Friday, December 28, 2007

Scylla or Charybdis: An allegory for ed tech

In Book XII of The Odyssey, the hero-wanderer Odysseus must navigate his ship through a dangerous, narrow strait. On one side sits the many-headed hydra Scylla, and on the other is the omnivorous whirlpool Charybdis. Odysseus opts to travel closer to Scylla, even though he knows he will lose some of his crew to her many jaws, because he does not want to risk the entire ship by navigating closer to the whirlpool.

Scylla and Charybdis serve as an excellent metaphor of the landscape of instructional technology at many colleges and universities today. Many in IT would like to put in place a system that serves all faculty needs, a single portal that allows faculty to order books, manage instructional grants, organize personal image collections, and set up a gradebook and submit grades, as well as includes all the tools people have come to expect from a course management system: a chat room, discussion forum, blog platform, podcast service, file sharing, and more. The problem from the user perspective is that while a single system may offer many tools, it typically offers only one form of each tool: one blogging platform, one type of discussion forum, one chat room tool. And because the focus is often on integration of these tools into the language of the larger system rather than on developing top-notch tools, these individual tools themselves may be inferior to those available freely elsewhere online. For example, in my opinion the blogging platform in Sakai doesn't even deserve to be called a blog.

On the other side of the straits of ed tech waits the hydra of the “small pieces loosely joined” approach. From the perspective of the IT folks, faculty members who choose to use a hand-picked selection of tools outside the university-provided course management system—e.g. WordPress, Flickr,, Bloglines, YouTube—are courting disaster because they're using platforms that are not officially supported by the campus IT help desk. While some faculty are excited about the opportunity to try out new tools, the more technophobic or time-pressed among them feel overwhelmed by the huge variety of new media available to them; they don't know where to begin in selecting tools.

As a teaching consultant for my university, my fear is that faculty will be sucked unwittingly into the maw of Charybdis without realizing the limitations and liabilities of such a system. They'll put technology before pedagogy simply because someone has told them they must use the system. Instead, I want to encourage faculty to try new tools outside the CMS--but I don't want to become their tech support guru simply by virtue of being the one who recommended, say, WordPress to them.

It's not a coincidence that I've chosen Odysseus's harrowing trial by hydra and vortex as my metaphor for technological adoption at the university. Both the myth and the technology have a lot to do with fear. Fear on the part of technological and pedagogical support staff of not being able to adequately support faculty. Fear, felt by both IT staff and faculty, of fragmentation, of systems not talking to one another, or of a course's "required" content falling in the cracks between technologies. Fear of letting students create and share more of a course's content--and thereby set the tenor of the course--than ever before. Fear felt by faculty that their course content will be monitored if they place everything into the CMS. From students and faculty, we also get fear in the form of impostor syndrome: everyone is going to learn that I'm an idiot, that I can't figure out the technology, or I'll post something stupid that everyone will find laughable, and I won't be able to fix it.

This list of anxieties suggests that the technophobia floating on the surface of these concerns is a proxy for deeper pedagogical and administrative fears. Identifying those actual fears and anxieties should be job #1; only after we have figured out what ails us can we participate in thoughtful teaching and learning. (Professor, heal thyself.)

The academic process, whether it be teaching or learning, asks us to grapple with-- and even requires that we remain a bit anxious about--the unfamiliar and unknown. It's this mixture of curiosity about and commitment to our disciplines' areas of inquiry that drew many of us to academia in the first place. Most of us jump courageously into the research breach, familiarize ourselves with new subjects, and answer unresolved questions and dilemmas.

Finding the technology that best improves our students' ability to learn is a similar process. It requires a good deal of curiosity: in the best case scenario we audition multiple tools. We should be less interested in the technical details of the software and more curious about its pedagogical applications. If you're trying to decide whether to use ARTstor or Flickr to share images for your course, you'll need to consider, for example, issues of copyright, image resolution, and the user community. On the surface, these seem to be technical details, but they're really pedagogical questions: What images can I share online with my student within (or despite) copyright laws? Will my students be uploading original images, collecting existing images, or modifying images? Will we be soliciting comments or other participation from people who aren't members of the course? If so, what kind of access does the public have to this tool? In how much detail will I require my students to study or analyze the images? Will students need to organize the images themselves? Will they need to be able to highlight and comment upon specific parts of the images? Do I want students to socially tag the images? These questions get at the levels and kinds of collaboration and intellectual and creative production in which we want students to engage.

The process of technology selection requires as well the patience and commitment to try out a tool ourselves and then--gasp!--unleash it on our students, who will use platforms and software and systems in ways that aren't entirely under our control. But the best teaching involves relinquishing control in ways that allow your students to take responsibility for their learning, to consider, research, analyze, and discover--in short, to make new and meaningful connections, to synthesize course material with their experiences.

In the end, the question--Scylla or Charybdis--is, of course, a false dichotomy. There are plenty of other choices--not to use technology at all, to use various tools as well as your campus's CMS, to ask your students to present their completed projects using the tools they find most useful within the context of their work. While it's a good idea to consult with pedagogically-oriented IT staff at your institution, you and your students--and not the IT folks--need to make the final decision as to what tools most improve your students' ability to learn.

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