What follows is my own attempt to figure out what I think about the subjects discussed, so it has no official standing whatever. John Blackburn's parallel text [found via Wayback, 29vii '04] complements what I've written.
29-30 April 1999
(see also subsequent
scheme of 13 May, and some links for
Thinking and planning for the future of "technology in teaching" or "computers and learning" or "information technology" is hampered by the familiar bugaboos of
We have no trouble agreeing that computers are at the center of this future, that students, faculty and staff need to develop skills of various sorts, and that the university should provide the infrastructure for this evolution. We agree on the desirability of planning, and aspire to "fully integrate technology" into the educational process.
We can look back on a recent past of remarkable changes: networked computers are on all faculty and staff desks and in many public locations, students have ready access to network facilities, and W&L has a well-developed presence on the Web. Most of the W&L community is more or less adept at the basics of the (1) communication and (2) information retrieval aspects of computer use, and a growing minority is actively involved in (3) creation of multimedia content for electronic distribution.
In the near future: A growing interest in multimedia, and in data visualization. "Electronic classrooms" are on the horizon, though their contents and uses are still in debate. Other future directions might include web pages for the Class of 2003 (which could contribute to the enskilling of new users), and my portfolio scheme, which could greatly expand student participation in content creation for the Web.
We really know remarkably little about how people at W&L actually use computing resources, though there's anecdotal evidence of lots of MP3 files choking the student server, and public computers that can be used for e-mail (such as those in the Reference circle in Leyburn Library) are used for that purpose much more than for other forms of information retrieval. Students are widely believed to use the web as the primary source for information they might previously have found within the library, and are said to use what they find uncritically.
I've been trying to identify rubrics for the various facets of "information technology" that I have heard discussed in recent meetings, to separate means and objectives that underly the concerns of various constituencies and client bases, and at the moment I have 6 that seem salient and distinct:
The basic use of the desktop workstation, as described by Vannevar Bush as a personal utility and by JCR Licklider as a networked communication tool. In its contemporary form, especially but not exclusively the province of librarians, and including the teaching of skills for navigating and evaluating information resources, electronic and traditional print. Also including the introduction of such novel forms of information as GIS and images, and issues of file management, serving and storageDiagnosis of the moment: We have a broad array of databases and services readily available and our end users enjoy great freedom at negligible cost. Reference Librarians teach research skills in classes and reach about 1/3 of the students. Few students (and probably few faculty and staff) have much sophistication about management of their own file space, and there doesn't seem to be much curiosity about electronic frontiers --people learn to use what they must, but few are pushing any envelopes.
Storage space seems infinite, as its per-unit costs plummet. This encourages people to save everything, but doesn't inspire orderly storage; paradoxically, lots of 'documents' are ephemeral, on the web today and nowhere tomorrow.
Principally concerned with using multimedia resources in classroom settings, but including the skills and equipment necessary for creation of those resources, and thus involving plans for expansion of Media Center facilitiesDiagnosis of the moment: perhaps a score or so of faculty are actively exploring ways to use electronic resources in classes. There's a general perception that there's no particular reward for the investment of time necessary to develop curricular materials, and knowing how and where to begin is problematic. Demonstration projects, involving collaboration with Media Center, librarians, University Computing are one way to address this, but the fact is that most faculty see little to be gained from what looks like a lot of work.
Self-paced use of distributed resources, including web documents and networked applications; also includes the delivery of how-to and help materialsDiagnosis of the moment: we have help files and pathfinders in profusion (mostly as web pages), but it's difficult to know how effective they are. My impression is that they aren't much used. On the other hand, people everywhere seem to be browsing the web and (presumably) reading what they retrieve --in short, taking their educations [in the broadest sense] into their own hands. It's hard to know to what degree this is just another form of entertainment, but a lot of people do conduct important parts of their lives electronically --buying, finding out about, keeping track of. This can't help but grow.
Making and publishing content, developing and presenting to audiences as an essential part of the educational process.Diagnosis of the moment: a lot of opportunities here, and remarkable enthusiasm for the medium of the web page in the courses I've used this approach with. It's now easy to make web pages, and they are beginning to have a cultural salience not foreseen by Tim Berners-Lee and other forefathers.
Prescription: encourage the use of the web as an expository tool, in the process changing the audience for (e.g.) coursework to something larger than the professor --to members of the course, or everybody at the institution, or perhaps the world at large. Foment use as a personal writing and organizing tool, perhaps in the form of electronic commonplace books.
Current interest in this possibility is in the realm of international collaboration, and seems at the moment to focus on teleconferencingDiagnosis of the moment: very early stages of thinking about possibilities and implications. The 'distance link' with Davidson (considered a few years ago) is probably worth examining to determine what seems not to work. In this pipeline form it seems pretty limiting. How could we go beyond the predictable, into new territory? What would it take to set up and manage a laptop-based multimedia 'roving reporter' program for the use of W&L students overseas? Would such an initiative add anything to international awareness --or would it just get in the way of immersion experience by tying the reporter to W&L?
E-mail is (arguably) the most frequent and important use made of computing facilities by students. It's remarkable how few students (and faculty and staff) are involved with web pagesDiagnosis of the moment: people LIKE e-mail. They LIVE in a world of dyadic message-passing, but we really don't know anything about the content.
I've been trying to imagine innovations and evolutions that would do the most to change the culture of computing at W&L, without a lot of success. It's interesting that laptop culture is so little in evidence --not that laptops are all that wonderful (in fact I despise their compromises and find them very frustrating to use), but they are much more common at lots of institutions not so very different from W&L. Would wireless networking make a difference? Or is it really a matter of waiting for the next versions of the technology? And in fact it may be that hardware is less important than changing the public notions of what information is all about.
It's obvious that computers have become full members of the global network of communications technologies, though the tacit assumption in academic circles often seems to be that they are really just glorified typewriters and adding machines, and as such are peripheral to the real mental work of academe. It is this identity as a communication tool that should be at the center of our efforts to "fully integrate technology" into education.