I get the sense occasionally that some of my colleagues see me as an evangelist for the use of new technologies in the classroom and in academic research. If I’m a technological missionary, though, my faith and more importantly my knowledge of what I preach is pretty weak.
There are so many things I would like to know how to do, so many technologies that seem or sound interesting to me. But I have the same basic self-protecting instinct that my colleagues have: in many cases, it’s better not to know about a technological possibility at all than to know just a little bit. Knowing a little bit becomes an obligation to know more and more, to break out your pitons and ice axes and start climbing a steep learning curve. Expressing an interest in something off-handedly can be a signal that you’re seeking resources, training, access. And maybe you are, but not now. At the same time, though, you can’t just leap on people with support capabilities in late May and say, “NOW NOW NOW”. (As if I had the energy to in late May anyway.)
It’s also that the acquisition of new technological competencies is impossible (at least for me) if I’m not putting what I’m learning to immediate and repeated use. The immediate spur to this post was a reminder from a colleague in our Information Technology department that there were opportunities for me to further explore GIS. I’ve been generously supported to attend a GIS workshop in the past. I learned a lot, but most of the hands-on competency I acquired in three days I would have to re-acquire, because I wasn’t able to put it to immediate use.
The problem is also that I learned that to use GIS in a classroom in the way that I imagined using it (largely to talk about spatial and visual information as historical knowledge, or as a part of a class on using virtual worlds as a tool for representing and teaching history), I would almost certainly have to devote a significant portion of the class to instruction in the technology. That’s a pedagogical problem that isn’t just confined to information technology: when you try to teach both a technique or a literacy and some kind of content, you often do a bad job at both. But if you try to teach some form of literacy by itself, it’s often so arid and mind-numbing that students turn off. If you try to teach content that presupposes a kind of literacy, it’s equally unsatisfying. I think you end up having to limit yourself to exploring a single technological or technical skill in a content-centric course. In my History of Play and Leisure class next year, I’d like to get the students to make short machinima–but I have to balance that aspiration against basic literacies needed to explore computer and video games, which I don’t think you can assume all students naturally have already.
In a lot of cases, even when you’re very certain about the usefulness and intellectual power of a new technology, the cost-to-benefit ratio of actually using it is not very favorable. It might be too time-consuming to learn. It might be a technological platform which will shortly go obsolete. It might be too difficult to teach to students, or rely on lower-level competencies that you’ll also have to teach. It might be that you’re too busy or harried right now. Or that your available time to learn a new technology is unpredictable–I know I’m tremendously inhibited about calling up someone and saying, “Hey, I happen to have two hours free now, could you train me?” Other people have schedules and demands, too. Plus, once again, learning something in those serendipitious hours does you no good unless you’ve got a plan for using it right away. If you had a plan, you’d be able to schedule training at right moment.
The schizoid awareness of the usefulness and power of new tools versus fear of the costs to my time and energies leads me, at least, to cultivating a deliberately hazy attitude towards information technology in general. I keep my fingers on the pulse as much as I can, but try not to become too acutely aware of opportunities or facilities that might compel me to respond at this very moment. I got to see our current faculty resource room just yesterday for the first time in quite a while and it is unbelievably awesome. It was kind of painful to see, though, because now I feel this incredible desire, a burdensome desire, to do something more ambitious than the modest immediate project I had in mind for some of this equipment. It’s techno-guilt: the machines are like a beloved relative that I don’t call nearly as often as I should.
The further behind the bleeding edge you get, the more acute the anxiety becomes. I’ll often criticize the technological literacy of academics, especially when it comes to research tools and publication tools, but there is a point at which it may be entirely rational to simply shut down all awareness of change. The ways in which most institutions support faculty retraining or the acquisition of new literacies are interstitial and voluntaristic. You do it when you can and when the institution can. Which means, much of the time, that you don’t do it at all. To really do it right, in a way, faculty and staff would almost have to shut down all of our ongoing business and spend concentrated and dedicated time on acquiring new literacies or technical skills.