Tuesday, July 14, 2009

They Moved My Cheese and Turned it into Limburger

Reading our various assignments this week made me recall a rather famous quotation from former French President Charles de Gaulle: “How can anyone govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheese?” The readings, particularly “The Horizon Report” are forcing me to re-shape de Gaulle’s famous quotation from the perspective as a teacher seeking to integrate technology into the online classroom and the student trying to assimilate the whims and quirks of each online class:

How can anyone possibly test out software/websites/ thingamajigs that come in two hundred and forty-six different varieties?

And there’s an even better question:

How do we know what we don’t know?

And then there’s this killer:

When we find out what we don’t know, where do we find the time to test-run these possibilities out?

That, if you’ll bear with me through one more quote, reminds me of something said by Scott Adams in his Dilbert comic strip: “[It’s] like sandblasting a soup cracker.”

I’m the soup cracker. All this information is the sand coming at me, stripping the paint right off.

First off, one of the most pertinent things said in The Horizon Report – and this applies for teachers, students, and, frankly, anyone repurposing text, images, et cetera – comes on page six of the executive summary: “The challenge is to develop curricula and assessment rubrics that address not only traditional capabilities like developing an argument over the course of a long paper, but also how to apply those competencies to other forms of communication such as short digital videos, blogs, or photo essays.”

I have a practical example here, which comes from the 10 ½ years I spent in journalism. I got my degree in journalism and mass communication in 1997, so not too long ago. Looking back on my education now, I’m shocked and appalled as to how little computer technology – aside from word processing – played in that education. I was going into the communication business, and by golly just about anything I learned about how to use technology in communication came from other disciplines. I used my student e-mail a lot more for English and French classes – E-mail was a requirement in the French classes I took – than I ever did in journalism. Because of one of my English classes I discovered that the university had space set aside for students on their uhhhh, word is eluding me for the moment . . . servers for students to create their own web pages, so I did, and had a lot of fun with it. In journalism, and while on staff for the school newspaper, our only connection with technology was through word processing. We had a web edition, but that was done by a little sequestered group that was brought in at the last minute after everything else was done. (To be fair, the paper was also designed and paginated on computers, but that, again, was handled by a little sequestered group that gave the rest of us odd and furtive glances as we came in and out of the newspaper office.

Then I went into professional journalism and retrogressed. The first paper I worked at had DOS-based computers that were modern in the lat 1960s, and pagination was accomplished with waxed paper cut with X-acto blades and stuck on other bits of paper, with plastic tape covering everything to keep it all in place until the proofs got to the printer. We did eventually graduate to PCs, but for months went without e-mail – I acted as a courier, bringing computer disks of our stories from a branch office to the main office, 15 miles away.

The next paper was better, but only just. We had e-mail and a web presence, but again, we were all sequestered away from each other. We had more access to technological tools at home than I did at work.

Now, thanks to the work I’ve done at http://www.uncharted.net/, through blogging and pure and simple experimentation with the wizardry of computers beyond word processors, I’ve started my real education. And it’s frustrating to see how far behind I am. But I’m not alone – as The Horizon Report authors point out on page seven of the executive summary: “even old technology hands often tire at the thought of learning yet another way of working.” And it’s even more tiresome to work hard at learning a new technological feat only to have it superseded by something else even more amazing.

Part of the difficulty, as the report authors point out (page seven) is that “we have seen many of the technologies and practices highlighted in this series converge, morph, and shift over the years, evolving in ways that continue to keep them in our sights as they move to nearer and nearer adoption horizons.” As we learn to blog, for example, suddenly we see blogs evolving from portals of self-expression to teaching portals, commerce portals, what have you – and that’s only a superficial look at what’s going on. Imagining how social operating systems (page eight), the mind bogglingly-complex mogulus.com and stickam.com (page ten) might work in any environment, let alone an online classroom environment is staggering to keep up with.

So as I read, I had a lot more questions than answers popping up:

First of all, to make these technologies work, we have to experiment with them. We have to find out what we don’t know. Then, we have to find the value in them. Then we have to figure out how to sell that value to administrators, bosses, co-workers, and students, in order to make the experimentation plus value equal useful participation. I’m doing this kind of equation with Twitter right now, and I’m still in the experimentation phase. As far as I can tell, Twitter has got me connected with a string of multi-level marketers, Apple snobs, users putting on the personae of Ernest P. Worrell and Charles Nelson Riley and, on occasion, ladies who want to share naked pictures with me. (Those get condemned to Twitter’s version of hell, “Blocked Users,” fairly quickly.) Finding the value can be a difficult thing to accomplish.

Technology is making the world speed up, and do so quickly. I was actually frightened a bit by the authors’ description of a possible use of social operating systems (page 27):

Students working on a research paper often do not fully realize what it means to be a scholar. Of the network of activities that scholars are involved in – writing, researching, interacting with peers and colleagues, presenting at conferences and symposia, and so on – only a small part is apparent to a student doing research. Every idea, paper, experiment, and artifact is, in reality, attached to a person or group of people who helped bring it about. Imagine the impact of tools that place those people and relationships at the center of any research inquiry: concepts clearly linked to people; connections between those people and other clearly indicated; a much more complete picture of the topic would emerge, more quickly than is possible with current tools. Simply changing the organizing principle – from products or concepts to people and their connections – will change the kinds of results that are revealed.

I imagined some poor scientist or scholar, already frenzied in keeping up with his or her discipline, technology and other pressing matters, suddenly being inundated with questions from students all over the globe, wanting insights, information, handouts, et cetera. Where does one find the time to respond to everyone?

But of course it is coming to be like that. Last semester, I used Twitter as a research springboard for a paper I wrote for Dave Hailey’s Publications Management class. Because Twitter allowed me to connect with people as well as ideas, the paper I wrote was richer because of it. I can see the use. But the widespread application of it all staggers the imagination and opens the true possibility of the Internet becoming even more of a time sink than it already is. Of course there will be countermeasures: Those being inundated can use the same social operating systems to separate the wheat from the chaff, the deep thinkers from the cursory thinkers, cutting down on the number of responses that must be given. But hellllllllp the idea of all that coming at you at once still beggars the imagination and brings new force to the exhortation: Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in the day.

Then comes the second question: Can I keep up with all of this? Yeah. When I find the time.

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