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Tech in its place, part one

May 9, 2013

What expectations should we have of technology (hereafter, tech) in the work of higher education? What is the proper place of tech? What should developers do about tech?

Good tech

Good tech has at least these three related qualities. It just works. It does, or it can, make things better. And after a while it becomes almost invisible, almost unproblematic.

Creative disruption, then improvement, then a further step into cyborgia

With a new tech – whether it is new to the world, new to the institution or discipline, or new to the group or individual – there is an initial period of excitement and learning, sometimes accompanied by fear. During this period we discover the range of things that we can do with the new tech that we couldn’t previously do, or could do only with some difficulty, or less well, without it. We explore which of these new possibles we want to, and should, and can, use. Well managed and supported, this can be a time of creative and productive disruption.

And then the tech almost vanishes into us and our organisations, becomes embedded in our practice and in our thinking. We have become in one more sense tech-enhanced humans and organisations, as we did when we first wore glasses or contact lenses, or rode a bicycle, or drove, or travelled by aeroplane, or built a building. We have advanced a little further into the condition of cyborgia.

The ‘almost’ is important. Hopefully we are still at least a little conscious, when for example we telephone, of what we are doing. For example, as we make the call, hopefully we are sensitive to the risk of intrusion, aware of the person called’s context, prepared at least a little for whatever the call may bring us both. But the fact that we can often speak to someone without visiting them, through a system of vast and invisible complexity, is now, in the moment, for most people, relatively unproblematic.

How does this relate to the technologies of our work? What expectations do we have of the tech in use? Here are a few of my answers. You might find it useful to spend a few seconds noting what (else) you expect from the tech-supported people with whom you work.

We expect …

  • We expect to be able to compose and then send a message, perhaps with attachments in various media, to (very very nearly) everyone we know professionally, and maybe also personally. We are confident it will be in their inbox within minutes. We expect to send this message this without having to remember their contact details, just their name. No envelope or stamp required.
  • Building on this, we expect to be able to communicate with similar ease with defined groups and subsets of the people with whom we work.
  • We expect to be able to find, within seconds, contact information for someone we don’t yet know.
  • We expect to find at least a half-way useful answer, or at least a starting point to an answer, to an increasing number of questions, of growing complexity, by typing the question into a search engine.
  • We expect ourselves, and those with whom we communicate, to write in language that is grammatically correct and correctly spelt, at least according to the views of our software provider.
  • We expect those with whom we work to be able to locate and make critical, intelligent, appropriate use of (a) information at which we point them and (b) information of particular interest and use to them which they find for themselves; and then we expect them to make and share connections and relationships between information from these two kinds of sources.
  • Beyond literacy, beyond competence, beyond capability, we might expect or hope for a degree of fluency. Fluency in working with words and numbers and images and ideas appropriate to our disciplines and our professional and personal life. Fluency also in using the technologies through which these various elements of academic and professional work and life are more and more often created and manipulated and communicated and read and studied and used.

We shall expect …

You might find it even more interesting to cast an eye 50 years and more into the future, and begin to consider what expectations are reasonable, for the current students within our universities, throughout their working and personal lives.   Maybe I shall have a go at this in a future post, remembering that, as Neils Bohr  “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.” Note that he did not say ‘impossible’.

We won’t be able to teach our students at University all the necessary skills for their next 50 or more years. All we can do is help them become able, keen and confident to learn; of course selectively and critically; whatever new tech they want to / need to learn. Because the great majority of the tech will continue to become easier to learn and use. Whatever we may think about markets, the market should at least achieve this.

Note that these current and future expectations cannot neatly be separated out into our expectations of the tech and our expectations for individuals, although some of the expectations may be tech-led and others more people-led. They are all expectations of individuals using the tech.

Next

In the next post I shall test these expectations against our current experiences and realities of using the tech, and explore the places of tech in higher education.

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