Thursday, September 21, 2006

Lack of curiosity

When I think about what it means to be involved in education, I think primarily about curiosity. I think one should continually be curious about the world around you. One should always want to ask, "What's new?" and then go find out. Coupled with this curiosity is imagination. I think of education as coming up with new ways of looking at old things, of coming up with entirely new things, of rethinking the way we do things. That all requires imagination.

What I sometimes find, however, is a lack of these two things, especially when it comes to technology. There are lots of reasons for this, most of them institutional. I don't know of any field, aside from Computer Science perhaps, where technology is integrated in a way where faculty just simply naturally think about it as they are planning their classes. It's always an afterthought. This, then, leads to a lack of imagination in implementation. How can you possibly come up with something truly interesting and innovative at the last minute? I'll give you an example. I suggested to a professor, someone who is technically savvy and pretty imaginative, that he use Flickr for a class that was image-heavy. He wanted a way for students to comment on photos they had taken and posted to a web site. Now I give him credit for asking, but this was the second week of class before we were having this conversation. And although I explained that Flickr allowed you to comment, even put sticky notes right on the image and if you want, you can close off your collection just to your students, you can do that too. But there wasn't time to demonstrate or come to the class and show how it worked or any of that.

I think I can partly blame myself for this. I don't always reach out before the semester and suggest such things and I think I'll do more of that. I'm currently writing the "Alphabet Soup" of technology for educators on my other blog. That has actually generated some response so far.

Another problem is that faculty, I realize, do not have time to do some of these things. It takes time to set up a Flickr account, perhaps set up a pool for students to work with, write documentation for that. It takes time to make video clips, to think about blogging, to make your Blackboard site more than just a document repository. I know, because I do these things for my own single class and it takes time. And there's no reward, no guarantee of success, and the chance that one will be humilated in front of the class and fail miserably.

Many of the faculty at my institution come from places overflowing with staff and resources. Harvard, for example, has about 12 people on its instructional technology team alone. Yale has 16. Stanford has about 30 (too many for me to count quickly). Most of those places, too, have liaisons for each department and separate out work on classroom/research activities from basic technology needs like email, word processing, etc. For basic support, there's another team of 15 or 20. At these places, a faculty member comes in the semester before and says, "I want an interactive site for anthropology 101" and the site magically appears. Or I want these 100 images scanned and put into a nice powerpoint presentation and voila, it's done. So, naturally, many of them expect the same kind of service when they arrive at our institution. But alas, with one person as a full-time instructional technologist and who also handles general web and technology issues from both faculty and staff, that service is simply not possible.

Would I like to provide that kind of service? Not really. I personally think there's value in doing some of these things yourself. First, you know the material and the best way to present it. Reimagining it in digital form often makes you rethink the way you present the material. I've heard from colleagues who work at these larger institutions that sometimes the projects they create are never used or are used once and discarded. I'm guessing that if you create or help create a project yourself, you will use it. Often, too, if you're just producing digital material from analog versions that have been dropped off, there's never an opportunity to have a conversation about the best way to use the digital material or ways to make it flexible and fit different situations and classes. And there's just that lack of curiosity and imagination again; there's no desire to learn how these things work, how they could transform teaching.

I think most people associate technology with a kind of dystopia where curiosity and imagination have been stripped away. And maybe in the 80s and early 90s when the focus was automation and "making life easier." And maybe that vision of technology still exists now. And it's hard to get beyond that when much of what I and my department end up doing involves the nuts and bolts end of things instead of the fun, imaginative end of things. For me, technology, especially web technologies is all about creativity and imagination, of connecting and "talking" to people, of seeing things in new ways, of words converted to image, of image converted to words, of infinite possibility. Maybe people are afraid of that infinite possibility or maybe, conversely, they feel constrained and hemmed in by technology instead of feeling free to pursue a different path. I wish that more people would be more curious about technology instead of fearful of it. Unfortunately, I may be able to teach them how to use something, suggest possibilities, but I think it's beyond my job duties to instill a sense of curiosity. But I'll keep trying anyway.

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