Thursday, March 01, 2007

Fishing vs. Teaching to Fish

In technology support, we often talk about fishing for people, doing it for them, vs. teaching people to fish, teaching them how to fish. On the staff side of things, it almost always makes more sense for us to teach. Most of the time, the things that staff are doing with technology are things they need to know in order to do their job. So they need to understand how to do these tasks or they can't function very well.

Faculty are more problematic. How much technology is it reasonable for them to know how to use without much help? Certain things might seem obvious--email, for example. However, I know people who don't know how to use email. In fact, I just heard a story about someone who has their secretary type in their email for them. Is this acceptable? I'm leaning towards no. Word processing, too, might seem obvious. Again, I've helped people use some pretty basic features of word processing. And I wonder if the email person also has someone typing up their articles and books. Of course, such tasks used to be commonplace for secretaries, but now they're almost always handled by faculty themselves.

It's the more complex tasks that become an issue. Using course management systems is something I think most people, if they're going to use such systems, should know how to do quite well. Most of the features in CMS's are pretty straightforward. It amazes me how many people ask semester after semester, how to do the basics. They seem to have no sense of understanding the underlying metaphor or rubric of the system in order to figure things out on their own. They're afraid to try. In these cases, I often send instructions or explain the process over the phone rather than do whatever the task is for the faculty member. In my mind, doing the task for them would be akin to my typing their email for them. The task isn't hugely onerous and in order to function effectively, I think they should know how to accomplish the task. But what about creating audio or video? These tasks have many more steps and often require special software and hardware in order to accomplish them. It's this area that I struggle with the most because processing audio and video is a time-consuming task. It's not like uploading a document to Blackboard. But I'd like it to be. Then I'd feel comfortable asking them to take on these tasks.

Recently, I've had several people ask to have some video clips digitized in order to upload in Blackboard or burn to a DVD for use in class. Generally, there are a few ways to approach this. One, someone could drop off the video, leave information about where the clips are to be captured from and we can take care of everything. Two, someone could come in and learn how to do the video processing and do it themselves. Or three, they come in with the intention of learning, but end up watching us do the work, and dictating everything. Scenario three is quite common. What often happens is that they realize that the task is pretty difficult and has multiple steps and many options. And so, they're overwhelmed. Ideally, we'd have a less overwhelming system, but such systems are often expensive. Processing video people is sometimes easier until it gets overwhelming for us. At some point, I fear we'd have more than we could handle.

Plus, I have this sense (maybe I'm wrong) that because we're talking about course content, that the process of putting the content together is part of the faculty member's responsibility. In the same way that someone in the comptroller's office needs to have mastered spreadsheets, a faculty member needs to know how to organize content, including multimedia content. To me, it's part of the process of putting a course together and there's something integral about this process to the way the class is organized.

In addition to that, I'd rather have a conversation about how all that content might be connected rather than continuously teaching people how to create or gather the content. But until the tools get easier to use, perhaps we'll be doing a little of both--fishing and teaching to fish.

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