Exploring TPACK in Higher Education IT

Embarking on this next course, Digital Learning Environments, marks the halfway point in the M.Ed. Digital Education Leadership program at Seattle Pacific University. It is exciting to think that this time next year I will be done! Enough daydreaming and time to share another post! This course is an intensive course (4 weeks) and you can expect at least a weekly post. This post tackles the question of what an ideal learning environment looks like influenced by the ISTE Standards for Coaches 3A, which covers best practices and management strategies when using digital tools, and 3C, which includes coaching educators to use different educational delivery methods well to “extend student learning…and online professional development”.

Our main reading was Shulman (1986) which unpacked the interplay between content and pedagogical knowledge. Now, nearly 20 years later, we include technology knowledge which creates another ambiguous acronym; TPACK (technological, pedagogical and content knowledge). In this post I explore this framework from an IT department perspective and introduce my initial thoughts for the action plan project. I look forward to your feedback via comments or on Twitter.

Participating in a TPACK Framework: IT Department Style

Borwick (2013) provides a succinct outline of TPACK within the framework of how an IT department should interact appropriately in a university. Borwick, according to his blog, has 10 years of higher education IT experience mostly at Wake Forest University. I found two main points that can serve as springboards for a traditional IT department to better understand and implement a TPACK mindset.

The first main point from Borick is that IT departments should focus on their expertise: understanding technology tools, software, electronic components, and how to integrate them efficiently and reliably into a learning environment. Borwick (2013) is clear that IT professionals should not overstep their expertise.

The central IT department should NOT try to guess how this technology should support teaching (pedagogy): the Film department may need HD video, but so might the Biology department. Instead, there should be governance groups, partnerships, and campus experts in pedagogy who help match the technology to the classroom.

There are two important components to this argument. First, IT professionals shouldn’t make pedagogical directives–which is crucial–and the second, Borwick argues IT professionals should collaborate with campus pedagogical experts. The core of a TPACK mindset is a relationship between technology, pedagogy, and content knowledge. Therefore, it is important to get the right people across various departments–or even external experts–to develop strategic plans. Borwick rightly states, “The three TPACK areas are complementary, and you don’t need to know all three.” During my integration phase, in which we receive feedback from our community, one of my cohort members, Becky, brought up the concern regarding a potentially negative impact on morale when, for example, IT department professionals are  instructed to back away from providing pedagogical input because it isn’t their domain of expertise. I think a better way to negotiate the line between the two is to ask how the IT professional’s expertise may assist the pedagogical conversation. There isn’t always a clear differentiation between the those with expertise in different TPACK areas and it might be helpful for IT departments to understand, internally, that TPACK isn’t necessarily their area of expertise, but they can offer a perspective to support others in TPACK.  They can negotiate the conversation in a way that promotes collaboration and invites experts and other colleagues to participate fully while they take more of a subdued role.

The second main point from Borwick is found within his conclusion in which he offers six takeaways. While all of his takeaways are relevant and helpful reminders, I found one, in particular, to be the most crucial when discussing the relationship of TPACK and higher education IT departments. Borwick writes, “IT departments should cultivate relationships with pedagogy experts and content knowledge experts.” I wonder how a university can intentionally implement a TPACK mindset while focusing on cultivating relationships between the area-specific experts. In my experience, it seems that directives are made without much collaboration or conversations–relationship building–and decisions are made without always engaging other opposing thoughts. If IT departments take initiative to cultivate relationships there could be better and more authentic collaboration which may lead to more willingness from otherwise reluctant participants–particularly those who fear technology–to engage. Which is one more reason why I appreciate the modification from TPACK to MPACK, suggested by Polin and Moe (2015), which converts technology to media and materials.

My professor, Rolin Moe, wondered what this might look like when universities tend to operate in silos without much cross-pollination. One example is from a previous institution I used to work at. For a couple years I served as the Teaching and Learning Spaces Liaison at Augsburg College, which is similar in size to SPU, in Minneapolis. Augsburg’s IT department is based on a liaison model. Each liaison supported the holistic needs of specific academic and administrative departments. A liaison’s portfolio was based on their expertise and experience with the content (e.g., a liaison’s B.A. or M.A. may be from the same or similar field of study they supported).

While no IT department is perfect, I appreciated Augsburg’s intentionality it building an IT department equipped with professionals who understood the IT world, troubleshooting, support, but also pedagogical and content needs from the professors. This was further enhanced by the tight integration with Augsburg’s Center for Teaching and Learning and the general role of IT in the academic life of the college. In my role I was responsible for all informal and formal learning space on campus including classroom, labs, and study rooms. Basically I was the main person in charge of learning spaces and collaborated with the facilities department, academic affairs, and professors when needing to make changes and upgrades. In addition to scheduleing courses I also provided support for the facilities department and a couple other departments. The benefit of this portfolio was the natural integration between the areas of expertise (e.g., supporting the facilities department was a natural bridge because of their collaboration when upgrading classrooms). Furthermore, the liaison model thrived on key relationships. Every professor or staff person had their liaison to call when they had a question. Liaisons served as the main contact and when unable to solve an issue directly, the liaison connected with appropriate colleagues in systems, networking, or even in the Center for Teaching and Learning.

A scenario may be a helpful way to unpack what this relationship looks like. A history professor may call her liaison to receive support on adding her email to her new iPad and also have a quick conversation about what it may look like to use the iPad in class. That same professor meets with her liaison the following week to talk through what affordances the iPad may have for use in class. Three days later the liaison calls the history professor to let her know the campus is transitioning to a new Microsoft Word version and informs her of how to upgrade.

Augsburg’s IT department’s liaison model is an example of collaboration between the content expert, pedagogical expert, and technology expert. It might not always be three distinct people, but a network of people with someone who has built strong relationships between each area. There is a lot of potential to reimagine the role of the IT department within the higher education institution in the next 5-10 years. If I only pull one key point out of the Shulman TPACK reading and what Borwick, Polin, and Moe contribute is that collaboration, relationship-building, and cross-pollination is key. We pull in the right people at the right times and realize the lines between the areas are blurred more than ever before, but that doesn’t mean we neglect two and only focus on one. We need a table full of experts in the different areas who can also communication with each other to band together, destroying silos, creating community, sharing knowledge, and creating new knowledge together.

Action Plan: Introductory Thoughts

I am starting to think through what I want to do for my action plan. One idea is to build an action plan for an online program at a local college. There is some interest from a professor to create a certificate program that is delivered online, removing geographical barriers, and is  based on content and format of the current ongoing B.A. course structure. The idea is that a certificate, delivered online, could reach a different audience who are unable to attend in-person because of geographic restraints. Furthermore, the program would be built in such a way that there isn’t a significant amount of extra work for the professor to redesign the courses. For example,the face-to-face course may integrate online components that enables all students–those in the face-to-face B.A. and online certificate students–to participate fully without the professor creating a course for each of the two groups. This college has yet to do much with online learning in general, and I am interested in how my action plan could help them think through the process holistically and strategically while learning from so many universities that have already embarked on the online/blended journey. There is a huge opportunity to think through what the digital learning environment could look like for both the residential students in the major and for the potential certificate pursuing students participating online. Put differently, it might also be worthwhile to ask if and why the school should offer online courses. My professor, Rolin Moe, suggested circling back to understand what the problem is and the end goal is. This cycle can serve as an example to future teachers.

Lim, Morris, Kupritz (2007) provide helpful strategies to navigate the online vs. blended learning environments. There were a number of key takeaways from their research, including the finding that instructions were easier and clearer for students to understand in the blended format vs. the online only format (35). Their recommendation is for professors to offer varied levels of instruction based on the different online environments. This is one benefit of one-to-one conversation or offering spaces–via any medium–for online students to correspond with professors. Furthermore, this area of focus is related to another finding relating to the emotional connection. The authors recommend implementing “several instructional strategies to satisfy learners’ sense of presence and belonging during online or blended learning” (35). Lim et. al. (2007) locate four main strategies as productive means to engage with a sense of presence. First, students should receive feedback on their questions and assignments quickly as well as quick resolution of their technology issues. Secondly, instructors can use techniques to check for understanding “at frequent intervals during instruction.” I might recommend using something such as Clear and Unclear Windows (Ellis, 2001, pp. 72-75).  This could be done easily using a real-time collaborative tool such as Google Slides (one slide is clear and another slide is unclear). Thirdly, instructors should use formative assessment to offer timely feedback “promot[ing[ learners’ motivation for learning achievement.” Finally, the fourth strategy is to be human! In other words, sit back and laugh a little–allow relationships to grow between student peers and instructor. Lim, et. al., encourages instructors to integrate “humor so the learners feel emotionally refreshed and engaged.” One might argue for the use of emoticons!

Admittedly I am not overly clear on what my action plan will focus on. As it is now, it seems very broad and I suppose a narrowing is in order. I look forward to your feedback and brainstorming ideas.


Borwick, J. (2013, March 25). The information technology department’s role in higher education, seen through the “TPACK” model. Retrieved from http://www.heitmanagement.com/blog/2013/03/the-information-technology-departments-role-in-higher-education-seen-through-the-tpack-model/

Ellis, Arthur K. Teaching, Learning, and Assessment Together: The Reflective Classroom. Eye on Education. 2001.

Lim, Doo Hun; Morris, Michael L.; Kupritz, Virginia W.; Online vs. blended learning: differences in instructional outcomes and learning satisfaction. Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, v11 n2 p27-42 Jul 2007. Retrieved from:

Polin, L., & Moe, R. (2015, in publication)  Situating TPACK in mediated practice.  In K. Graziano & S. Bryners-Bogey’s Handbook for Educational Technology Teaching.

Shulman, L. S. (1986). Those who understand: Knowledge growth in teaching. Educational researcher, 4-14.

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