December 1998 // Faculty and Staff Development
Icing, Marzipan, and Currants: Putting Educational Technology Services at the Heart of Learning
by Chris O'Hagan
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Chris O'Hagan "Icing, Marzipan, and Currants: Putting Educational Technology Services at the Heart of Learning" The Technology Source, December 1998. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

The history of educational technology services in universities and colleges has been one of helping to provide the icing on the cake of learning. To be sure, sometimes the icing is impressive and can be used to help market the institution and to win prizes in competitions for best courseware, but in essence, media support staff have mainly helped to provide a bit of diversion (this is John Cleese showing how not to interview staff), some peace (you can watch this while I grade your tests), and showing off (we've got the very latest studio facilities with offline, nonlinear multinanobyte editing with ten thousand effects, but I can't understand why it isn't used more).

This is caricature; the reality is surely more diverse, yet you could close many units with few long-term after-effects on most teachers and learners. Why, after so many years, are these services still not integral to learning? Why are they not ubiquitously providing the currants that undeniably add to the body and intensity of the whole cake of learning?

It is easy to blame ignorant teachers, out-of-date strategic managers, and poor investments, but is it not the job of technical service providers to help teachers develop their methods, to help managers formulate strategies, and to provide persuasive arguments for particular institutional investments in learning and teaching technologies? Yet there has been a shocking failure to assist in the integration of audiovisual resources into teaching and learning; the information and communications technology (ICT) revolution has rushed past many media service centers, sometimes letting other departments in the institution sieze the initiative with a consequent fragmentation of the support for educational technologies offered to faculty.

Yet we know this is a critical time. Martinez and Woods (1995) observe, "It is likely that a quality gap will develop between institutions and departments that adopt educational technology and those that allow obstacles (or excuses) to prevail" (p. 35). Indeed. But in the next and last sentence they unwittingly reveal the problem: "The role of the media centre on campus is to support those faculty and administrators who adopt technology" (p. 35). Is that all? Are technical service providers just reactive?

I believe there are four key areas of activity in which personal and professional development for media staff can help their services to escape from this passivity and provide the currants (and the icing) for the cake of learning:

Promote a Service Orientation

For many years, I was a teacher on the receiving end of media support, and I had both good and bad experiences, which helped me understand two of the problems militating against a service orientation.

  1. Technocracy, which manifests itself in incomprehensible techno-speak and an inability to orientate the technology toward the teacher's pedagogical imperatives.
  2. Inflexibility, which arises because media staff often have lower status than instructors. There is sometimes a tendency to use obstructive behavior to enhance perceived importance. Faculty are obliged to plead or just give up. Tell-tale signs of this are yellowing "thank you" notes stuck to office walls, faculty having to make requests through intermediaries, bureaucratic authorizations, and closed doors with "do not disturb" notices.

The enforced reorganization of educational technology units can often be caused by a build-up of frustration in the institution due to a perceived lack of service—there is less chance that something which is working well will be radically restructured. The irony is that status and career opportunities are usually enhanced by thoughtful, selfless service. But technocrats, like bureaucrats, find it hard to realize that what they see as defending the service and maintaining high technical standards are often overdone to the point of being counterproductive. Technology personnel must learn to abandon this mindset for one of supportive service if they hope to occupy a more active role in the learning process.

Empower Teachers

Another aspect of technocracy is a reluctance to let go of control. The most ubiquitous technology currently in use for teaching is the overhead projector. The teacher has easy access and substantial autonomy in its use and in creating transparencies or computer-based projections. Contrast this with the small number of teachers who actually commission educational videos or learning packages. These instructors have to put themselves under the control of others and meet and communicate with people who do not always understand their pedagogical needs or the needs of their students. Instead of seeking to break down these barriers, support staff sometimes feel that to demystify the job is to downgrade their importance, so they try to keep control of technologies that have become much more accessible to the unskilled user.

Access plus autonomy makes for ubiquity. At Derby, seeking access and autonomy in video production, we invented the Video Autoproduction and Editing System for Open Learning (VESOL), which enables teachers to make educational videos single-handedly and without technical support (O'Hagan, 1995). These videos may not be broadcast quality, but they are usually fit-for-purpose. More importantly, one system alone made 160 video programs last year. The sole action of the media staff was to put a videocassette into the hands of presenters, who had their own personal keys to the control console. Yet our professional video producer has never been so much in demand, because more teachers have realized that linear video is highly functional, and there are occasions when top quality is needed. And her job includes everything from script and storyboard through shooting to the final edit—so there is only one person to communicate with, rather than an overpowering team of professionals and several intermediaries.

Provide Developmental Leadership

Larry Johnson has surveyed the characteristics and attitudes of media services administrators in 161 institutions of higher education in the US. He surveyed how administrators spend their time and how, ideally, they would like to break their time up into different activities. He found, for example, that they spend 66% of their time in administrative and technical activity, and only 34% in professional, conceptual, and instructional activity. Ideally, they wished to spend over half their time in administrative and technical activity—which are the most easily delegated—and less than half in the developmental activities that Johnson claims are "the three functions that require a higher level of intellectual activity and most directly lead to substantive academic improvements" (Johnson, 1996, p. 103). Few services appear to have a staff or instructional development focus that could enable such professional, conceptual, and instructional activities, and thus help services provide pedagogical understanding and leadership in the use of technology.

There are other consequences of this lack of developmental awareness. A survey by Milet & Albright (1997) found media centers facing the increasing rate of change with some difficulty, finding it hard to break free from their audio-visual culture, and slow to provide services related to new technologies, resulting in some being absorbed by information technology centers. In another paper, Albright sees much of instructional technology falling "victim to the information technology bandwagon and the attitude that 'if it ain't computing it ain't technology, and it ain't important'" (Albright, 1997).

Many media professionals have failed to climb up to and stand firm on the pedagogical high ground of educational technology. That is, they have allowed themselves to be technology-led rather than pedagogy-led. Their services can be dispensed with because they are not the currants in the cake; they are the icing that can be scraped off the top. They are not embedded ubiquitously in faculty pedagogical practice or in student learning. Many service directors prefer to stay in the technical and administrative lowlands where they are easy prey to those who can talk the digital hype. From the high ground they could reason more effectively and provide a healthy skepticism of the claims made for the new digital media, based not on hostility but on a sound understanding of how teachers can teach and how students can be enabled to learn.

Influence Policy

Policy is the ultimate key to any change. As Albright (1995) comments, "We belong to an entire profession that specializes in supporting the educational mission of the institution" (p. 52). Thus it is highly depressing when the above-mentioned 1997 survey finds so few heads able to influence the reorganization of their own departments, never mind any other institutional policy! "In other words, the director appeared to have minimal to no effect in 64 percent of these reorganisations. At 32 percent, the director was not involved in any meaningful way. These figures suggest that our centers are not accorded much status by administrators at many member institutions" (Milet & Albright, 1997).

In fact, the ICT revolution over the last 15 years should have made it easier for media staff to engage in strategic discussions. To be sure, there was a time when some skepticism was appropriate, but every director should have been planning an "entry point"—the point at which the opportunities available would outweigh the risks of participating. Yet Milet and Albright find that only 19 out of 191 respondents have established multimedia services in the previous seven years: "The overall profile shows a membership that is rather slow to provide services related to new technologies."

Without such strategic awareness, there can be little hope of influencing institutional policy. Heads should have the fundamental priority to understand the educational policy issues of the day—worldwide. Awareness of trends, developments, and alternative models is vital if one is to speak with an authoritative and persuasive voice. This means plugging into all kinds of professional associations, discussion lists, and conferences (real and virtual). It means playing a scholarly part in the enhancement of understanding of education and educational technologies. I am always surprised by how few support staff in the UK read the Times Higher Education Supplement. I know media and IT staff who look skeptical or bored when I mention the Staff and Educational Development Association (SEDA), but who are quite enthusiastic about the Association for Learning Technology (ALT). Ultimately, though, this attitude is counterproductive. Educational technology staff should not just congregate with their own kind, however fulfilling, but learn to discuss important issues with other professionals on their own ground, in order to gain and offer new perspectives.

Instead of rejecting committee work as a waste of time, heads should use such structures to develop their influence. But they need to be facilitative, to take criticism and avoid defensiveness. Here at Derby, all central learning support service heads are invited to faculty meetings where they field complaints and present new developments. Also, the three learning support departments—computing, libraries and educational media—set up an ad hoc committee called the Learning Resources Development Group, which was subsequently used by senior management to help formulate initial plans for a new learning center; it also helped define territories, establish cooperation and avoid toe-treading. Establishing advisory groups on resources, professional development, and teaching and learning can be an important means to assist the institution's learning mission.

Given the growing impact of educational technologies, it is important that faculty get the support they need and that these services are both responsive and proactive. Educational technology service managers and staff can enhance this support by promoting a service orientation in their work, by empowering teachers, by providing developmental leadership, and by influencing institutional policies.


Albright, M.J. (1995). Media centers and instructional technology in an era of information technology. College and University Media Review, 2(1), 39-53.

Albright, M.J. (1997). Shifting paradigms in the roles of instructional technology support units in higher education (Panel) [Author's posting]. Retrieved Oct 7, 1998 from WWW:

Johnson, L. (1996). Characteristics and attitudes of media services administration. College and University Media Review, 2(2), 85-103.

Martinez, J.P. & Woods, M. (1995). The value and planned use of educational technology in higher education: Results of a faculty service needs agreement. College and University Media Review, 2(1), 25-38.

Milet, L.K. & Albright, M.J. (1997). Media centers in transition: Results of a 1997 CCUMC survey [Author's posting]. Retrieved Oct 10, 1998 from WWW:

O’Hagan, C.M. (1995). Custom videos for flexible learning. Innovations in Education & Training International, 32(2), 131-138.

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