Viewing end-of-year-lists

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The cutting edge. Every place I look or listen, someone is posting an end-of-year list, or even an end-of-decade list.  The people who make them up have words such as “trendsetter” or “cutting edge” or “in the know” attached to them.  Public radio or national newspapers or other elite sources put them forward. They convey the message, “this is where it’s at!”

There is another world.  I live in it.

Another view. Duluth, Minnesota is as small as it can be and still be considered a metropolitan area.   We struggle to maintain our basic amenities like libraries and parks in the midst of a weak economy, while finding that a fancy aquarium (and maybe even a zoo) may be reaching beyond our means.   I teach at a mid-tier college with students who, for the most part, finished high school in the mid-range of college-bound students.  There are many things  that are very good, but people, businesses, or institutions are rarely considered “cutting edge” here. For the most part, we are glad to have stepped out of the densest part of the rat-race pack.

The middle is not obsolete.  One of the blogs at Insider Higher Ed published Obsolete Learning Technologies today. I clicked on the link, prepared to laugh about something like the ditto machine (remember that great solvent aroma that had grade-school students vying to make copies – in purple ink – for the class) or the first $100 Texas Instrument battery-operated calculators that could – amazing! – take square roots.  Instead, I found that much of the technology I use every day has been declared “obsolete” by someone who lives at that cutting edge.

The list begins with the trusty Scantron, the machine that reads the No. 2 pencil bubble sheets, grades the exams, produces a printout of how each question performed, and can be operated by an undergraduate office assistant.  It is very old technology, and it works – much better than the Learning Management Systems the article assumes we will be using instead. The author must not teach a subject that involves equations or symbols: my online students have just survived – barely – a semester in which the LMS turned Greek letters into all sorts of other symbols and sometimes just refused to show equations or graphs at all.

Our classroom DVD players are declared obsolete along with VHS – just when we’re about to get them.The video should all be “available on the Learning Management System” and watched outside of class.  Interesting idea, and in some elite world with a huge librarian staff who can negotiate the copyright question and a huge IT staff who can create digital files from a VHS tape or DVD, it might be nice.  Here in the middle, things like that don’t happen.

I shouldn’t have been surprised to find that photocopiers and even paper journals were on the list; by this time, the theme was clear: everything happens digitally. I’m surprised that books themselves were not listed.

What (or who) does the cutting edge slice? These “obsolete” technologies have something in common: they deal with real physical objects, and they often involve a real classroom situation. When students sit with a paper exam (I’m even more obsolete than Scantron: my students shade in areas of a curve, fill-in the blank, and write blue-book essays), it is a social interaction as well as a test of knowledge. Study groups arrive together; issues of cheating betray a trust between people as well as an institutional standard.  When we watch portions of a DVD in class, the experience of viewing is itself social and guided: we can start and stop the film, discuss a part before going on, consider what happened.  All of these interpersonal aspects of learning are sliced off by the cutting edge technologies.

I scan a large amount of information on the internet, but to really get a grasp of something, I need to read it on paper – to be able to flip back to something said on an earlier page to understand the one I’m reading now, to write notes to myself in the margins (if it’s not a library book!) to summarize a point or remember my argument with it.  The digital technologies may eventually make this possible, but it isn’t here yet.

The cutting edge seems to slice away these social and concrete experiences and leave us in an ephemeral world of access to electrons instead of documents, and relationships that arrive in 140 character snippets instead of real-world interactions.

Living in the middle of the pack.  Here in the middle, we get to watch what happens to the cutting edge – and choose what and how we will make use of these technologies.

I can use an LMS to store documents, but still watch a video with my class and stop to talk about it in the middle.  I can use any form of question on an exam that makes sense for the topic, not just those approved by the learning management system – and be sure that my students will see σ (sigma) on their exam, instead of whatever a browser chooses to interpret.  My Research Methods class experiences the serendipity of discovering an unknown topic in the article before or after the one they were seeking in a paper journal – yet still has access to hundreds of journals electronically that we could not afford in our small college library.

When the avant garde looks back from the front of the pack, the middle may seem hopelessly out of date and obsolete.  When we look forward from the middle, we notice that many of them rush over a cliff or are swept off downstream. Some from the middle surge forward to take their places; the rest of us are content as we are.

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