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Discipline Focused Support at Carleton College:
Let the Pedagogy Find the Tool

Andrea Nixon and Paula Lackie
Carleton College
Northfield, Minnesota


In 1993, Carleton College, a small liberal arts college, revolutionized its support model for computing. In its first four years, Academic Computing and Networking Services (ACNS), a radically new, discipline-focused computing support structure for Carleton, engendered a rise in curricular use of computers from 6% to 24% in the Humanities and Social Sciences. To date 38% of all faculty have participated in our Curricular Computing Grant program.

This session will describe the ACNS organization and its outcomes compared to the previous "help desk" based model of technical support. In this discipline focused support model, technical support staff work to identify, facilitate and tailor technical tools and methods to the pedagogical needs of individual faculty. This model is dependent on a strong institutional commitment to academic computing, discipline-trained computing staff, low technical support staff to faculty ratio, and a high level of communication and cooperation among all participants.

1. Old Tools and Methods: technology-centered "support"

Until July 1, 1993, computer support at Carleton College was structured around a supported suite of software, class based training, and a centralized help desk. While these were common mechanisms for providing computer support in higher education at the time, structurally they gave rise to some serious curricular conflicts. In their CAUSE 1995 paper Academic Computing Services: MORE Than A Utility, Cathy Smith and Scott Bierman wrote "As Carleton Faculty increasingly attempted to integrate technology use 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 ."

Over a period of years, faculty found that their growing needs and the Computer Center�s structure were at odds for a number of reasons. In limiting the supported suite of software to a single standard desktop application in categories such as word processing and spreadsheets, Carleton provided capable support of the faculty�s administrative and committee work but couldn�t touch much of their discipline�specific needs. For example, professors were on their own if they taught with languages that used non-Roman based alphabets (Chinese, Japanese, Russian and Ancient Greek) when it came to word processing. In the case of spreadsheets, if the linear regression function did not work in the way that the Chemistry department needed it, then the Chemistry department had to find, purchase and support another program which did � or forget it. This limited supported suite of software was never intended to include discipline-specific applications.

Training, in the form of classes, was provided for all of the supported software packages. Unfortunately for the faculty, these classes rarely addressed their particular computing needs. In practice, very few faculty members attended Computer Center courses. The format of the courses revolved around the functionality of the application rather than the diverse needs of the users. In the Computer Center, this was thought to be the most efficient and only justifiable means of providing training. Limited and centralized support was also thought to provide protection for the support staff of the old Computer Center. It limited the applications for which the staff members were accountable. It also pooled their resources at a central helpdesk location. Any questions outside of the legitimate topics could be dismissed. Unintentionally this narrowly defined "support" mechanism placed computer support staff at odds with the faculty they were supporting.

In spite of the collective efforts of the Computer Center, the faculty were largely working without curricular support. This, in turn, increased the burden on the help desk staff as well as the frustration levels of faculty. In short, the Computer Center�s primary form of outreach did not attend to the curricular needs of faculty. 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. This computer support structure prevented the computing staff from attending to the curricular needs of the faculty.

2. A New Structure: Laying the Groundwork

To address this impasse, in 1992, Carleton formed a taskforce on Academic Computing. Comprised of faculty, students, and the Associate Dean of the college, this taskforce 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 that:

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.

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

In January of 1993 Cathy Smith was hired as the Director of the new organization for academic computing. Smith 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 to create an ambitious 5-year plan that addressed issues outlined by the taskforce. This exercise paired the academic computing needs as stated by the task force with the experience of the Computer Center staff. Both parties learned a tremendous amount. It was as rigorous a process as it was respectful.

By July 1, 1993, the Computer Center was split in two. Administrative Computing was separated into its own department with the previous head of the Computer Center as its director while Academic Computing and Networking Services was set up to provide support to academic departments and other departments that provided academic support to students. The academic departments were then divided into three groups that roughly mapped into the categories of Natural Sciences; Social Science and Performance Arts; Languages and Humanities. Each of the three divisions was assigned both an Academic Computing Coordinator and a Faculty Advisor. The Academic Computing Coordinators all have a degree relevant to their division in addition to technical support experience.

Each Faculty Advisor was a tenured faculty member from the division who had "demonstrated interest in information technology as well as the pedagogical issues that come up while integrating computing into the curriculum." Faculty Advisors each were granted a course release to reflect the time and attention that this role required. Faculty Advisors participate in campus wide discussions relevant to curricular innovation in the curriculum in addition to meeting individually with other faculty members. The Faculty Advisors also serve on ACNS� advisory committee. One of the committee�s most important duties is to select proposals for Carleton�s Curricular Computing Grant program (described below).

This new structure was relatively non-hierarchical, very flexible, and very service oriented. To round out the picture, there were also a two-person networking group, an Information Coordinator, and a Student Computing Coordinator. The networking staff provided an infrastructure for the entire campus, including Administrative Computing. The Information Coordinator wrote documentation in addition to heading up gopher and eventually web services. The Student Computing Coordinator completely overhauled our public computing sites as Academic Computing moved into the new Center for Mathematics and Computing. See Appendix A for organizational chart.

As a team, ACNS� initial work focused on the following:

Underlying the above projects was the ever-present task of re-establishing the trust of the user community. Why should the faculty rely on staff members from the previous Computer Center? Having a new Director made a big difference.

ACNS was given an unofficial grace-period during which the working assumptions of both ACNS staff and faculty were tested. Faculty were generally open to learning about the new structure and cautiously began to rely on it. In the first couple of years ACNS anticipated rapid changes in the ways in which Carleton faculty would approach information technology (IT) in their teaching. The rational was that in removing the limiting factors of the former organizational structural and their limited resources, rapid curricular innovation would follow. While there were significant increases in the curricular uses of computers, in practice the Coordinators also discovered how utterly ineffective the Computing Center�s previous class-based training mechanism had been. For ACNS� first two years, the coordinators were laden with more individualized training than anticipated. This was a very important time and opportunity however, since it provided an avenue for the Coordinators to work with faculty that had been previously alienated or ignored. It was an important formative stage in the setting of future expectations for all concerned parties.

Additionally in this period ACNS staff worked hard to distance themselves from the previous support structure. ACNS took symbolic steps such as eliminating all paper forms that faculty previously had to fill out for account creation or service requests. Cathy Smith also initiated Carleton�s first replacement cycle for desktop computers as many faculty computers were out of date and just not up to the tasks ahead. This provided another avenue for the Coordinators to meet with individual faculty. Not only did the Coordinators meet with faculty to upgrade their equipment, the Coordinators also made a point of meeting with each faculty member to learn as much as possible about their teaching and research interests. This exercise was essential to the Coordinators who could then better focus their research in areas that are relevant to faculty. The simple act of asking faculty about their interests was shocking to many. It served to establish relationships with faculty that at last attended to their curricular needs. This dialog went a long way in countering the old Computer Center�s image as the self-absorbed and self-important organization which had tightly controlled computing technologies on campus.

While first impressions are essential, appropriate follow-up is key. Follow-up took the form of referring relevant journal articles and software advertisements, mailing lists and other resources to faculty. Like most professionals in IT, ACNS staff are technological sponges. Communication among the staff helped to disseminate ideas. It was up to the Coordinators to relay this information out to the appropriate faculty users. One way to view the Coordinator position is as conduit, or perhaps, translator for information between the users (the faculty) and the technology specialists. While ACNS was primed to begin projects that would directly address specific instances of curricular innovation, the first two years were primarily absorbed by simply laying the groundwork; both in interpersonal relationships and in updates to the physical infrastructure. The important discovery regarding the amount of basic computer training that was necessary made it difficult to take the next step "�to work with the faculty to select and implement the appropriate information technologies that will increase their effectiveness."

Much of this work amounted to making up for the previous faulty training mechanisms. In 1994, Carleton added a new full-time training internship to support the Coordinators in their work with the for faculty. The outcomes were remarkable: in 1993 35% of faculty had moderate to high skill levels in operating desktop computers; that percentage increased to 92% in 1995. In 1993 51% of faculty had moderate to high skill levels with and usage levels of word processors; that increased to 93% in 1995.

Throughout this period Faculty Advisors also met with faculty members who were considering integrating computing into their teaching or research. The Advisors joined the Director and the Coordinators in both attending academic conferences and relaying new information back to their colleagues. The Advisors have been integral to ACNS� process of identifying needs and in assessing methods of addressing those needs.

One of the mechanisms that ACNS created early on was 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 was dedicated to providing support for both early adopters who had already formulated plans to integrate computing into their course work and also faculty who were just approaching this venture for the first time.

The Curricular Computing Grant program and the training initiatives both laid the groundwork for the work to come. In the first four years, the curricular use of computers went from 6% to 24% in the Humanities and Social Sciences. During this shift, ACNS responded to the changing needs of faculty in a number of different ways.

3. Developments in the ACNS structure during the first 5 years

Communication and organizational flexibility have been crucial. Work during ACNS� early years went at an incredible pace. The initial seven 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 5 year plan was completed in just 3 years. Throughout these early years ACNS learned a great deal about its mission and how each person could be most effective in their prescribed role. The interdependence of the positions of ACNS members required coordination and communication. This is a simple yet fundamental point which 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. Cathy Smith worked with the Advisory Committee on Academic Computing, Carleton�s upper administration and the ACNS staff to identify needs and make a number of organizational changes. (See Appendix B for the current organizational chart). These included:

All of these organizational changes functioned to support Carleton�s commitment to curricular development. They have been successful. These developments and others emphasize the continued commitment for ACNS to be an integral part of curricular developments. They also underscore the underlying spirit of being a valued piece of the complete campus structure.

One less obvious but very important byproduct of this value is emphasized by our staff retention. In the old Computer Center, there was a tremendous amount of staff turnover. In ACNS� first five years only one staff member has left (this was out of a desire to get out of user support, he merely shifted back to Administrative programming duties within Carleton). Additionally, Carleton is in close proximity to Minneapolis and St. Paul. Both cities support an excellent job market in the IT field and most of us have been recruited by outside employers. However, ACNS provides a excellent work environment, is integral to the learning and teaching mission of the college, is well funded and is well run; all 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:

The Mellon Foundation has provided consistent support for Carleton and ACNS specifically. They have also advised other academic institutions to visit and confer with ACNS while developing their own academic computing support structures. More support has come in the 1998-99 academic year 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.

4. Academic Computing and Pedagogy: The Diffusion of Innovation

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. 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 they have never typed a footnote on paper. It is a significant step for many faculty to make a step toward considering the use of IT in their classes. The first movement often comes with the faculty member revealing what they perceive to be as their complete ignorance. One key in getting past this intimidation factor is to provide as many avenues for communication with faculty as possible.

Communication is central to ACNS� 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.

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 & faculty about IT would largely be technical in nature. Faculty often requested "dog and pony" shows that would parade the latest technologies. As a carry-over from the Computing Center days, there was a perceived obligation for faculty to become technologists. Some faculty were up to the task but it left most 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 faculty teaching in a liberal arts context to discuss the pedagogical implications of these innovations. It took a significant amount of time and energy on the parts of both the Coordinators and the Director to validate and define the faculty role in campus conversations on technology in the curriculum.

The Director�s emphasis on curricular computing has been to encourage faculty and the Coordinators alike to avoid "in house" software development. The strategy has instead been to look for applications that have largely been developed elsewhere and 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 as instructional designers. The emphasis is on faculty as teachers -- as pedagogical experts. It has been important to establish and consistently validate this role as integral and essential to the development of curricular computing.

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 that 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, this process came to include both early adopters and faculty members who self-identified as absolute neophytes or neo-Luddites.

The Coordinators, the Faculty Advisors and the Director worked one-on-one to encourage all faculty to apply for a Curricular Computing Grant who showed an interest in learning about how IT might enhance their teaching or research. 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% of all faculty at Carleton have participated in the Curricular Computing Grant program.

Many grants allow faculty who are new to IT to purchase and evaluate software in their field. This particular scenario was common for faculty in the languages. Typically the faculty member would focus in on a class in their department�s course sequence and on a particular skill; reading, writing , listening or speaking. Which learning exercises could use improvement? In what ways might students learn this information or acquire a skill more effectively? Can IT play a roll? The faculty would then work with the Coordinator in the Languages to acquire the appropriate software. The review process often began 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 completed this evaluation process, they still maintained that they really didn�t know very much about curricular computing. There was a common perception among faculty that because they did not know the internals of authoring applications or of the hardware on which the software ran, they did not know anything about curricular computing. The important point here is that faculty often did 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 did not have anything to add to the conversation or presentation but upon presenting, reveal rich insights into the pedagogical aspects of their project. These conversations have been very well attended and are equally valuable for ACNS staff as well!

Communication, Communication, Communication�.

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 might 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.

This communication takes place on both organizational and individual levels. On the organizational level, Cathy Smith, Director of ACNS, instituted a process in which each department submits a three to five year plan. These plans layout each department�s thinking with regards 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.

It is difficult to overemphasize the importance of communication on individual levels. Many common problems arise from miscommunication. 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 understood the technology well enough to put off an assignment until sometime late in 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 basis for new projects should always address the following questions:

This 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 non-mandatory system down-times 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. Far from the common misconception that the introduction of information technologies leads to an overall sense of impersonality, at Carleton, this is a highly dynamic and people-intensive process.

Significant research has already been done which 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� theory of the diffusion of innovation to academic computing. Explorations in this area continue both in academic computing circles as well in the realm of higher education research.

In his dissertation Adoption of Innovation: The Process Through Which Faculty Decide Whether to Use Information Technology Philip Knutel looked at the adoption of IT by faculty who were not early adopters. 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� concepts from the Diffusion of Innovations to explore the stages through which faculty moved through their decision making process.

How Do Faculty Learn Of Information Technologies?

The experience of ACNS at Carleton shows that faculty first become aware of IT through the following generalized means:

Through Coordinators

The scope of the Coordinators research is guided by the interests of their faculty as well as by developments in IT. With a low faculty to coordinator ratio, the Coordinators can be familiar with faculty teaching and research interests.

Through other Faculty

In many cases, when a faculty member pilots or integrates IT into their teaching or research, ACNS invites them to present their discoveries in community forums held throughout the year. Often the forums are part of a larger initiative such as technology workshops that ACNS offers during the Winter and Summer breaks. In this way ACNS is able to infuse training sessions with peer tested examples of the curricular application of certain technologies. Faculty are only occasionally asked to present more than once or twice. Faculty that are new to curricular uses of technologies are encouraged to present their experiences.

Through Curricular Computing Grants

Faculty members apply for curricular computing grants for a number of reasons. Some apply for grants so that they may garner resources and time to survey software applications relevant to their work. Other faculty members apply after having focused on a particular application and seek additional support in piloting or implementing this technology into their teaching. In any case, these faculty adopters often share their experiences with departmental members or more broadly through ACNS� forums.

Through Outside Visitors

Carleton brings in a number of visiting faculty both as instructors and as speakers. Throughout the past five years ACNS has brought in outside faculty or supported faculty invited by academic departments. Additionally Carleton faculty bring in ideas from their academic conferences, periodicals, mailing lists, and other sources. Often they may take these concepts back to their Coordinator for further exploration and development.

Once faculty discover IT that may enhance their teaching, there is a structure in place to support their investigations.

Diffusion of Innovation at Carleton

The chart in Appendix C maps out Everett Rogers� five stages of adopting innovation as it relates to curricular computing at Carleton College. Roger�s stages are:

Both the knowledge and persuasion stages can differ quite a bit for faculty who are early adopters. In these stages, many early adopters already have an idea of what technologies are available and how they might be implemented. Faculty members in general benefit from the experiences of the other faculty members, Coordinators, Faculty Advisors and ACNS workshops while working through these initial exploratory stages.

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.

Faculty may formally apply for a Curricular Computing Grant at this time or simply pursue the project in greater depth with their Coordinator. The Director retains funding for any curricular software purchase that may come up during the academic year. Either way the implementation and confirmation phases stages require consistent communication between the early adopter and her or his Coordinator. Also during these stages, the Coordinator also keeps in touch with the Student Computing Coordinator (SCC). The SCC in turn coordinates resources in the public computing labs.

Pulling It All Together

While faculty are encouraged to participate in the Curricular Computing Grant program, participation is not a pre-requisite for a high level of service. Carleton�s ratio of about 50 faculty to each Academic Computing Coordinator insures that the Coordinators can attend to the needs of faculty in each of the divisions. In its first five years ACNS has:

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

Appendix A -- The organizational chart for ACNS in 1993

Appendix A

Appendix B -- The organizational chart for ACNS 1998

App[endix B

Appendix C � Diffusion of Innovation at Carleton College

Rogers� Stages

Early Innovators at Carleton

General Faculty at Carleton

Knowledge � Exposure to existence and some idea of function

Self-Generated Knowledge

  • Many came to the college with a sense of the projects that they would like to pursue.
  • Others were cognizant of possibilities as technologies matured during their tenure at Carleton.

ACNS as Conduit for Knowledge

  • ACNS workshops.
  • Coordinators and/or Advisors met with faculty to explore their interests.
  • Coordinators pursue relevant technologies and bring them back to faculty.
  • Brought in outside faculty members as speakers. Asked early innovators to meet with interested faculty.

Persuasion � Formulation of favorable or unfavorable attitude

Outreach/Reality check

  • Discuss ideas with Faculty Advisors or Coordinators
  • Formulate Curricular Computing Grant
  • Ask the question, "Does the technology support pedagogical needs?"


ACNS Shepparding/Encouragement

  • Challenge many faculty technical insecurities and their self-image as neophyte or Neo-Luddite
  • Plus, see box to left

Decision � Pursuit of activity that leads to acceptance or rejection

Refocus on Pedagogical Issues

  • Answer the question "Does the technology support pedagogical needs?"
  • Acquire resources and coordinate with public computing labs (i.e. hardware, software, and technical support)
  • Apply for a Curricular Computing Grant

Implementation � Putting innovation to use

Pilot Phase

  • Trial run and evaluation
  • Acquire resources and coordinate with public computing labs (i.e. hardware, software, and technical support)
  • Continue to seek comparable experience and other faculty feedback

Confirmation � Reinforcement for decision or applicability in other context


  • Will this work in another context/division?
  • Is the experience generalizable?
  • Did the students respond as anticipated?
  • What should or should not change in another trial?
  • Did each member of the process (from Coordinator to faculty to students) leave with a sense that it was a worthwhile use of IT? Why?