This article was published in CAUSE/EFFECT journal, Volume 22 Number 3 1999. The copyright is shared by EDUCAUSE and the author. See for additional copyright information.

Discipline-Focused Technology Support Fosters Curriculum Innovation
by Andrea Nixon and Paula Lackie

Six years ago Carleton College revolutionized its support model for academic computing. In the new model, technical support staff worked to identify, facilitate, and tailor technical tools and methods to the pedagogical needs of faculty. Since implementing this discipline-focused computing support structure, curricular use of computers in the humanities and social sciences has risen from 6 to 24 percent; the percentage of faculty with moderate to high skill levels in operating desktop computers has risen from 35 to 92 percent; and 38 percent of all faculty have participated in a curricular computing grant program. This article describes the support model and how it complements the adoption of innovation in pedagogy by Carleton faculty.

In the early 1990s the central computer center at Carleton College structured all campus computing support around a limited suite of software, class-based training, and a centralized help desk. Although these were common mechanisms for providing computer support in higher education at the time, structurally they gave rise to some serious curricular conflicts. Much of the diverse array of curriculum-specific computing needs fell outside the capacity of the computer center, and as Carleton faculty increasingly attempted to integrate technology into their teaching and research, they found this model to be an inadequate match for their needs, which were typically discipline-specific and experimental in nature.1

In limiting support for software to a single standard suite of applications (on either Macintosh or Windows platforms), the computer center provided capable support of the faculty�s administrative and committee work. But this limited supported suite of software was never intended to include discipline-specific applications and thus couldn�t meet most faculty discipline-specific needs. For example, word processing was not supported in languages that use non-Roman alphabets, and the regression equation in the supported spreadsheet application was not uniformly appropriate for curricular uses.

Although multiple levels of training, in the form of generic classes, were provided for all the supported software, these classes on specific applications rarely addressed the particular computing needs of the faculty. It is no surprise that in practice very few faculty members ever attended computer center courses. The other support mechanism, the help desk, also failed the curricular needs of the faculty since, like the training, it provided extensive help but for the same limited suite of software.

In the computer center, these methods were thought to be the most efficient and only justifiable means of providing training and support. This pattern of �tools first, user needs second� arose from the center�s need to centralize support and provide protection for staff from the apparently endless needs of their users. Any questions outside of the legitimate topics could be dismissed as being outside the universe of the computer center. Unintentionally this narrowly defined support mechanism and corresponding computer-centric perspective placed computer support staff at odds with the faculty they were supporting. While faculty were evaluated on classroom effectiveness, computer center staff were accountable only for providing support for applications that addressed the faculty�s ancillary duties.2

A New Structure: Outreach and Cooperation

To address this impasse, in 1992 Carleton formed a task force on academic computing. Made up of faculty, students, and the associate dean of the college, this task force met extensively with members of the computer center and ultimately included many staff insights into their report. The process was focused on faculty needs. In its final report, the task force stated their ideal in computing support:

A close-knit partnership between faculty members and members of the academic computer staff must be nurtured and encouraged. Effective lines of communication must be developed between everyone interested in academic computing. All parties must learn how to utilize the specific strengths that each brings to their joint ventures.3

In this spirit Carleton College made a considered and serious financial commitment to fully support academic computing. Simultaneous with an organizational restructuring, Carleton also built its new Center for Mathematics and Computing. With the task force�s vision and a renewed financial commitment, we began the restructuring process.

Structural overview

In January of 1993 a new director was hired to focus on academic computing. She worked with members of the computer center staff who were interested in academic computing to develop a mission statement, fine-tune the organizational structure, and create an ambitious five-year plan that addressed the issues outlined by the task force. This exercise paired the academic computing needs as stated by the task force with the experience of the computer center staff. With their roles validated, all participants understood that their experience contributed to the shared goals as expressed by the task force. It was as rigorous a process as it was respectful.

That summer the computer center was formally divided into two units, academic computing and networking services (ACNS) and administrative computing. ACNS was set up under the new director to provide support to academic departments and other departments that provided academic support to students.4 The academic departments were originally divided into three groups that roughly mapped into the categories of natural sciences, social science and performance arts, and languages and humanities.5 Each of the three divisions was assigned both an academic computing coordinator and a faculty advisor. As the success of ACNS increased the demands on the coordinators, a fourth full division was formed in 1997, mainly by splitting the humanities from the languages.6

Each faculty advisor (one from each division) is a tenured faculty member who has a demonstrated interest in information technology as well as the pedagogical issues that come up while integrating computing into the curriculum. As further testimony to the administrative support this model has received on campus, faculty advisors are granted a course release to reflect the time and attention that this role requires. They participate in campuswide discussions relevant to curricular innovation in addition to meeting individually with other faculty members, attending academic computing conferences, and serving on ACNS�s advisory committee. The advisors have been integral to ACNS�s process of identifying service needs and in assessing methods of addressing those needs. One of the advisory committee�s most important duties is to advise in the development and selection of proposals for Carleton�s curricular computing grant program (described below).

Each of the computing coordinators has a degree relevant to his or her division--three of the four are currently working on their dissertations. This helps them to further understand faculty perspectives and more easily develop an interest in curricular work. As an extension of this, the coordinators develop a sense of each faculty member�s specific computing profile, research interests, and teaching style. Thus, not only do the coordinators meet with faculty to upgrade their equipment, they develop an understanding of their teaching and research interests and make sure that their equipment and software are still up to the task. This exercise is helpful to the coordinators who can then better focus their research in areas that are relevant to faculty work. More specifically, it is this customized attention which has served to establish computing support relationships with faculty that at last attend to their curricular needs--something that was shocking to many faculty.

To round out ACNS�s support, there was also a two-person networking group, composed of an information coordinator and a student computing coordinator. This group also expanded (the networking group has doubled to four staff members) as the ACNS model successfully proliferated the computing needs of the academic side of campus life. The networking staff provides an infrastructure for the entire campus, including residential and administrative computing. The information coordinator manages documentation in addition to heading up Internet-based information services.7 The student computing coordinator completely overhauled the public computing sites as academic computing moved into the new Center for Mathematics and Computing for the 1993-94 academic year. This coordinator continues to manage a three-year computer replacement cycle for the ACNS public labs, which are situated all over the campus.

Figure 1: Current ACNS Organization

Figure 1

Communication and organizational flexibility have been crucial. Work during ACNS�s early years went at an incredible pace. The initial 8.5 staff members of ACNS eagerly worked together to complete the tasks laid out in the original planning documents. As a group, ACNS is tremendously motivated and enthusiastic, so much so that the organization�s ambitious five-year plan was completed in just three years. The aggressive development of ACNS on Carleton�s campus pushed the expansion of the staff from 8.5 to 14.5 in response to growth in our service profile.

Throughout these early years ACNS learned a great deal about its mission and how each person could be most effective in his or her prescribed role. The interdependence of ACNS team members required coordination and communication. This simple yet fundamental point is easily overlooked in the fast-paced environment of computing innovations. For instance, as faculty computer use increased, so did the curricular uses of computers and the demands on the student computing labs. This and other increased demands stretched both the organization and its resources. The academic computing director worked with ACNS�s advisory committee, Carleton�s upper administration, and ACNS staff to identify needs and make a number of organizational changes (see Figure 1 for a current organizational chart). These included:


Support for ACNS is strong

All of these organizational changes functioned to successfully support Carleton�s commitment to curricular development. Having the liberty to expand in this way (mostly during a campuswide freeze on full-time employees) has certainly helped ACNS become the most appreciated support department on campus. In a survey of the faculty in the fall of 1998, 84 percent said that they either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that the college is providing computing resources well to support teaching, research, and scholarship. Campuswide, no other department came close to having an approval rating this high. This was a far cry from the divisive nature of the computing-faculty relationship in the earlier days of the computer center.

One very important by-product of this value is emphasized by our staff retention. In the old computer center, there was a tremendous amount of staff turnover. In ACNS�s first five years only one staff member has left--and this was to shift from user support back to administrative programming duties within Carleton. Additionally, Carleton is close to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both cities support an excellent job market in the information technology (IT) field, and most of us have been recruited by outside employers. However, ACNS provides an excellent work environment, is integral to the learning and teaching mission of the college, is well funded, and is well run; all of this helps us to maintain excellent staff retention. Additionally, throughout the development of ACNS, Carleton has received three well-funded grants from the Mellon Foundation to further encourage our development of curricular uses of technology. These grants are:

1. To help sustain our successful curricular computing grant program.

2. To support curricular work specifically in the foreign languages. (This grant is unique in that it is a consortial grant with Macalester College.)

3. To support technical innovations in the classroom.

The Mellon Foundation has provided consistent support for Carleton and ACNS specifically and has advised other academic institutions to visit and confer with ACNS while developing their own academic computing support structures. More support was forthcoming recently when Carleton joined the New Media Center Consortium, intensifying our commitment to new media exploration and development. Combined, all of these resources serve to support faculty in exploring and implementing curricular innovation.

ACNS service orientation

The structure of ACNS is relatively nonhierarchical, very flexible, and very service-oriented. In the beginning ACNS worked hard to distance itself from the image of the computer center as the self-absorbed and self-important organization that had tightly controlled computing technologies on campus. ACNS took symbolic steps such as eliminating all paper forms for faculty (for example, for account creation or service requests). This was followed up with lots of outreach, initiating dialogue with faculty regarding their curricular and research work and aggressively working to remove any of their technical obstacles. These efforts also served to debunk the internalized computer center assumption that support staff needed to protect themselves from user demands. Needs first, tools follow!

Not being constrained by the fears of being overwhelmed with needy users, the coordinators have been able to turn the old computer-centric perspective around. In the first couple of years ACNS anticipated rapid changes in the ways in which Carleton faculty would approach IT in their teaching. While there were significant increases in the curricular uses of computers, in practice the coordinators also discovered how utterly ineffective the computing center�s class-based training mechanism had been. For ACNS�s first two years the coordinators were laden with the task of making up for the previous faulty training mechanisms. This was a very important time and opportunity, however, since it provided an avenue for the coordinators to work one on one with faculty who had previously been alienated or ignored.

These relationships are reinforced by follow-up in the form of referring relevant journal articles and software advertisements, listservs, and other resources to faculty. Like most professionals in IT, ACNS staff are technological sponges. Communication among the staff helps to generate ideas and technical solutions to faculty needs. The coordinators relay information between users and the rest of ACNS. Another way to view the coordinator position is as a translator for information between the users (the faculty) and the harder-core (often jargon-laden) technology specialists, manuals, or technical journals.

Other mechanisms for staying in touch with faculty include coordinating equipment replacement cycles and departmental plans. A replacement cycle for desktop computers was initiated in 1993, as many faculty computers were out of date and just not up to the tasks ahead.8 This ongoing process provides a good opportunity for the coordinators to meet with individual faculty. ACNS also instituted a process in which each department submits a three- to five-year plan. These plans lay out each department�s thinking with regard to its use of instructional technologies. This is an excellent exercise both for the faculty to formulate these plans and for ACNS to listen to the interests of all departments. All computer purchases for academic departments are done through ACNS. This process determines the yearly allocation of funds.

Curricular computing grant program

One of the mechanisms for encouraging faculty innovation is Carleton�s curricular computing grant program. This program functions to encourage faculty to learn about, assess, or implement curricular innovation through IT. This grant program is dedicated to providing support for early adopters who have already formulated plans to integrate computing into their course work as well as for faculty who are approaching this venture for the first time.

ACNS avoids in-house software development. The strategy has instead been to look for applications that can be adapted for use at Carleton. This frees the faculty members (and the coordinators) from the onerous tasks involved in becoming developers or even instructional designers. The emphasis is on faculty as teachers, as pedagogical experts. The emphasis for coordinators is as facilitators, as experts in the introduction and use of computing technologies. The coordinators, the faculty advisors, and the director have worked one on one to encourage all faculty who showed an interest in learning about how IT might enhance their teaching or research to apply for a curricular computing grant. In this way the grant program not only supported adopters who had already formulated pilot projects or curricular innovations, but it also encouraged faculty who were at a more basic level. To date, 38 percent of all faculty at Carleton have participated in this grant program.

A Theoretical Framework for Faculty Adoption of Technology

The grant program and the personalized training initiatives laid the groundwork for work to come. For instance, in ACNS�s first four years, the curricular use of computers went from 6 percent to 24 percent in the humanities and social sciences. A number of factors worked together to encourage these developments. To gain insight into faculty incorporation of technology into the curriculum, we looked for a theoretical framework in which to place our collective experience. We found it in some significant research that defines the process through which faculty adopt IT into their teaching and research.

Jane Marcus did some of the early work in this area by applying Everett Rogers�s theory of the diffusion of innovations to academic computing.9 Explorations in this area continue both in academic computing circles as well in the realm of higher education research. More recently, Philip Knutel looked at the adoption of IT by faculty who were not early adopters.10 He worked with faculty who were less enamored with technology for its own sake than for the sake of innovating their own teaching and research. To this end Knutel also used Rogers�s concepts to explore the stages through which faculty moved through their decision-making process. In brief, Rogers�s stages are:

Both the knowledge and persuasion stages can differ quite a bit for faculty who are early adopters.12 In these stages, many early adopters already have an idea of what technologies are available and how they might be implemented. Most faculty members are not early adopters. The experience of ACNS at Carleton shows that faculty first become aware of IT through the coordinators, other faculty, and outside contacts.

Once faculty members find out about information technologies that may enhance their teaching, there are a number of ways in which they can go about deciding whether or not to adopt the new technology. Faculty members all utilize similar resources and support for the remaining decision, implementation, and confirmation stages of the process. In the decision stage, faculty focus on answering the question, �Does this technology support my pedagogical needs?� This is both a central and pivotal stage in the process. It is also the stage during which ACNS acquires and/or coordinates the necessary resources to asses the feasibility of a project. Often, but not always, these final three stages of the process are articulated, funded, and generally supported through a curricular computing grant.

The implementation and confirmation stages require consistent communication between the early adopter and her or his coordinator. Also during these stages the coordinator keeps in touch with the student computing coordinator, who in turn coordinates resources in the public computing labs that may be affected by any additional software or hardware introductions.

Adoption and pedagogical developments

All of this effort would be much less effective if the early adopters and adapters of information technology were the only ones to work with ACNS. However, the mission of ACNS is to work to reach all interested faculty. Not only does the introduction of IT into higher education curriculum represent a rather dramatic change in the teaching status quo, computing technology itself is also an area in which many faculty are exceptionally nervous. They recognize that their students have never known a world without instant replay, can�t really remember what it was like before the Web, and have never typed a footnote on paper. It is a significant step for many faculty to move toward considering the use of IT in their classes. The first step often comes with the faculty member revealing what he or she perceives to be complete ignorance in the area. One key to getting past this intimidation factor is to provide many avenues for communicating pedagogical innovations. In effect, communication is central to ACNS�s mission.

The fundamental task of the academic computing organization is to understand what it is that faculty would like to accomplish and then to work with the faculty to select and implement the appropriate information technologies that will increase their effectiveness.13

Perhaps the most important component in this statement of purpose is the word appropriate. In this modifier is the implicit statement that pedagogical issues must dominate decisions surrounding the adoption of IT innovation into teaching and research at Carleton College.

Initially many faculty thought that conversations between ACNS and faculty about IT would largely be technical in nature. Faculty often requested �dog and pony� shows that would parade the latest technologies. As a carryover from the computer center days, faculty perceived that they were obliged to become technologists. This left most faculty disinterested at best and at worst feeling inadequate and alienated. While it is true that it is important for faculty to be aware of new technologies that are relevant to their work, it is equally if not more important for teaching faculty to discuss the pedagogical implications of these innovations. It has been important to establish and consistently validate the faculty role as integral and essential to the development of curricular computing. Academic computing is not a process independent of the faculty. Rather, faculty are consulted regarding all curricular computing developments.

The team approach to IT and curricular development has matured over time. The early adopters of IT in the curriculum in 1993 tended to be faculty members who were self-reliant, both technically and as teachers. The previous support structure demanded this self-reliance. But as faculty increasingly participated in the curricular computing grant program and as the diffusion of IT occurred, this process came to include both early adopters and faculty members who self-identified as absolute neophytes or neo-Luddites.

Many curricular computing grants allow faculty who are new to IT simply to purchase and evaluate software in their field. The review process often begins with desensitizing faculty members to the bells and whistles of the latest multimedia technologies and of honing in on effective pedagogy. Repeatedly when faculty new to IT complete this evaluation process, they still maintain that they don�t know very much about curricular computing. There is a common misperception among faculty that because they do not know the intricate details of computers, then they cannot know anything about curricular computing. The important point here is that faculty often do not recognize the shift in their evaluation processes from passive viewers to pedagogically focused reviewers. This faculty self-perception repeatedly surfaces when ACNS invites grant recipients to present their project to their peers. Often faculty say that they have nothing to contribute to the conversation but, upon presenting, reveal rich insights into the pedagogical aspects of their project. These conversations have been very well attended by faculty and are equally valuable for ACNS staff as well.

Implementing pedagogical innovation

Workshops, presentations, and multiple one-on-one meetings all work in concert to achieve an impressive distribution of participants in the curricular computing process. It is important to keep the communication lines open between the faculty, technical support staff, and students so that the pedagogical innovations can be better examined. For clarity (and often this leads to successful implementation as well), each participant must share in a common understanding of the goal of the innovation. The technical support staff, working with the faculty, must jointly step through each stage of the process of adding a technical innovation to a class--as far in advance of the class or classes as possible. Although this is highly time-consumptive and therefore difficult in practice, it is the best way to expose as many assumptions as possible before they interfere with the goals of the innovation.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of communication on individual levels. Many common problems arise from miscommunication.14 For instance, faculty may assume that an application they have on their desktop computer is also available in lab settings in the exact same way. Technical support staff may assume that students and faculty alike understand file management well enough to understand where their file is being saved from an application. Students may assume that they understand the technology well enough to put off an assignment until late the night before it is due--and that technical support will be forthcoming whatever that hour might be.

To help facilitate communication and maintain attention to the pedagogical thrust behind any curricular innovation, the grounding for new projects should always address the following questions:

Confirmation and assessment

The process of examining curricular change is a constant theme which permeates the work of ACNS. Computer classrooms are designed for teaching. The timing of software upgrades or nonmandatory system downtimes are debated based on the impact they may have on teaching or ongoing student work. Coordinators continually meet with faculty in one-on-one sessions to help maintain open lines of communication regarding their research and teaching interests and so on.

Follow-up sessions with the faculty are extremely important at the end of the term. If the coordinators can keep up with the experience of the current faculty adopters, they can inform future projects, and the learning curve for the next similar innovation is likely to be shorter. The director and the faculty advisors are also essential in this process. They too are in direct contact with faculty innovators. They provide additional channels of communication, support, and direction. Combined, these channels of communication provide an essential source of feedback which helps ACNS stay true to its service mandate.

The entire process of academic computing at Carleton is a team effort in which the central mission revolves around the pedagogical motivations of the faculty. We let the pedagogy find the tool.


1 C. Smith and S. Bierman, �Academic Computing Services: More than a Utility,� in 1995 CAUSE National Conference Proceedings (Boulder, Colo.: CAUSE, 1996).

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2 A. Nixon, �Finding Our Other Halves: Facilitating Curricular Change through Faculty/Staff Partnering,� presented at ACM SIGUCCS XXV, Monterey, Calif., 1997.

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3 Task Force on Academic Computing, Task Force Report (Northfield, Minn.: Carleton College, 1992).

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4 This now includes all offices directly linked with curricular development or support.

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5 Some departments were also grouped by virtue of the technologies they were using. For example, the art and art history department was grouped with the natural sciences due to its early work in image processing.

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6 Other departments were also moved to rebalance the workloads on the coordinators and to group departments where they had common technical interests.

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7 Web services have expanded and been somewhat distributed so that the publications office and administrative computing unit work in a team with various ACNS members to serve a wide variety of interested campus offices.

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8 It is important to note that no faculty member was forced to upgrade his or her hardware or software. The upgrades came only after consultation with individual faculty and with complete deference to faculty schedules.

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9 J. Marcus, �Diffusion of Innovations and Social Learning Theory: Adoption of the Context Text-Processing System at Stanford University,� in Education Administration (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University, 1985), 364.

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10 P. G. Knutel, �Adoption of an Innovation: The Process through Which Faculty Decide Whether to Use Instructional Technology,� in Center for the Study of Higher and Postsecondary Education (Ann Arbor, Mich.: University of Michigan, 1998), 261.

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11 E. M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations (New York: The Free Press, 1983), 453.

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12 Here �early adopter� refers to a faculty member who is the first to adopt a particular technology. This label is somewhat fluid in this sense. One faculty member may be an early adopter in the use of Web deployment of academic materials but at the same time is a later adopter of other technologies.

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13 Task Force on Academic Computing, Task Force Report (Northfield, Minn.: Carleton College, 1992).

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14 P. Lackie, �Implementing Technical Innovations in the Curriculum: Guidelines for Faculty and Technical Support Staff,� Social Science Computer Review (summer 1999) 17 (2): 189-195.

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Andrea Nixon ([email protected]) is interim director of Academic Computing and Networking Services and an academic computing coordinator - humanities at Carleton College, Northfield, Minnesota. Paula Lackie ([email protected]) is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Southern California and an academic computing coordinator - social sciences in Academic Computing and Networking Services at Carleton College. the table of contents