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'But I Don't Want to Teach My Students How to Use Technology'

For some teachers, the technology revolution of the last 30 years was and is an epiphany, but for most faculty it remains an enigma, at best a fad and at worst a threat. A person responding to one of my recent articles in Web 2.0 told me that, "Come on!, I don’t want to teach my students how to use the technology but just do pure teaching." He missed the point: Adapting to information technology does not necessarily mean using technology at all, but it does require an understanding of how education has been irreversibly altered.

The technology in itself is fascinating, but the fundamental cultural and human truth underlying information technology as a medium is that it is the super-medium, the third medium after spoken language and writing that has most fundamentally molded humanity.

I was just walking through the woods near Narragansett Bay with my dog and thought to myself, "On this trail, in these woods, away from anything human-made, of what relevance are computers?" This thought often occurs to this particular outdoors fanatic.

If you can’t see the technology or if you are not using it, surely it has no effect. It’s all a mirage; we are as we have always been.

But, then, I thought, the technology has completely altered my assumptions about work, about learning, about other people, about communications, about how I structure other people in my mind, about how problems get solved, about where I go for information, and even about what humanity is. We carry the effects of information technology around in our heads all the time, the “we” being the people reading this newsletter.

One effect of information technology is a stronger sense of the social aspects of learning and the ready connections now available to groups of people, groups in many cases that have formed because of their access to the Web and the Internet. To a student in a class who is busy e-mailing or texting with someone outside the classroom, the classroom walls are permeable and irrelevant: Conversations for him or her are going on that either compete with or augment in-class conversations, depending on whether the teacher is resistant to or comfortable with social media.

When I first became interested in information technology in the early 1980s, I was director of an American Studies program. I started a new course on the history and cultural impact of technology. I hit upon a mother lode of books at a counter-culture bookstore in Georgetown. The collection of books was all about how technology, and about how, in particular, the new information technology, should be perceived historically. I myself was still using a standard Royal typewriter, so by the time I made the move to computers a few years later I had a cultural and historical perspective to help me contextualize the implications of what was going on in the emerging technology revolution. In the many years and projects since then, this early research has continued to serve me very well It is not the technology, but the cultural and human aspects of using the technology that in the end is important and mostly what matters.

To believe that somehow teaching and learning can occur now in a bubble as if the information technology revolution has not occurred is to live in a delusional world. It is not that we all have to be pioneers or early adopters, but we educators have to be at least curious and willing to better understand how the entire knowledge culture in our world has been altered and about how all assumptions about knowledge have been disrupted.

In a disrupted world, innovation is the only intelligent path. It is the path toward survival. Innovation, as those of us in the field of formally supporting innovation in higher education use the term, is not change for the sake of change but responsible change, change based on a better understanding of the deep values that higher education is meant to foster, change based on an understanding of the research in our fields, change based on an understanding of how our students’ careers after college will be different than what we may have experienced just ten years ago.

Education in the connected world has experienced an analogy to punctuated equilibrium, the theory first published by Niles Eldredge and Stephen Jay Gould in 1972 (cf, which offered an alternative to the common assumption that evolution is a gradual and slow process. Instead, a chance mutation suddenly changes the balance and a new species explodes onto the landscape.

Clay Shirky in a recent talk at the Berkman Center at Harvard, mentioned that e-mail was not part of the original design of the Internet when it was presented to DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), but after it was added as an after thought, it soon claimed 70 percent of the use of the Internet, and, then, when “reply all” was added as a feature, the first group social media was created.

From this early e-mail function, along with other work such as the hypertext work of Douglas Engelbart at about the same time, the Web has exploded throughout our culture and, with Web 2.0, offers technologies to even further leverage knowledge-making. We have yet to find a new stasis, nor will we for perhaps another century or more.

No one on campus is in charge of innovation any longer because innovation is occurring so broadly across campus and across our culture. The knowledge environment has been altered irrevocably. Logistical difficulties may make it impossible for some faculty members to use digital tools in their classrooms, or technical support may be so scarce for them that using technology in a physical classroom may be impossible for now. But no educator can pretend that the terms of knowledge creation and transmission remain unchanged. Even those of us still using a standard typewriter must at least be curious.

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