Monday, August 27, 2007

Age of Wonders

In the film "Master and Commander," 19th-century British sea captain Jack Aubry is handed a wooden model of a new warship. He examines it carefully, noting its many innovative features. Finally he sets it down, saying, "What an age of wonders we live in."

If he had only known what was just over the horizon.
Since the Renaissance, every age has been an Age of Wonders, it seems. The colonies of the New World had limitless wealth. The Enlightenment promised a new dawn of scientific understanding. Steam would provide inexhaustible power. The telegraph allowed messages to be sent thousands of miles. Bell's telephone transmitted the human voice over a wire. In 1900, the Patent Office concluded that everything that could be invented, had been.

But more wonders were yet to come. As the new century dawned, Thomas Edison was working tirelessly to find a way to produce light with electricity. Henry Ford was realizing that an automobile could be built cheaply if the work was broken down to the smallest task. And in Ohio, two brothers were building a machine that could fly.

Within only fifty years, the electric light, the automobile, and the airplane had totally transformed society. By the end of World War II it was hard to imagine life without them.

Not long afterward, my father went to work for International Business Machines. He was initially set to work repairing price-calculating grocer's scales - the core of the business. Within a few years he was assigned to a new area called "data processing". Engineers had created an experimental calculating machine twice the size of anything previously attempted, with 40,000 characters of memory. It cost millions, and filled a large room.

In the mid-1950's, the most powerful computer in the world had 39k of memory.

Just a few decades later, Seymour Cray was building supercomputers. They were the size of refrigerators and orders of magnitude faster than anything else on the planet. They didn't have cooling fans - they had radiators. Researchers waited for months to get a few seconds of precious time on the mammoth machines.

Today, my kids' Playstation 2 has more processing power than any Cray ever had. For the price of lunch you can put 2 gigabytes of storage on a keychain: 20,000 of the room-sized machines my dad worked on, the size of a pack of gum. For less than $150, you can buy a 500 Gb hard drive. That's 200 billion pages of text - 33,000 college libraries. It's the size of a paperback book.

We're connected in ways Captain Aubrey could never have imagined. You can shoot video with a cell phone, upload it to YouTube, and it can instantly be viewed by millions of people, worldwide. If you have a question - any question - "just Google it" and you will likely get an answer in moments. If you like a song, you can buy it for a buck on iTunes (or steal it elsewhere). You can look up anything at all on Wikipedia, a reference thousands of times larger than the Encyclopedia Britannica - and change it yourself if you spot an error.

Welcome to the 21st century. Everything is different, now, isn't it?

Well, yes and no. True, people today seem to live in a cloud of constant sensory input, resulting in what one writer called, "continuous partial attention." Many of our students can't imagine living without computers, portable music players, game systems, and the like. Others have only heard about these wonders, and worry about what they're missing.

For those of us who teach (and who directly support the teachers), this is a huge challenge. Many of our students know far more than we do about the new tools and toys. Others struggle with basic skills most of us mastered years ago. Every semester faculty come to me and say, "Please get me set up with Blackboard. My students say I need to use it."

But in truth, the technology doesn't matter all that much. Regardless of the tools they use, people are still people. We all have the same basic human needs: for food and shelter, for security, for love and belonging, for esteem, for self-actualization. Under the iPod and Razr, behind the email or discussion board post, is a human being with the same fundamental needs as his or her great-great grandparents.

They just meet those needs in different ways, that's all. iTunes is not so very different than the traveling minstrel of Chaucer's time. It just has a larger repertoire.

A tool is merely a set of affordances and constraints - stuff it lets you do easily, and stuff it makes it hard to do. That applies to tools used for teaching, too. You can teach in the 3D simulated world of Second Life, where people can fly and a student may appear as an alien with an orange mohawk (ok, bad example - that can show up on campus, too). But you also can teach while sitting on a log and using your finger to draw in the dirt (hey - digital interactive multimedia!)

Drawing in the dirt is a quick and easy way to show something - to a person who's there with you. Teaching online lets you bring in all sorts of resources and frees the student from having to be in a certain place at a certain time - but you lose eye contact and facial expressions. Is that good? Is it bad?

Neither. It's just different.

You can't replicate a classroom online. Don't try. You can only work to replicate the results of the classroom. That's the most fun part of my job - helping faculty figure out how to use these new tools to get the same (or sometimes, better) results. Of course, the capabilities of the tools keep changing, and new tools keep appearing. (Some of them are so new we don't know how to really use them well.) We often feel like hamsters on a wheel that's spinning faster than we can run. But we keep up as best we can with what's going on "out there." We try new things. Sometimes they work better than we'd planned. Sometimes they crash and burn. We pick up the pieces, learn from the experience, and try, try again. We have to, if we want to prepare our students for the next Age of Wonders.

It's just over the horizon.