Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Transparent Technology

For this post, I’ll build on a theme I started in my journal earlier today – I’m in the blissful stage of not knowing what I don’t know about designing an online course. Or designing any kind of course, for that matter. That’s not necessarily good nor bad, but it does let me go into the process wide-eyed, without any preconceived notions, willing to respond to, consider, and adapt advice I might find along the way.

There’s lots of good advice in this week’s readings, with the most useful coming from Kelli’s chapter in the Online Education book. The most significant nugget of advice from her chapter is to think first of pedagogy (or androgogy), and technology second. This is a sentiment that Horton echoes as well. This is good advice for me because it’s preventing me from putting the cart before the horse. While that may be a good way to keep the cart’s wheels clean, it’s not necessarily the best method for long-distance travel.

Kelli writes: “When used every day, technologies become transparent until they are virtually invisible or unrecognizable as technologies.” She goes on to add that technology is still important as it permits and constrains the teaching activities for which they are used. She provides the examples of chalk and slate, then of paper and pencil, as technologies that were paradigm shifters, much as computers are, but have now slipped into ubiquity and transparency, much as computers have as well.

As an example of this transparency, when I moved from journalism to technical writing, I was not surprised in the least, my first day at the RWMC, to see a computer in my cubicle. I expected it and took it for granted that a computer would be provided. Had I walked into the cubicle and found a typewriter on a desk facing a straight-backed wooden chair, I would have been much more surprised. Computer technology is simply what we expect to have.

Another example of the transparent nature of technology comes through in this YouTube clip:

(I apologize for slightly salty language at the end.) This comedian makes a good point, though, we do take the technology we have for granted. So I appreciate the reiterative emphasis among Kelli, Horton and Grady/Davis on building the pedagogy before jumping into the technology – because it’s helped me put the brakes on what I was thinking for my online course as far as technology goes and get me thinking about why I want to use this technology in the first place. Setting course goals, deciding on activities and assessment first, then choosing technology to fit the goals, activities and assessments makes a lot more sense than just leaping into the technology itself and assuming that the technology will aid in teaching. Assuming that because students have access to and understand how to use paper and pencil without planning activities to help them use these “new” tools is also as foolish. (I have another YouTube video that illustrates that):

For example, a few years ago my wife and I took a class on Photoshop because we could see how that particular tool would really help us in our careers (she was teaching yearbook at the time; I was working as a journalist and looking for ways to get out of the “word-processor only” mindset). It was assumed that everyone in the class had a computer with Photoshop on it – and that’s about as much preparation as the instructors put into the course. As this was a continuing education course, it was not taught by the university’s instructor, but by students who were told, very loosely it seemed, that they were to teach people the basics of Photoshop. As far as I can remember, the basics included talking about layers, again and again, because we had several classmates who would arrive an hour late each day, and the instructors would simply start the lesson again. That happened every day for three weeks, so we left the course knowing little more than we went into it. The students teaching the class didn’t seem to have planned much of anything except to say, “Well, OK, we’ll teach them the basics of Photoshop.” I can see now that had they planned the course more carefully before leaping into the technology, we should have learned more. Also, they should have shot the persistent latecomers.

So this begs the question, one that we’ve hit upon since the start: How do we, as instructional designers, pull back the reins on the powers that be who say since we have the technology we ought to leap online? This is not an original question to be sure, but it’s one I’m seeing the import of much more clearly after having read this week’s assignments.

This leads into discussing Grady/Davis, and their thoughts on building the proper scaffolding for online courses. I’ve worked as a hod carrier and bricklayer in my time, and can emphasize that the job is a lot easier if you’ve got a sturdy scaffold that provides access to the job site. A few years ago I recall helping my brother build a 35-foot-tall chimney up the side of a house, and the complicated scaffold we built to get us up there. Building the scaffold, even a piece at a time as the chimney rises, is a real pain because of the work involved, but after you’ve stumbled and nearly fallen 20 or so feet to the ground because you’re reaching too high because your scaffold is too low, you appreciate the work that goes into building one.

Another question arises: How an we as industrial designers/teachers justify the time and expense it takes to build the proper scaffold when we’re working under management that’s gung-ho to get the job done? Where I work, some times a week is an eternity to upper management to get things done. I can’t imagine going to them and saying, well, I need three months, six months to get this done – and that’s without ever having built an online course before, so I have no idea how long it’s supposed to take.

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