learners because of their uses of computer and video technology?

The issue of productivity is not so crucial when the choices are the appropriate mix of chalkboards/white boards/overhead projectors, because the costs are relatively modest for any of these technologies (and the differences in pedagogies are slight). Productivity, or effectiveness, does become an issue when the choice is the appropriate mix of chalkboard/LCD panel computer projection/multimedia lectern. The differences in costs for outfitting a classroom are so substantial that "instructional productivity" concerns can't be ignored.

In order to successfully discuss the values of technology for instruction we need a vocabulary and a grammar to articulate the bases for our instructional decisions. Then we need a system within which we can evaluate those instructional decisions. And this system needs to be able to distinguish between local, my-classroom-only projects, and college-wide implementations.

It's a River, Not a Lake: Productivity
© January 1994 Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI)
Maricopa Community Colleges

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