Podcasting, PDAs, and Paradigms

Since the early days of 'Data Processing', efforts to bring technology to bear to serve the needs of the real world have repeatedly been met with disappointment and failure.  Yet, somehow we progress ...

Since the early days of 'Data Processing', efforts to bring technology to bear to serve the needs of the real world have repeatedly been met with disappointment and failure.  Yet, somehow we progress ...

Today, it's called 'Information Technology' but the challenges are no different -- and no less frustrating.  The difference lies in the fact that at one time the technology was available to only a very few.  Ubiquitous access to these electronic tools was unimaginable and only the most highly-skilled technicians could even imagine the possibilities. 

What was once a 'technology-gap' which only the rich could bridge and the highly-trained understand, has become a 'generation-gap'.  The power of the technology is within the grasp of the average 10-year-old -- and the price-points are within the grasp of their parents.  Yet, the technology remains beyond the grasp of many of our administrators and educators.   

As Chris Dawson reminds us in his article How to be a champion user at your school:

"Teachers who have been around the block a few times realize that their students are in touch with a world of technologies on which they simply may not have a firm grasp; these same teachers, though, being teachers, are remarkably eager to learn and tap into anything that might pop the earbuds out of their students for a few minutes."

So, if the motivation is there, what's wrong?  Put simply, it's the paradigm that is wrong.  New technology does not make it easier or less costly to do things the old way.  It make it easier to reach a larger audience by adopting new ways of doing things.  Costs savings are realized through economies of scale -- in an educational setting, this means turning out more successful students. 

Having worked in a university IT setting all of my professional career, I have seen project-after-project flounder under the assumption that new technology can be applied to an old paradigm with positive results.  Automated systems are often designed and redesigned multiple times before the end result is superior to the manual system from whence it came -- often making the IT guy, with his big budgets and short timelines, the most resented person on campus. 

Like it or not (and most people don't like it) paradigm shifts are an inevitable part of progress.  Today the technology is ubiquitous and inexpensive -- and changes on very short timescales.  This makes the cost-benefit of change hard to judge -- and exacerbates the challenges of lifecycle funding.  (After all, lifecycle funding is about funding change.) 

In order to effectively bridge the ever-growing technology gap between our educators and our students, we must learn to embrace change.  Our administrators and our educators need to learn to think 'outside the box' -- as their students often do (thanks to their lack of experience).  As Chris suggests, a place to start is to listen to our students -- and especially to those educators new to the field, whose perspective about how to use emerging technology is the freshest.  What these students and young educators lack in experience, they will more than make up for in their exuberance.

Our colleges and universities are just now beginning to embrace electronic storage of printed material, let alone podcasting, PDAs, and mobile access to information.  The driving force has not been from educators but from administrators, and the goal has been to control costs, not to educate students more effectively.  And, to be sure, the results have been mixed.  Here are just two examples of a failure to shift paradigms, resulting in poorly-utilized technology:

  • Printed materials are now widely available on-line -- but students are instructed to print them out and bring them to class!  This reduces the institution's printing costs but shifts the burden entirely to the student -- at dramatically higher per-page rates.  At the very least, materials which need to be brought to class, could be carried in on laptops or PDAs, not paper.  Similarly, syllabi and assignments are distributed via e-mail, the web, and on-line course-based resources (largely designed by the IT department) but students are asked to turn in their assignments on paper.  (See Strategies for reducing printing costs for a more thorough discussion of this topic.) 
  • Lectures are recorded and converted to MP3 for podcasting.  Perhaps a step in the right direction but, like those closed-circuit and video-taped lectures of the 70's and 80's, this is an inefficient use of the technology and it does not offer the interaction critical to a dynamic learning environment.  If the podcast is a replacement for the lecture, rather than a supplement to the lecture, can it possibly be a superior alternative to student participation in the lecture?  

While it is the administrator's job to control costs, it is the educator's job to improve the educational experience of their students.  It need not be a battle of wills between student and instructor and, in fact, it needs to be a free exchange of ideas -- not just about the subject matter of the course but about how the educator can better serve the educational needs of the student. 

Unlike primary and secondary education where the institution has control over the educational experience of the student, in a university setting the student has far more influence than he or she might realize.  Unfortunately, the student often fails to see that an open dialogue with their professors can lead to a useful paradigm shift which will enhance not only the experience of the student, and those students who follow, but it is also a learning experience for the educator as well. 

Ultimately, the administrator and the educator can benefit greatly by turning to their institution's IT department for suggestions about how to more effectively bridge this growing technology-gap.  Often, the tools are already in place or can be easily adapted to the needs of the educator who thinks 'outside the box'.