Saturday, December 12, 2009

To Serve and Support

Ideas come and go. Sometimes they come back. Occasionally they take root. Here is one that has returned several times since I became AECT President. The idea is simply that a primary responsibility of an educator is to serve and support. This is not a new idea. I suppose it has returned because I have had the chance to see it in action several times in the last few months. I visited the annual convention of the New Jersey Association of School Librarians and saw many persons there demonstrating a variety of innovative technology integration efforts in New Jersey schools. The school librarians and media specialists who presented their work were uniformly focused on helping students learn. These educators were serving and supporting their students. I have been working with teachers in poorly performing rural K-8 schools in the Southeast where I have seen teachers dedicated to helping their students improve in reading, mathematics and science. I have visited schools in Indonesia and seen teachers there helping students learn without the benefit of any of the technologies we take for granted.

I recall the mentors I have had over the years. In our field, I have benefitted from the support of Bob Gagné and Dave Merrill and others who helped me develop an understanding of instructional technology and educational research. I have seen service and support in action, and I have personally benefitted from the service and support of others. I am now confronted with a serious question of conscience. Am I doing what I could or should to serve and support?

I am generally suspicious of self-assessments, but I will venture one here because I want to urge those who might read this to ask themselves the same question. I think I have done well with regard to my personal life and my family, especially my children (they might disagree with this assessment). However, when I think about service and support in my professional life I am inclined to say I have been more focused on self-service and self-promotion and less focused on service and support to students. This is perhaps not unusual. It is perhaps natural to want to advance one’s career. Doing so might incline one to focus on those to whom one reports – deans and directors and managers – rather than focusing on those for whom one is responsible – students, in my case, or teachers if you are a principal or a dean.

We seem to always be in the middle between those above us – those who pay our salaries – and those we, as educators, are supposed to serve and support. Most of my career has been in higher education and government service, so most of my work has involved adults – college students and government workers. My ideal notion of the chain of service and support is that it should be primarily directed down the official or professional hierarchy in which one is working. In a college or university, this would mean that the president’s service and support should be focused primarily on deans and directors – not the Board of Regents. The dean’s service and support should be focused primarily on faculty and staff – not the provost or president. The teacher’s service and support should be focused primarily on students. Likewise, in a school system, the superintendent’s service and support should be focused on principals, with principals focused primarily on teachers and teachers focused primarily on students.

I know this is a naïve and simplistic view of serving and supporting, but it is my view. When I then consider why I have fallen short, I think about the incentives to perform my duties and responsibilities. I am rewarded for publishing papers and getting grants. I am not directly rewarded for advising a struggling graduate student. Indeed, the time I spend with students is hardly noticed or taken into account in the university systems in which I have worked. There is a token look at service and support of students built into the tenure and promotion process, but that aspect of tenure and promotion that examines one’s service to and support of students is typically very superficial and only marginally influential on the outcome of a tenure and promotion decision.

Publish or perish is alive and well in academia. As a journal editor, I get several emails every year asking about the status of a paper submitted by a junior faculty member who is being reviewed for tenure. Has the paper been reviewed yet? What is the outcome? Will it be published, and, if so, when? The system encourages us to be concerned with ourselves. I have done well, I suppose, in this kind of system in terms of self-advancement. I have neglected students, though – more so than I should or would were I not so busy piling up words, writing papers, pursuing funding, and seeking to advance still more. I cannot blame the system for my behavior, nor am I sure how to improve a university system or a school system to focus on those we should be serving and supporting. I am merely the victim of this simple idea that one should serve and support those for whom one is at least partly responsible.

Of course I wonder about my role as AECT President as well. I should be serving and supporting the membership. How best can I do that? Again I am not sure, but I am convinced that communication is critical. I have heard from some members after the 2009 convention. Some were happy and pleased with the meeting, and some were disappointed. What could I have done differently to better serve and support all of the membership of AECT? One thing I hope to do is to keep the next AECT President, Barbara Lockee, informed of the things I am hearing from the membership. There is not much time to make significant changes in a short period of service, but one can initiate some changes that might be pushed further by the next leader.

Some of the changes that we have been pursuing on behalf of the membership began with prior leaders and include efforts to link AECT to national organizations such as the National Technology Leadership Coalition and the New Media Consortium. We are continuing to make efforts to improve the quality of presentations at the annual meeting by providing feedback to submitters and asking that the comments of reviewers be included in final papers and presentations. We have introduced reflection paper sessions to allow those with new but not yet well developed or empirically explored ideas to present those ideas and get feedback from others – a kind of scholarly mentoring. We are continuing the series of research symposia that focus on research pertaining to important aspects of educational technology.

There are some things to which we have not responded as well as we might have. The venue for the annual conference has been a contentious point over the years. We are not going back to Orlando in response to the membership. However, we are returning to Anaheim because the hotel has lowered its cost and the location will draw a significant number of people. Then I wonder whether the time spent on worrying about the complaints of a few about the venue should outweigh the concern from so many that we pick an affordable location with convenient air access.

In sum, I am not sure if I am really serving and supporting or simply being pushed in one direction or another by various constituencies. I am really not sure about this, but I will try to serve and support as best I can in my remaining 10 months in this position.

To serve and support others or to be self-serving and self-promoting – that is the question of conscience and the idea that has returned to haunt me. I hope that it will haunt you as well. I hope that idea takes root – it will surely require much nourishing and care in order to survive.

Meanwhile, I wish you a happy and safe holiday season.

Mike Spector
AECT President


  1. Dick Cornell, UCF OrlandoDecember 12, 2009 at 4:59 PM

    Mike: You have touched a nerve that resounds loud and clear with me and it always has...focus on the real role of a professor - helping the students!

    I am only too well aware of this deficit in situations that, unfortunately, lie too close to home.

    You had the gumption to state what few administrators will admit - that teaching, when factored into the evaluation of one's performance, gets scant attention by those doing the evaluating. How sad!

    Teaching, the love it, the intrigue, the adventure, the excitement, the wins and losses of students with whom we communicate, are the very essence of what we should be all about! What we should be and, in far too many instances, are not.

    Your gift of this season will hopefully be a reassesment of what each of us do, why we really do it, and maybe even see a resurgence of our focus for, to, about, and with our students!

    Happy holidays to you and all my colleagues in and outside of AECT.

  2. Thanks, Dick. Dedicated teaching is of course a primary way to serve and support students. Educational research is yet another way of providing service and support, especially if the researcher ensures that significant outcomes find their way into practice. All too often, however, the link between theory and practice is weak, and researchers may not regard practical implementation and dissemination as their primary responsibility.