21.271 the tyranny of technology?

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2007 07:32:49 +0100

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 21, No. 271.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist_at_princeton.edu

         Date: Fri, 28 Sep 2007 07:23:58 +0100
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty_at_kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: the tyranny of technology

The following appeared recently in the Times Higher Education
Supplement and was forwarded to me by a colleague.

>It is time we tamed the tyranny of technology
>Ian Marshall
>Published: 21 September 2007
>A few simple fixes, says Ian Marshall, and e-mail and the internet
>can be transformed from curse into blessingAs a recent meeting with
>a colleague progressed, I noticed that he was becoming increasingly
>distracted. I asked him what was wrong. He replied that it was the
>relentless pinging of incoming e-mails. Every ping was another
>message to process, even if it was only to hit delete. He felt
>compelled to answer e-mails every free moment during the day,
>evenings and weekends. Why? I asked. Most people wouldn't think of
>calling you at home on a Saturday evening, so why reply to their
>e-mails at all hours? Nowadays, he explained, some people expect a
>reply within 30 minutes.Time is limited, pressures are many and the
>tendency is to compromise research and other professional
>activities. Missing a deadline for a conference paper or saying no
>to a small piece of consultancy will probably not be picked up in
>the same way that failing to return an e-mail would, but in the long
>term the effect is cumulative - and more damaging to a career. As
>academics, we need to free time for research, not only for the
>research assessment exercise but also because it is professionally
>fulfilling and provides opportunities for real life applications of
>thinking. If it is not true already, then soon the UK will be living
>off the application of its ideas.As in the example of the colleague
>who was taken hostage by e-mail, technology is part of the problem.
>Academics have become mesmerised by the potential of information
>technology but are seemingly unable to make it work for them. The
>use of e-mail, discussion forums, online materials and assessments
>have generally been an addition to what we do rather than a
>replacement for something less effective. I frequently come across
>colleagues who have created an unrealistic expectation among
>students for rapid responses and hence spend hours monitoring and
>answering their discussion forums. The solution is simple and
>releases enormous amounts of time to spend on other activities -
>introduce an "online office hours" policy that defines when you will
>check e-mails and forums and how quickly you will normally
>respond.Another thief of research time is the effort that goes into
>creating and maintaining teaching materials. Rather than using
>existing materials, downloading them from an open courseware website
>or borrowing them from a colleague, academics create their own. The
>"not invented here" syndrome probably wastes more potential research
>time than any other activity. In some disciplines there are
>excellent online courses, in others there are resources and advice
>being developed by centres of excellence in teaching and learning
>and other discipline-specific groups. By all means customise these
>materials - or, better still, instruct the educational technologists
>who are hired to undertake material developments.When anyone says
>they don't have time to do research, I always ask them to look at
>the marking workload and how they can find ways to minimise it
>without reducing the quality of feedback to students. For example,
>they could use online assessment based on freely available question
>banks or ask students to present their best sample rather than a
>whole portfolio. Ultimately, if you cannot reduce the number of
>assessments, is there a way to reduce the assessment workload and
>get the feedback to the students quickly and efficiently? How many
>of us who have been teaching for years actually know even a fraction
>of the different ways that have been developed to assess students in
>our discipline? A few hours spent finding out how other academics
>assess students might save you weeks of marking each
>year.Difficulties can also arise because of a lack of effective
>training, which results in the need for reworking, re-entering and
>patching up of problems. Sometimes it is because we do not have the
>right tools for the job, systems are incompatible or not enough
>staff can use the software or system effectively because they have
>not been trained or have picked up bad habits by teaching
>themselves. Most training provided tends to be at the "point at this
>and click at that" level, which some people need, rather than the
>managing and using it effectively level.Taking more control of
>technology and learning how to use it correctly will help.But
>perhaps it is time to review fundamentally the impact of the
>innovations of the past ten years, to investigate what academics
>need to do, how they actually do it and then design systems,
>procedures and technology to help them achieve what they need to do
>more effectively and efficiently.
>Ian Marshall is pro vice-chancellor (research) at Coventry University.

A colleague of mine who runs a large teaching programme remarked some
time ago that in order to protect his staff members from becoming
overwhelmed with e-mails from students, who were expecting answers
almost immediately whatever the day and hour, he had to write a
policy document defining what could be considered reasonable
expectations for replying to questions by that medium. On the other
hand, given the style and kind of work that I do, I have yet to
develop a problem with what Marshall calls "pinging" (which is a
technically inaccurate phrase, since one can choose when to
respond). So I wonder: what *is* the problem? Someone with
hundreds of students would clearly have to do something, but still
I think more is involved here.

Marshall's statement that,
>Academics have become mesmerised by the potential of information
>technology but are seemingly unable to make it work for them.
seems right to me, because what he is talking about in this sentence
is not some inherent or inevitable property of the medium but our
understanding of how to use it to effect what we want. This means in
part mastering our own reactions. As with the spectacular problem of
"infoglut" that was once all the rage to complain about, in the early
years of Humanist, for example, the problem is at least in part how
we react, which includes the mechanisms, formats and procedures we
set up to shape and direct the potential of something with
significant potential. Getting involved for hours managing discussion
forums is a choice one can make. When I was a graduate student at
Toronto teaching one class a term, I found myself spending nearly all
my time on it -- a convenient excuse not to face the challenges of my
doctoral research. I imagine that's a common experience. One can also
find administrative tasks irresistible because they provide that
perfect excuse (yes, there are nobler reasons!).

Marshall concludes by saying that,
>But perhaps it is time to review fundamentally the impact of the
>innovations of the past ten years, to investigate what academics
>need to do, how they actually do it and then design systems,
>procedures and technology to help them achieve what they need to do
>more effectively and efficiently.
This seems to me quite wrong -- and in a way that is typically wrong
in reactions to new inventions: first to determine what the subject
needs or wants to do, then to design some form of the invention to
fit the need or want. This seems to me the irritated reaction of
someone who does not want to change rather than a question from
someone who sees that we all need to negotiate our place in a changing world.



Willard McCarty | Professor of Humanities Computing | Centre for
Computing in the Humanities | King's College London |
http://staff.cch.kcl.ac.uk/~wmccarty/. Et sic in infinitum (Fludd 1617, p. 26).
Received on Fri Sep 28 2007 - 02:45:27 EDT

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