Interview | The Specialist

There are plenty of new technology titles these days, enough to make your head spin. In the world of edtech, one such example is “Instructional Design Specialist”. This could mean a lot of things to a lot of different people, so we brought it down to specifics and had a chat with someone who is in fact an Instructional Design Specialist and very good at what he does. Christopher Johnson (pictured) joined the Rollins Crummer Graduate School of Business, a Winter Park, Fla.-based MBA program in 2010. He has since been instrumental in launching the leading business school’s first blended MBA program, helping to design the delivery methods for their online component and implementing the best methods and practices that embody the school’s level of quality. In creating a compelling, world-class learning environment, Chris brought with him his experience as director of academic computing at New York Law School, Sungard Higher Education and other leading organizations. With a Master of Education in Instructional Technology from American International University and a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University, Chris has been a key part of transforming education through technology, and here he explains more about his own role and some great advice on what’s helped him through.

Victor: What is an instructional technologist? What brought you to the Rollins MBA program? With you onboard, what is Rollins MBA doing differently?

Chris: An instructional technologist’s job is to facilitate and improve the learning process through technology. I think it’s essential to emphasize the “instructional” part of the title – learning is king, technology is its servant.  Sometimes we get that backwards by thinking we need to hype the latest gadget, trend, or software to our institutions, lest we seem “out of date”…but if a technology doesn’t address an identified need, then it’s just a solution in search of a problem. 

I think that this approach was one of the reasons I was brought on board for the Rollins MBA program.  The Rollins MBA is highly esteemed; it continually appears at or near the top of many prestigious national rankings.  This hard-won reputation was a main consideration as they began to plan for a new blended learning program: they were concerned that the Rollins MBA might be lumped in with the many dubious online degree programs that litter the web.  My “learning first” philosophy was a good fit for their first blended learning program – I understood that technology must not be the “star”.  The heart of the Rollins MBA is in the vibrant interaction of students, teachers, and ideas; so the role of technology is to let discussion and community continue as seamlessly as possible, whether the location is on-campus or online.  I think that the technology should be reliable and invisible (or at least frictionless).  If a class is remembered mainly as “that Blackboard class”, I’ve failed.

Victor: How is online learning changing MBA programs? What are the pitfalls?

Chris: The impact of online learning on MBA programs has been swift and significant – but far from universally positive. The easy set up and relative low cost of web technologies has led to an explosion of shady, fly-by-night “online” MBA degrees – it can be hard to separate the signal from the noise.  I think that the social value of the MBA degree – its public perception – has been damaged by these dubious online programs.

Where they’ve been applied thoughtfully, online technologies have added value to MBA programs – extending their accessibility and providing the framework for innovative forms of collaboration and “lateral” learning.  But any educational tech, online or otherwise, is worthless unless it sits firmly on the tried-and-true foundations: accreditation, solid curriculum, exceptional faculty, and meaningful assessment.

Victor: What have you done at Rollins MBA to get students and faculty into ‘the cloud’? How has it gone?

Chris: During our orientation workshops for incoming students, I do a workshop on “Collaboration and Presentation Tools: In the Cloud”.  Our classes involve a lot of team projects, so I show them how they can collaborate with a variety tools – things like social bookmarking, like Diigo and Notable; and we do some real-time, hands-on collaboration with Google Docs, which is always fun. I also introduce them to Google+ Hangouts with Extras, which always elicits some “ooohs and ahhhs”.

Faculty members are a different bunch, with different needs.  They don’t require the same sort of collaborative document sharing as the students working in teams do – their documents are fixed items such as tests, articles, and other assignment materials.  Blackboard is a perfect and familiar platform for this, so why switch?  However, I have recruited one intrepid instructor to abandon Blackboard and try out Coursekit next term.  I love the look and feel of Coursekit; I’m eager to see how it performs in our real-world experience.

Victor: What does a higher education executive really need to know about cloud computing? What are the benefits of moving to the cloud?

Chris: A higher ed executive should first understand that “cloud computing” is a multi-layered concept, so the term might mean one thing when used by your C.I.O., and another when used by a faculty member (or an instructional designer, like me).  I have been using the term “cloud” to refer to free and popular “software as service” and “platform as service” products such as Google Docs, Prezi, etc.  The benefits of these sorts of cloud services are self-evident; as they are free.  If you promote such tools, just be sure you specify the level of support your I.T. Help Desk will (or will not) provide for these services.

When your C.I.O. or other high-level I.T. personnel mentions cloud-computing, they are almost certainly using the term to mean “Infrastructure as Service” – e.g. using cloud services  data storage, or migrating other major systems to a third party service.  Obviously, this is a far weightier topic than the neat things you can do on Google+,  so the benefits of moving to the cloud must be carefully determine by each individual school or organization.

Victor: What products or offerings do you see having an impact on technology in higher education?

Chris: I am excited by “ground-up”, social technologies that are being developed by real-world students – two excellent examples are Piazza (developed by Stanford MBA and friend of Rollins Pooja Sankar) and Coursekit (developed by three undergrads).

Victor: From your perspective, what are a few top issues in technology and higher education?

Chris: The “elephant-in-the-room” issue in technology and higher education is, in my opinion, the inevitable demise of the large, expensive, “walled garden” Learning Management System (I won’t name names – it’s a very short list).  Both the pricing structure and the architecture of that LMS must radically change, or be assigned to the ash heap of history.

Victor: I know, a very broad, general question, but could be fascinating: What are your thoughts on education these days?

Victor: My philosophy is that we’re in the business of education — we’re here to serve the learning process. Not to replace it with something else or jazz it up with shiny things. And what was particularly true with the Rollins MBA and what is true for higher education in general is that you need to focus on what is the core of what your school is covering first. What distinguishes your school has so much to do with human interaction, the school community, team learning, collaboration. Technology is there to keep the conversation going – to make sure that the interaction is vibrant and that the collaboration and community is not diluted in any way and isn’t impeded or made awkward by  or made impersonal by technology. You shouldn’t lead with the technology.

Victor: What’s your take on the future of technology in higher education? What makes you say that?

Chris: To continue what I was saying about the elephant in the room. Heavy learning management systems and big enterprise systems that are huge and expensive – that’s not a sustainable model. The future is going to become more light an varied and less centrally controlled. It is best to let students and faculty members figure out for themselves the best technology. That’s why I’m excited about the cloud-based and open source that the students have come up with themselves. The Course Kit is brilliant – completely free – and any instructor or institution can use it for their classes. It’s based on a social media model  and feels like social media. Has a timeline a stream you share docs and info and relationships. Simple to use. Future is going to be in those sorts of things. Piazza is the other one. That was developed by Stanford MBA grad  while she was a student. It crowdsources questions but in an intelligent way – questions get answered more quickly than they did before – even face to face. Simple idea that is working really well and has been adapted by many schools across country and also got $6million in VC funding and a brilliant write up in the NYT before that happened. I think that’s the future of educational tech. will be led by the NEED — as it should be. Organic developments. The changes will be driven by the needs of the learning process – what do students  need, instructors need, what does the process need. Always be wary of the latest trend – it should be based on what is needed not what the latest gadget or trend is.

Victor: Very cool—thanks, Chris!

Chris: You’re welcome, Victor!


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to:


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