Monday, October 14, 2013

Sixteen tales of information technology in education, 1991-2013

A guest post by Megan Clayton

It was not compulsory. My father, a technician and audio engineer, belonged to an Apple Computer Users’ Group and read print publications – magazines – about computing. The resource closet adjacent to his workroom was stocked floor to ceiling with used audiocassettes, loosely classified by course code.

It was not compulsory. Each office of part-time tutors had one networked computer, part of a suite of Macintosh Classics that had been replaced, in the lecturers’ offices, with more recent models. The screen was small enough that a typewriter was the more practical option for word-processing.

The internal mail was still preferred for communication since while technically it was not faster, it was delivered twice a day and regularly checked by all.

It was not compulsory. The technician on the floor brought me a length of cable to connect to the campus Ethernet and I plugged in my laptop. Behind the copy of ClarisWorks in which I was writing my thesis I ran Usenet, checking my groups throughout the day.

It was not compulsory. The new students used it differently; those who came from abroad were willing to spend their home currency on things teachers considered wasteful and expensive, like international mobile phone calls.

One student faced off a test supervisor in mutual bewilderment after he left the room to take a business call and was not allowed back in.

It was obligatory. The hastily-composed rule to switch off phones in the classroom brought distress and rebellion. Without that signal, without that availability to communicants near and far, how could life in this little room, this little town, be tolerated?

The calls into class continued, sometimes from classmates in other lecture theatres, sometimes from family if a phone call to the administrator had proved unsatisfactory, sometimes from creditors, debtors, suitors.

It was obligatory. The students who were tired first thing in the morning had almost invariably been up late at night on instant messaging, keeping the connection that brought the balm of home into the hair-shirt of here. They made pillows on their desks out of coats, scarves and books and slept fitfully through the lecture. Some on arrival unpacked only those accoutrements necessary to make these mini-beds.

It was obligatory. My first class of domestic preparatory students was lively. Many of them belonged to the same surf lifesaving club and brought the camaraderie of the team. All had modest mobile phones that they held just below their desks, to exchange text messages continuously throughout our shared hours.

“But Megan,” they said, in response to one of my chidings, “we’re texting about the lecture! And about you! And we only ever say nice things!”

It was obligatory. A widespread rumour was that a colleague whose role was made redundant had been targeted because of a refusal to use email, or any technology other than the photocopier.

Another colleague brought long handwritten essays to meetings from which to read counterarguments to whatever was under discussion. There was only ever one copy available.

It was fragmentary. The colleagues with responsibility for teaching computing had also the unofficial job of standardising staff practice. All successes were partial. A repeated plea for date footers and page numbering on documents became socially awkward. Who would want to search electronically a document once it had been used? Far simpler to print out, label and file.

It was fragmentary. There was a growing sense that staff should try to learn about some of the communication technologies their students were using. A colleague gave a presentation on how teachers might want to make use of a new site called Twitter.

Why would anyone want to share their life on the Internet, said another, where any stranger could read it? Why not just think one’s own thoughts privately and talk to friends, talk to students, face-to-face?

It was fragmentary. Students in the computer workrooms kept Facebook open under tabbed browsing, scheduled their plans and narrated their weekends at the same time as advancing, line by cold line, through prescribed assignments.

I composed a brief rubric: Thank you for your Friend request, but I will need to wait until the end of the course and the release of results before I accept it.

I searched the site for the names of former students, to keep balance between memory and the present.

It was fragmentary. A student, young and perpetually dazed, came into the office to ask for weeks-old course materials, explanations of content, assignment extensions. Haven’t you read the weekly emails on what you have to do? I asked. Oh, I don’t really check my email, said the student. Too many messages.

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

All notices go on the Intranet. Since we know most of you don’t go on the Intranet, here are the week’s most relevant notices by email.

I don’t want to work on this project if it involves so many emails. They are extra work on top of what I am actually here to do.

A few funny cats to brighten your day: email them to everyone who needs a laugh TGIF!

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

You can give course notices on your phone.

I only use my phone for emergencies, like in the earthquake.

The hard shell of the open laptop, raised like a drawbridge to deflect, to disconnect.

I don’t want to put a comment in the learning forum because it might be wrong and then I’ll feel dumb.

Is this for homeworks, teacher, on the Internet? Will you give us a grade?

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

The research shows that. Here’s a link about what we could be doing here.

Write it out in longhand and give it to the administrator to type.

Can you send that to me again; I can’t open .docx at home.

Remember to say your name in any text you send me or I won’t know how to answer the information you need.

It was breaking into bits, even while it was new.

The contact hours in the classroom and the sporadic access in between, the logs that show who has completed the readings and who is offline.

The copyright notices at the photocopier and the ghost-stacks of extracts that chafe at the ten percent limit.

The professional futurists whose utopias will not be mocked, except through the limits of budget proposals.

The noise, the compliance, the surveillance.

The light in the cracks.


Jane Robertson said...

Oh, genius! Skewered!!

johno said...

An insightful timeline - maybe missing a couple of facets:
"It was addictive." Well - it was to me! Still is!!
"It was devisive." When an enthusiastic teacher wants a share of the schools capital expenditure for new technology.