Shallows or Depths?

Yesterday, we had a Tech N Talk on the effects of technology on student learning. Psychology professor Grace Baron and three of her students led a conversation about what they learned in a senior seminar in the Fall Semester.

My quick opening remarks went something like this:

There can be no doubt that we are now immersed in a digital environment. Whether you are actively using technology as a teacher or not, it is effecting teaching and learning. We have ubiquitous wireless on campus combined with 3G and 4G networks, which together essentially ensure that we have access to the Web just about everywhere and 24/7. Add mobile devices like iPhones to the mix and now we don’t have to be at our desk or even carrying a laptop to take advantage of that access. In addition, many of the new tools now take advantage of this networked environment, many that we’ve highlighted in our Tech N Talks: Diigo, GoogleDocs, onCourse, Voicethreads, blogs, wikis. They rely on a networked, connected environment for their success.

And this connected environment has really changed the way that faculty teach and students learn. onCourse provides access 24/7 to information about the course and in some instances a place to carry on conversations between classes. Class blogs can serve a similar function, but they also allow students to interact with those outside the classroom and give students experience with writing to external audiences. GoogleDocs, Voicethreads, Diigo, and wikis enhance opportunities for collaboration at times even erasing the boundaries that define authorship and ownership of a text. Access to information for research or even simply as fodder for discussion can now literally be in the palm of your hand. And modes of sharing information in academia have become decentralized; it’s no longer centered on the publishing industry or even on the academic paper.

Given this environment what are useful questions for faculty to ask? What do faculty members need to think about when teaching within this environment? Here’s what I came up with:

  • How is my chosen technological tool helping me reach my pedagogical goals?
  • Can my chosen tool change my goals? Do I want it to?
  • What technical skills do my students need to be professionals within my discipline?
  • How does the networked environment influence my discipline? Does it change the way we publish? Does it change the way we write? Does it change the way we communicate in general with others in our discipline? Does it change the way information in the discipline is created and consumed?
  • How can I help my students navigate all of the information in this networked environment?

Professor Baron and her students went on to discuss their own and their discipline Psychology’s hopes, concerns, and fears about the effects of this digital environment. They were all heavily influenced by Nicolas Carr’s The Shallows, which they read in the class and while they acknowledged many of the benefits (social, intellectual,etc.) that technology brings, they also worried, like Carr, that today’s students are losing the capacity for deep reflection. Grace Baron argued that we need to build more of this kind of reflection about the effects of technology into the curriculum.

My own opinion? Being an academic technologist and a bit of an evangelist myself, I probably find myself falling into the “Never-Better” or the “Ever-Wasers” camps, which Adam Gopnik recently described in a New Yorker article which surveys the different books that are currently out there about the Internet (of which The Shallows is a part):

All three kinds appear among the new books about the Internet: call them the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers. The Never-Betters believe that we’re on the brink of a new utopia, where information will be free and democratic, news will be made from the bottom up, love will reign, and cookies will bake themselves. The Better-Nevers think that we would have been better off if the whole thing had never happened, that the world that is coming to an end is superior to the one that is taking its place, and that, at a minimum, books and magazines create private space for minds in ways that twenty-second bursts of information don’t. The Ever-Wasers insist that at any moment in modernity something like this is going on, and that a new way of organizing data and connecting users is always thrilling to some and chilling to others—that something like this is going on is exactly what makes it a modern moment. One’s hopes rest with the Never-Betters; one’s head with the Ever-Wasers; and one’s heart? Well, twenty or so books in, one’s heart tends to move toward the Better-Nevers, and then bounce back toward someplace that looks more like home.

But I think it’s important to note that this is a moment of change and transition, and we are both losing and gaining something in this moment — as we have done with almost every technology that was introduced. It would be foolish to try to stop it, because the benefits are very real. But we need to be cognizant about what we’re losing as well and try our best to identify and hold onto what’s valuable among those things that might be slipping away.

Tech N Talk Schedule

I’ve blogged a couple times about Tech N Talks. In case you’re interested, here’s the full schedule along with the description that I sent out at the beginning of the semester to our faculty listserv:

Tech ‘N’ Talk Tuesdays:
12:30 – 1:30, the Faculty Lounge in Emerson
The Research and Instruction Department of LIS presents a series of brown bag lunchtime conversations about technology’s intersection with teaching and research. What does it mean to teach in an environment saturated with mobile devices and wireless Internet? How could sites like YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter help or hinder your teaching? Can you use digital maps to do more than just lookup directions? Is the digital age changing the way we engage in scholarship? Each Tuesday, faculty, library liaisons, and technology liaisons will meet in the Faculty Lounge at 12:30 to grapple with these and many more questions — a new topic each week. Please join us!


September 9th: iPhone Comes to School: Mobile Computing in the Classroom , Presenter: Scott Hamlin
September 16th: Getting your Voice Out There: Podcasting for teaching, research and class projects – Presenters: Michael Drout, Leah Niederstadt
September 23rd: Mapping your Research: GoogleEarth and GIS – Presenters: Domingo Ledezma
September 30th: Wheaton on YouTube? Making Video Lectures – Presenters: Tim Barker, John Partridge

October 7th: Facebook and Social Software  –  Presenter(s): Paula Krebs (faculty), Alex Friberg (student)
October 21st: Technology’s Role in Collaborative Writing – Presenter: Lisa Lebduska
October 28th: Teaching with Digital Images – Presenter(s): Touba Flemming and TBA

November 4th: Wheaton onCourse: a Pilot Exploring an Alternative to Blackboard – Presenter(s): TBA
November 11th: Keeping Current with the Literature: RSS & Alerts – Presenters: Mason Brown and Patrick Rashleigh
November 18th: Digital Humanities: New Approaches to Scholarship – Presenters: Kirk Anderson, Kathryn Tomasek

December 2nd: Managing your Citations: Refworks and Beyond – Presenter(s): TBA

Video Lecturettes

Last Tuesday we had a Tech N Talk brown bag discussion on video lectures… or rather a version of video lectures that two professors have been experimenting with in their classes. This is not the typical set a camera up at the back of a classroom, tape a full class lecture, and then post it somewhere (like iTunes U — which we don’t have… yet). Instead, Tim Barker (Astronomy) and John Partridge (Philosophy) are creating short videos to supplement their classes… not video lectures… something smaller. Lecturettes?

Barker often thinks of content after the class is over that would help his students, sometimes information that he would like them to have before the class meets again or that would help them complete an assignment. So, rather than typing it out in an email, he decided to try creating video messages for his class. He hooks a web cam up to his Windows-based laptop and places it in front of a chalk board in his office, and then records. The software he uses (I need to check with him… I think it came with the camera he purchased) was cheap, fast, easy to use and had an “upload to YouTube” button built in. So, he was able to post his material and get it out to his students quickly.

Partridge used his Macbook, a USB microphone, and iMovie for the first time last semester to record four short supplemental lectures for student. The first one was an introduction to materials on his Blackboard site, and his others contained background information to materials his students were reading and discussing in class. He posted his “vodcasts” to the Blackboard forums for his students to view between classes. This was material he would have had to cover at some point and by having it in video form, he was able to win back some class time for discussion (as opposed to solid lecture).

Both professors’ work demonstrates how far the technology has come over the past few years. Barker said he tried something similar several years ago and was frustrated with how much work it took. Partridge discovered how easy it was to do after posting videos of his kid up on YouTube for his relatives. Both faculty members needed very little support — a fact that amazes me, because it used to be that you needed to work in a video lab or at least on a souped up machine to create digital video.

While making the videos and posting them was relatively easy, I don’t think that either professor was happy with where they ended up publishing them. Barker put his on YouTube, because it was easy to do. But he really only wanted his students to see it, and therefore didn’t take advantage of any of the social features there — nor did he want to. What’s funny is that YouTube forces you to be social anyway, by posting “related videos.” Since Barker’s work was not labeled in a meaningful way and he didn’t password protect it, he had some strange “related” things (and “things” is a good description of them) in his side bar. Patridge discovered that Blackboard (at least our basic version of it) was a little clunky for video, and we Academic Technology folks are a little concerned about videos taking up too much space on that server. So, the search for where to put our digital stuff goes on. Perhaps Moodle (which we are piloting this semester) has a plugin? Perhaps iTunes U? We’d better start searching…

When is it “good enough”?

We had the third Tech N Talk Tuesday brownbag lunch this week. It’s part of a series; each week over this semester (and maybe next if this is successful), we host lunchtime conversations about technology’s intersection with teaching and research. We cover a different topic every week. The first was on Mobile Devices in the classroom. The second was on Podcasting (with two faculty presenters: Leah Niederstadt and Michael Drout).

This week we discussed a class project by Assistant Professor of Hispanic Studies, Domingo Ledezma. Faculty Technology Liaison, Jenni Lund, helped him out with the project. Ledezma’s students worked with primary sources — 16th century Spanish texts about the exploration of the “New World” — and digital images of maps from the period. Using the book as a source, they worked with Google Earth to map out part of one of Magellan’s voyages and attached text (in Spanish that they wrote) and images (primarily cropped segments of maps from the period) to points along his journey. The images were created by students cropping digital versions of old maps and uploading them to Flickr. (I’ll find the link to the Flickr account and post it here soon.) Great stuff!

Some good questions were raised by Ledezma’s talk: These types of projects are a great way to get students interested in and grappling with the texts, he told us, and so they function as great pedagogical tools. The process of creating this interactive map in GoogleEarth helps them learn more about the text — much in the same way researching and writing papers helps them learn about a topic. But what happens to these projects when the class is over?

One faculty member wanted to know where we store them and make them available for others to see. Sure, we can put them up on the web, but multimedia projects like this that are pulling from multiple sources — a kml file, Flickr — and which use GoogleEarth for display are not like an academic paper that fits well into… say… DSpace. And there’s no guarantee that a project like this will last into the future. Will GoogleEarth and Flickr always be around? Will we be able to view these maps ten years from now? At the rate technological changes are moving, what about 1 or 2 years from now?

Ledezma and others followed up with questions about trying to show others this work. Is it ready to just post somewhere after the class is over? Given that class projects are… well class projects, it would seem that a certain about copyediting and fact checking needs to happen before it is put out there for all to see. But who does that work? We’ve hired students to do it in the past — but is that the right approach? And my big question: how much of this kind of work really needs to be done before we can post it?

I have worked on a lot of projects that we planned on getting up on the Web to share with others, but that we held off on posting because we wanted to make sure it was right before we did. More recently, I have been thinking that you have to decide ahead of time that there comes a point when a project is “good enough.” After a while, you have to stop tinkering and just get it up there. The trickier part is finding that sweet spot — the point in the project where the thing you put out there isn’t too chocked full of errors, but that isn’t too long after when the project started or the class ended.

Someone attending the talk rightly noted that the point of these projects isn’t so much the product anyway — that it’s the process. The process helped those old texts come alive for students. The process made students more engaged. If that’s the case, maybe we should just post them right away. Or maybe not at all? I don’t know… on the one hand, it would be a shame to hide all of that good work, but on the other, I’m not sure the perfectionist in me would want to get stuff out there that was too rough. I’m thinking my new mantra might need to be, “there comes a time when it’s good enough.” I just wish I could find a way to know when it was that time.

It’s ironic that that I should be ending on this note and that this theme is the title of this blog post. You see, I started writing this on Tuesday and have been coming back to it on and off ever since. It seems I’ve got to have the same attitude about posting to my blog too. OK, Scott, time to post. This may not be perfect… but it’s a blog! And good enough.