Saturday, April 02, 2005

While I'm thinking about books . . .

Two book reviews at once.

I just had a group discussion of The Tipping Point and just finished reading The Cluetrain Manifesto. Both were good books. The Tipping Point examines what makes something tip, mostly the little things that make a big difference (subtitle of the book) while The Cluetrain Manifesto examines a particular "tipped" phenomenon, the internet, and how it will affect the way we do business (and the cluelessness of most management to leverage the internet appropriately).

It's interesting to think of both at once. I do not consider myself an extreme early adopter, one of those people who goes out and buys something the minute it comes on the market just because it might be the next big thing! For most things, especially technologically speaking, I am in the next wave of early adopters. It's been tested and used and found useful by the early adopters, but not yet picked up by the mainstream. Blogging is a good example. I've been aware of blogging for a long time. I tried to start a professional blog a few years ago, but didn't really make the time to make it work. Blogging has kind of tipped in that the mainstream is at least aware of it and some mainstream type people are reading and writing blogs. I'd say I became really involved just before that happened (at least reading; took a little longer to commit to writing one). So now I'm promoting blogging as an educational tool and doing lots of presentations on it. I know I'm not the first to do this, but I'm the first in my community to do this. I'm trying lots of little things, a la The Tipping Point, to get the community interested and to hopefully make it take off within my community. But I'm also facing resistance (not much, but a little) from administrative types, a la The Cluetrain Manifesto, who are worried about liability, about "internet speak" taking away from academic discourse, about support issues (who maintains the server? who helps the users?).

In our discussion of The Tipping Point, we were all talking about how we haven't exactly gotten technology integration into education to "tip" yet. I wonder if The Cluetrain Manifesto doesn't offer one possible answer for this. The point of the book is that the internet is a place where conversation takes place; it is where we become human again and where our individual human voices can be heard. The authors' metaphor for this is the marketplace of old, where vendors sold meat and baskets from stalls and people milled around and talked to each other; the vendors told stories of places far away while customers talked about the lives of local villagers and their families. It's also a place where ideas get exchanged, where real communication can happen. What the authors suggest is that big business managers are too interested in controlling the message and are afraid that allowing their employees to speak freely in public will damage their image, or decrease sales.

I wonder if there isn't some "controlling of the message" going on in a classroom. Is there a fear that if students are let loose on the internet to explore a topic, they might come back with misinformed ideas or might form ideas that are different from the ones presented in class? Or perhaps, as someone suggested in a comment to an earlier post, it is just a general fear of change? It's interesting because we're interviewing students (22 of them) for a summer internship. One of the questions my colleagues ask is about a class that they haven't enjoyed and what they would do to make it better if they were teaching the class. Everyone who is asked this question (and 99% are) says something to the effect of "I hate being lectured to. I want to be able to express my ideas or to get some hands-on experience working with the material." I suspect that the professors in question would like to provide that kind of class, but don't have time to do so or maybe don't even know how to begin that kind of re-structuring of what they do. I'm raising my hand to offer assistance. I can think of all kinds of ways to help that situation without changing the lecture format at all.

So back to the books. I also see a real sense of "controlling the message" going on in the upper-level administration. I actually would love to see someone from every department (admissions, resources, facilities) start a blog and just write about what they're working on, including the frustrations they're having. Imagine what that would do for communication. The best thing that happened to me was getting moved into an office with other people. Finally, we could share information, discuss projects, find out what the heck was going on in different divisions. The internet could be a place where more of that happens. We have a list of services we provide and who provides them. That list is not available to the public. When I ask why, I am told that we don't want people calling those people directly. I know that many people don't want to be interrupted in their work. Well, don't answer your phone. Pick a time during the day to deal with those calls and e-mails that come directly to you. I actually think that the calls and e-mails wouldn't necessarily increase. What I think would happen is people would realize all the services we do provide. Something very interesting could result from that.

My take home message from thinking about both the books together. If you keep a tight fist around communication, no tipping will ever happen.