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Sloan-C Merlot Conference Review

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Last week, I went to the Sloan-C/Merlot Emerging Technology Conference to present a tutorial on accessibility issues. Below is a report of some of the themes from the conference.

Note: The Sloan Consortium (aka Sloan-C) is an organization devoted to "quality online instruction. Penn State is a member, so anyone at ETS can establish an account and access many of the online services. The Merlot repository is a curated collection of learning objects and Websites. Certain Penn State ETS Websites have been included in the past.


The issue of accessibility was on Sloan-C and Merlot's mind as both organizations worked to provide information and future infrastructure to member institutions. Merlot has established an accessibility information area at and Sloan-C hopes to also start a special interest group. The National Federation of the Blind co-presented a session as part of this effort.

Drexel sponsored a particularly compelling session featuring students needing accommodation. Each spoke about his or needs and challenges. Two interesting cases were a woman with carpal tunnel and another with a speech production deficit. The second student mentioned video recording assignments were very time consuming because he could not just record his thoughts on the fly, but had to edit his recording based on multiple attempts.

Good news for Penn State - the moderator of the student panel pointed out as a quality resource.

My session was a tutorial for instructors and instructional designers and was nominated for a Best in Track and a Sloan-C Best Practice award.

The Place of the MOOC

Probably the biggest focus of the conference was the role of MOOCs and badges and how they are impacting traditional academia. There was certainly plenty of buzz, but also concern that MOOCs not be a regression to the old information dump model.

Two speakers from the Khan Academy demoed their Art HIstory site which is a comprehensive suite of video lectures on different art history topics. I will admit that the content is well done (although they need captions), but it is essentially a well-performed lecture.

On the other hand, an instructor who does not have access to information on certain art periods could find these invaluable. And Devil's Advocate - a lecture (i.e. a well structured informative narrative) is a very effective method to present the context to help students understand historical content (this is Art History).

When presented with (ahem) a human instructor, the videos can also be good points of departure for further discussion. And even if a student is working independently, viewing more than one discussion of any period would be essential towards gaining the multiple perspectives needed.

I think the interesting question is when does a person need to interact more fully with humans instead of just books and videos.

Just to expand on that, I do think learning from resources like these is an important skill - sometimes you just can't get to an SME. In fact, all the Cornish (a Celtic language) I have learned was from books. There are just NO Breton courses in the U.S.

On the other hand, if I really wanted to be a Cornish expert, I would have to interact with human Cornish language experts, most of whom are in the U.K. This may be where Skype and e-mail become the crucial technologies...although I would never say no to a trip to the Cornwall coast.


On a side note, while I was attending a session about the needs for students to have rich, meaningful interactions with content within a context of a community of practice the following question occurred to me - What happens when a student doesn't want to bother with all that?

Depending on what I am teaching (phonetics, accessibility, copyright law...) I often hear students/administrators/busy faculty ask "Can you just list what I need to know on a single page?" It's usually because the person is not especially interested in a topic but is forced by circumstances to deal with it. Motivation is definitely an important element of learning.

Will I be able to persuade everyone needing to learn accessibility to be an "a11y" guru monitioring multiple listservs and attending webinars? Probably not. But that's not the level of expertise needed...or is it?

My Takeaways

The theme of the conference is open resources, but the question continues to be what kind of open resource? I think a number of viable models are available, but any design needs to consider which one is the best.

Ultimately the most common model will probably be the "content" model in which a content provider posts information to a Website for others to freely use. This is the model of Wikipedia, YouTube knitting videos and the Kahn academy. When done well, this is an effective means of distributing unique content cheaply and efficiently.

Note: I would agree that putting up a set of lecture notes is NOT good design even in this model because they have not been edited for a remote audience who cannot communicate directly with the instructor.

There is another model that's important and that is one that allows for students to interact with each other. This has the potential for expanding the student experience, but I find that the logistics have to be thought VERY CAREFULLY.

One version of this model is the topic Listserv, but as research has shown, this format is often dominated by a small percentage of active users and a large percentage of lurkers...just as in any large classroom.

Another model breaks out a MOOC community into smaller discussion groups, but if that is not planned well, students can get frustrated very quickly, as seen in this rambling blog entry of my experience of the New Media Reader MOOC experiment and more in my October 2010 archives. In order for this model to work, there has to be a method to ensure that group leaders are confident with the material. If not, then the group leader might want to bring in some back up doughnuts.

An possible model to look at might be the bookclub model in which pre-framed questions are given to reading groups. Is this too dumbed down though or is the structure needed?

Big Bang Star Wars Divide

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One of the more vigorous and interesting debates at last week's Game day wasn't about games but how important it was to see Star Wars. This may seem like a trivial pop culture debate, but it actually points to an interesting communication issue within educational gaming.

My History with Star Wars Mania

For the record, I HAVE seen Star Wars...many many times. I was about 9 when it came out so not only do I remember the movie from a relatively young age, but also the lunch boxes, the t-shirts, the trading cards and action figures, the special effects special and especially the disco version of the theme song. I also saw the Star Wars Holiday special, Gonzo dressed as Darth Vader on the old Muppet Show and may have even seen the Stormtroopers dancing on the Donny and Marie show.

As a result, not only did I learn all about the characters, but even my parents and aunts were forced to learn about them because we all went to the movie one July 4 when it was raining (best July 4 ever BTW). It was so huge that even if you never saw the movie, you had an idea of the key motifs (outer space, bad Darth Vader, good Jedi, etc).

My youth was so saturated with Star Wars, that many of us developed a habit of using Star Wars as a short hand for a lot of metaphors (e.g. Yoda=guru, Darth Vader=evil boss). Even the Reagan administration co-opted the term "Star Wars" for their system of military satellites able to shoot down nuclear missiles (until Lucas sued for copyright infringement).

I would compare it to having an idea what Survivor, CSI or Lost might be about without ever having seen an episode (that would be me folks - although I did get hooked on CSI: Miami.)

Alas though, it is no longer 1977 and it is no longer safe to assume that everyone has been equally exposed to Star Wars. Some of my students have expressed confusion about my point and concern that this might be considered required viewing in my courses.

And My Point Is...

So how does does my pop culture consumption relate to instructional design? For one thing, I have to re-think all my Star Wars references in class (sigh) or maybe update them to Harry Potter (yes!).

A more serious issue for the gamers is that EGC staffers tend to think in terms of other games (like Halo, World of Warcraft (WoW), Guitar Hero and other names that escape me because I haven't ever actually (ahem) played them. I would agree that If our instructors haven't played them, it may be a good idea to remember that when trying to communicate about gaming. It is noteworthy that many game authors do try to summarize plot points of the game when trying to explain their significance to education.

So maybe the key for me 1) think if that Star Wars or Star Trek reference is really important and 2) if it is, expanding my short hand a little more. And play more games.

On the Other Hand...

I don't advocate forcing anyone to consume media/entertainment they don't want to, but I have to confess that if I hear a lot about something and haven't watched/played it yet, I sometimes turn to Wikipedia for the answers. Very helpful and yet time efficient.

It has saved me many hours of actual TV viewing time while helping me understand and enjoy what those obscure references on the Big Bang Theory are all about.

Back from Sloan-C

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Sloan-C is a huge conference and I got a chance to view presentations on a number of topics. I did find a few recurring themes though.

Mobile Tech in Education

I went to several report outs on different mobile projects including one from University of Minnesota and one from Penn State World Campus. A few common themes did emerge.

  1. Students still find mobile a check in and passive viewing device rather than a production device. Having had to check e-mail and take notes all week with just mobile, I would have to agree here. I am able to use mobile to take initial camera shots and jot impressionistic notes, but I end up editing them later on my laptop.

  2. World Campus experimented with delivering a lot a materials such as the syllabus, flashcards, readings via Mobile, but one thing students requested was a Calendar synch function. a function much used on actual mobile users.

  3. Students are happy to participate in iPad loaner projects, but resent having to return it.Unlike laptops and cameras, most mobile devices are deeply tied into a person's profile and data is hard to transfer elsewhere. One person suggested that a mobile device requirement might be better than a loaner project.
  4. Students generally liked mobile, but many actually observed that games like Angry Birds were awfully distracting. I agree again, but I would ask if we can take better advantage of that feature? Can we include clicker integration, Twitter integration? In the same vein, can we design small games which can tie in to specific objectives? Flash cards are nice, but it would be nice to move beyond that also.

OER Movement

There was a lot of discussion about the implications of Open Education Resources and how we should move forward. A keynote from Cable Green suggests mandating lower prices from textbook publishers since many purchases of K-12 textbooks are subsidized by tax dollars (and even many higher ed textbooks are brought with federal loan money). I understand his point, but with a policy mandate that large, I always feel we need to review overall implications. Some laws with great intentions have had some very bad unexpected consequences.

Another issue that recurs is how to actually work with OERs. Making syllabi, lecture notes and even recorded lectures is one issue, but how do students access instructional support? A missing piece is mentoring. A few people noted that mentoring networks could be added to this puzzle, but again who trains the mentors in what the content means? Without this piece, even a learning community could feel isolated.

I think making content open is a valuable piece of the puzzle, but I hope we don't think it will replace what happens on campus. For the past 10 years, a variety of educators have predicted that the "traditional campus" will disappear, but I am more doubtful. The "traditional" environment has provided a number of social advantages not afforded in an online environment from spring dances to drinking beer with your advisor in grad school.

For better or worse, getting a Cisco certification or reading a Yale syllabus isn't the same as actually attending a 4 year college, and I think we need to remember that.I think this is where proper use of social communication tools will help, but that will be much more than just posting a syllabus in Facebook also.

New Media Seminar Final Thoughts

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We wrapped up the Baylor New Media Seminar this week, and our discussion turned again to the format. I think almost all of us had a love/hate relationship with the selected readings from The New Media Reader (MIT Press). I confess they weren't what I what I were expecting either, and, for better or worse, the infrastructure from Baylor was not what I was expecting either.

Despite the agony though, there was something valuable here - otherwise the discussions sessions would not have continued with as many people as it did. For me, there were two factors - the synergy of the group and (ahem) the readings.

The discussion was obviously very important and it was because we were willing to be open and honest. We were not afraid to use terms like "crap", nor did we back off from defending our ideas. I really learned a lot about my colleagues. I even learned to appreciate some readings that I felt were crappy in a new way. We had some really good, challenging discussions.

Would the experience have worked without these readings though? Obviously both the editors of the original volume and Gardner Campbell at Baylor felt they were valuable, so I'm assuming they "got" them even if some of them were opaque to me. I wonder if part of the disconnect was because of Campbell is approaching this as a literature specialist.

I have to confess that one of my least favorite classes in my academic career were literature classes. It wasn't that I didn't enjoy reading novels, even some very classic works, but the approach to analyzing literature does not always seem compatible to more technical analytic approaches. Even the way a theoretical linguist and a literature specialist views language is VERY different.

What do I mean by "VERY different", by the way. Take a language like Latin. A literature specialist would probably focus on the best authors like Cicero, Vergil (Publius Vergilius Maro) and Ovid, and if they focused on Vergil, they would focus on his exquisite use of language and imagry and maybe discuss how the Aeneid reinforced the official Augistinian Imperial narrative.

When a linguist looks at Latin, they likely target graffiti, casual letters and "mistakes" to see how Latin was spoken on the streets. And when they look at Vergil, they may be comparing poetic syntax with related languages to see if any proto-syntax emerges. Sometime we catch a few sound changes in progress too.

Asking some technologists such as myself to approach the history of technology as rhetoric may be a challenge. BUT (and I keep coming back to this word), it is sometimes good to stretch your mind doing something you're not comfortable doing. I do recall books and movies that I detested in earlier years that provided interesting touch points in my later life. I don't necessarily want to visit these events, but they do make me realize that the experience was not wasted - I did learn something, even if I didn't enjoy it.

A good example is probably the original Alice in Wonderland which we read and analyzed in 8th grade. I admit that a lot of it went over my head, but now that I know more history, I see the parallels Carroll was trying to make and I find it much more entertaining...enough to enjoy the last Tim Burton Alice movie (maybe 3D helps).

At the last session we discussed whether it was worth continuing the discussions with readings a member of the group selects. I will be curious to see if we have the same passion when we don't detest that week's reading as much, but I will probably be relieved as well.

Example of Medium vs Message

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I think we would all agree that this week's "New Media Reader" essay was a little difficult to digest, but I did want to end the week with a light hearted wrap up.

I was listening to a recording of 60's humorist introducing himself at a concert and pondering the effect of spoken vs written text. Thanks to various Internet outlets, you can actually read his "biography" as a text doc, but I bet you will find it even funnier hearing his biography as spoken audio

In the text, you can scan ahead and see where the satiric elements are coming in, but when it's just spoken, then "timing" comes into place. In the case, it's the delicate art of presenting a point in a very formal, academic manner, then taking a sudden left turn off a cliff (while maintaining academic discipline). So classic it still holds up (yikes) half a century later.

And since we're discussing mediums, I will also mention you a partial mashup of Tom Leherer's "New Math" enhanced with animated math problems as well as the animated mashup with a modern lip synch artist. New media definitely adds new meaning here.

With Extra Animation (Base 10 only)

With Base 8 Extra Problem

M-Learning in Africa: Lessons in Adapting

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One of the projects I've been working on is a Global Snapshot conference in which teams have been capturing comparative data about e-learning and m-learning around the world. I've been working on researching Africa in particular. Someone asked what ETS might get out of this, and there are several answers.

Mobile Tech

The most immediate answer is that we are learning a lot about the potential for using mobile devices as a content platform and a communication tool. We've been very excited with the potential of smart phones like iPhone, Droid and Blackberry, but the truth is that the U.S. and Canada are woefully behind the rest of the world, even places like Africa and the Phillipines.

In these places, SMS is one of the cheapest and most reliable forms of electronic communication. In many places, it's common for people to have multiple phones (one for family, one for boyfriend/girlfriend, one for buddies or work). On the other hand, in places like Africa laptops are extremely scarce. Few residences have the capability for the Internet, much less access to a computer. Online courses designed for the PC means travelling to a campus lab. Being able to access materials over mobile makes online education portable again.

Since mobile tech is ahead of the curve outside the U.S., so are the m-learning projects. One is a m4lit ( from South Africa which published a teen novel over the mobile phone, one chapter per week at a time. The goal was to improve reading ability in English, but also literacy in the Bantu language Xhosa (another language used in the project). Spreading out downloads over several weeks reduced the file size and increased the sense of anticipation - nothing is quite as compelling as a serial narrative.

Adapting to Scarce Resources

Another theme in the presentation is the scarsity of resources in comparison to the "First World." Not only are computers lacking, but so are fiber optic cables, iPhones, textbooks and electricity. Making do with less is a constant way of life.

Those on the team who had been to Africa had great stories of adapting under pressure. One person spoke of a team contiuing a talk even after the electricity had killed their PowerPoint presentation. Another showed a photo of a wireless hub attached to the ceiling with a coffee can. It's not that Americans don't adapt (I've seen our custom podiums), but it's at a different level. When our PowerPoint dies, our instinct is usually to panic, not expect it as normal.

Another interesting trend was how many institutions worked together, even across national borders. One person commented that they were ahead of us, maybe the rest of the world in leveraging joint resources. They've built OERs, online universities and even buy broadband together. There's plenty of internal politics and conflict, but the understanding seems to be that the benefits really outweigh the problems.

An Intangible Lesson

A lesson I keep coming back to when I examine other cultures is that there really is more than one way to build a community. I don't want to minimize the severity of the issues of Africa including the prevelance of AIDS, civil unrest in many regions, environmental crises and a post-colonial legacy.

But the fact is Western technology is not cruicial to a functioning society. It's the ability for a community to build a culture that works for them. A society with less than 24 hours of electricity could work if you plan properly. So can one without PCs but lots of cheap phones. Even here in the U.S., alternative technology eco systems can be built - not everyone in every demographic is convinced that iPhone is "the Way."

Ultimately, a new technology works best when the community feels a sense of ownership and control. Teens migrating to Facebook or MySpace was a decision they made and it feels natural to them. But for an older adult, being asked to join Facebook may feel oppressive, becuase it's an alien technology. Some people may find they like Facebook just fine, but others may always feel a little resentful that they couldn't use the alternate tools they were used to. Change happens to every community, but it doesn't have to happen in the same way.

A story I keep in mind is of a Mexican community speaking an indigenous language. They had always rejected the need to use writing since their oral culture was quite satisfactory for them - especially after they added a loudspeaker to transmit announcements to the village any time. It wasn't until they heard a neighboring community was getting writing that they decided to bring in a linguist.

I'm glad the language is being written of course, but it's probably more important that the community didn't feel inferior that it hadn't happened before. They were willing to wait and adapt what they needed from the outside when it was the right time. It's also important for us to understand that cultures without writing can be functional and have been for thousands of years. Maybe we can use technology to adapt to orality too.

Those Kids Today....

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Tony Bates pointed out a new research article indicating that college students are less empathetic today than a few decades ago. Tony Bates is skeptical, and frankly so am I.

Here's my favorite headline:

Today's college students are not as empathetic as college students of the 1980s and '90s, a University of Michigan study shows.

followed by

"Many people see the current group of college students -- sometimes called 'Generation Me' -- as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident and individualistic in recent history," said Konrath, who is also affiliated with the University of Rochester Department of Psychiatry.

"It's not surprising that this growing emphasis on the self is accompanied by a corresponding devaluation of others," O'Brien said.

I had to laugh because back when I was an actual college student in the 1980s, adults were making the exact same complaint about us. After all we were the generation that made Risky Business a blockbuster and brought the classic Yuppie poster "Poverty Sucks". Our teachers were really worried that we were listening to too many hair bands, rap songs and Madonna instead of more meaningful songs like they made in the 60s.

And lest we forget, the generation just ahead of us (the ones who had graduated and were entering business) were discovering fine wine and fine stock options and embracing the hedonistic delights of Dynasty and Dallas. A lot of people were worried about the collapse of civilization.

Today of course, we have reality TV and 24-hour cable, but the truth is I really don't think that much has changed since my college days. Students today are still partying, drinking, wearing inappropriate outfits and watching silly TV, but they're also making snarky comments about what they see and probably doing more charity work than my peers ever did. The 2000s were the Penn State generation that built THON to the largest student philanthropic student organization ever.

A lot of instructors and researchers like to complain about "today's students" or "today's youth," but who are we kidding? College kids have been goofing off for generations - it's, like, part of their job. I suspect that today's youth may even be goofing on the survey a bit (or they got tripped up on a confusing set of survey options with a lot of double negatives).

There can be true generational differences, but I also feel that some things remain the same. I do remember one comment that explained a little about what college is supposed to teach - "You know, The Terminator is really a very good movie." In other words, we are supposed to be having new experiences, even the "stupid" ones, and learning to judge for ourselves.

Your Connectivity is Freaking Me Out

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The recent criticism of Facebook's lack of transparency in its new privacy settings has restirred the pot on the Web vs privacy debate. While some like danah boyd are concerned, others like Jeff Jarvis seem to think the issue is overblown.

Fair enough. I admit that as an informed consumer I have rechecked my privacy settings (kind of like checking my credit report)...but I still worry about overconnectivity. For instance:

Solitude Can be Sweet

I admit that one of my favorite functions on my iTouch are the little casual games that I can get. Some people like to post scores online, but others just like the game. I can see either working...except when you are FORCED into a social model. In one of my games, I am asked to connect to wireless EVERY time, presumably so I can post scores on the public leader board.

This can't happen because my iTouch is not usually on wireless, but I still have to dismiss the message. My question is...why can't I permanently disable this function? Posting to a leaderboard won't really destroy my privacy, but the fact is I don't WANT to post the information. Why should I be forced to share it? Who cares? The thousands of anonymous players of the game? I doubt it.

I find this expectation disturbing because the vendor is presuming my buy-in for a service I don't want. It's one thing to offer the option of a public leaderboard for those who want it, but to demand it? Eew.

I Have Multiple Identities for YOUR Sake

There's one school of thought that says that we should accept the merger of our different identities. The founder of Facebook Randi Zuckerberg went so far as to proclaim:

You have one identity... The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly... Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity"

Well, I doth protest. I admit that part of having a multiple identity is ensuring that your boss can't easily find you over the week-end, but it's not the only one. Like many people, I have many interests and functions. I could expose all you blog readers to them, but would you really want to know? Consider that I am interested in the following:

  • Educational Technology
  • Faculty use of educational technology
  • Accessibility
  • Cognitive architecture
  • Unicode!
  • Design and Color Theory
  • Greek Mythology
  • World news
  • Genre Fiction
  • Reality TV
  • Knitting, Embroidery, Beading, Weaving
  • Corgis
  • Techno and Disco on iTunes (with some country & folk)
  • Dialectal variations, particularly phonological
  • Archaeology, especially Mediterrranean
  • Whatever physics special is on the Discovery Channel
  • The effect of Afrocentrism on the Classics field
  • Grammatical gender assignment
  • Post Roman Britain
  • Historiography of the early medieval period
  • The outcomes of laryngeals in Indo-European

Is there any of you interested in ALL of these topics? Should you be? I suspect that all of us have a similar topic list. You'll noticed that I haven't touched on friends and family although of course they are very interesting to me...but you probably don't know all of them.

So if I'm not discussing Indo-European history on this blog, it's not lack of transparency, but a respect for your lack of interest.

Which brings me back to Facebook. I genuinely appreciate the chance to keep in touch, especially with my State College community, but I get the oddest sensation when I check the profiles of my more distant friends and family. I get to "meet" friends of theirs I have never been introduced to and see photos I wouldn't see otherwise. I really feel like I'm seeing something they don't realize I know about.

In most cases, it's harmless, but it still feels like I'm peeking into their living room window sometimes. I'm sure it will sort itself out, but probably in very unexpected and probably untransparent ways.

EmotionML - A Real XML Schema

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Something that caught my eye in the weekly W3C Newsletter was the release of EmotionML 1.0 XML schema (link corrected). The main purpose is to annotate emotional reaction within a recording (video/audio, but conceivably text as well), but the other is to define a framework for emotion recognition on video (Hmmmm).

There are some use cases listed on the site as well as the first draft of the markup, but it looks like a psychology degree would be helpful here. Interestingly, a lot of it has to do with concepts like "arousal", "friendliness", "dominance". At first glance, the values seem a little more related to body language (and inferring emotion from body language).

I can see some very legitimate uses for a markup schema like this, but I also have to confess being a little spooked. How accurate will an "automatic recognition" system be and will it hold up in court? Stay tuned, I guess.

My Mission Statement as a Graphic

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Every now an again, I am involved in discussions about either defining the role in ETS or my role as an instructional designer - preferably in a short sentence. This has been remarkably difficult and subject to interpretation, but for me, the shortest answer is a graphic.

Elizabeth is in the overlap of education and technology

If you still want more explanation - I believe that my "space" is wherever educational issues and technology issues overlap. While I don't work with EVERY issue, there are lots of possibilities including supporting services such as ANGEL or blogs, developing online courses or online multimedia projects, consulting with instructors wishing to use new technology, working with the labs and researching issues such as accessibility, copyright for new media...and of course Unicode.

The text is much more clunky than the picture I think.

Too Much Technology?

A side issue for instructional designers is whether we are technologists or pedagogical specialists. I admit that pedagogy is important, but I do believe that technology is the more marketable skill, but I don't have a problem with labelling myself as a technologist.

Tell an instructor you want to improve his pedagogy and most will glare and comment that everything has been working quite well for them and does not need to change. One in fact told me that theory was nonsense in comparison with practical experience (those who can't do real teaching teach instructors?) We all know that's not true, but the battle to convince faculty that pedagogy theory is valid is as difficult as convincing people that speaking like an Texan does not mean you are stupid.

On the other hand, if you are available to help faculty improve their teaching life and help those pesky students learn more with the magic of technology...there seems to be more interest and more openess to change. It's the technology that's changing, not their pedagogy!

So I think I am one of many instructional designers who walk a delicate line of pretending to be a techie, but really suggesting ways that you can redesign that the tech part works more smoothly. If I during a hands-on software training sessions on iDVD for faculty, we accidentally suggest ways that a video assignment might be tailored for a class (or learning objective), then all I can say is so be it.

I will admit there is a danger though - the tech part does come with the "tech support" challenge. I would say that the more interesting parts of my job are design and consulting, not say, testing audio links in a course or answering help desk questions. There is a valid point that in that ID's have to show that they offer something different from other technology professionals, and that does happen to be pedagogy (or experience with effective technology in educational settings).

I think the difference is that I am still happy to embrace technology, but at a higher level then just creating a Web page (we know many high schoolers who can do that). After all the most exciting thing about all of this is that technology can make us question our pedagogy, and at the end of the day, it is the improvement in teaching that makes this all worth it.