Technology Churn

Do you read the manual when you get a new cell phone? Or do you just figure out how to dial and be done with it?

One of the greatest challenges in our ever-changing world is adapting to and learning new technologies. Sure, some of them are cool and fun, but once you hop on the technology train, it’s hard to jump off.

Think about it. Once you start using a digital camera, you have to maintain your pictures on your computer. Then you have to learn the software that comes with it so you can manage your photos. Once you fill your hard drive with pictures, you need to buy more disk. And, just when you think you have it under control, you’re told you need to upgrade your computer to the latest operating system. You do, then you find that not only does your camera software need an upgrade, but so do many others. You’re fit to be tied. You feel like a fish on the end of a hook being reeled in slowly but steadily.

As more and more technologies become available, it is getting harder for the average person to adopt and adapt to them. It’s called technology ‘churn.’ It refers to the pace at which new technologies are developed and their impact on an individual’s and organization’s ability to incorporate them. Some people simply cannot absorb ever more new technologies—and don’t want to.
Here’s an example of technology churn at an organizational level. WebCT, PSU’s course management software, recently sustained a major upgrade. For some, this was a walk in the park. They just point-and-clicked their way through it. Yet for many others, those who came to WebCT reluctantly in the first place, this was a major hassle. Just when they got comfortable with the old system, we went and changed it on them. Those old overheads are looking pretty good.

Ongoing learning is part of life in a technology-laden world. In fact, it is incumbent upon all of us to learn how to use the tools required for our jobs. You can shrug it off, convince yourself that you’re not a geek and you can live without it. But don’t be surprised when the next generation of students starts whizzing by you.

If you don’t know how text messaging works, or how new cell phones are capable of playing music, videos and podcasts, or how students communicate with one another today, you may find that teaching a class is quite a frustrating experience. On the other hand, if you gain some familiarity with these tools, you may just find some new opportunities to exploit them in class and communicate with your students in ways that may be very effective. At the very least, you’ll be able to speak knowledgably on how to manage your class more effectively.

We all need to get used to the perpetual learning curve required of technology use. Training programs are becoming fewer and fewer as more help is either embedded in the device itself or available in the little manual with it. Be thankful you have a manual.

We can put the tools in front of you. But the only person who can really make it happen is you.

Crack open that manual. Spend a little time learning how that unit actually works.


On a related note, a recent article in Educause focused on support for specialty software in academic departments. (I would extend that to all departments.) It’s entitled Supporting Specialized Academic Software: Is it Possible? The basic premise is no, that central IT departments can no longer be assumed to provide this support. IT departments are consumed with managing enterprise systems, desktops, network and security. They are also integrally involved in scoping new projects…including building construction, campus initiatives and other endeavors in which some aspect of technology is integral. Their ability to learn and become experts in niche software is very limited (unless, of course, you find ways to lure those occasional individuals to hang in your department after hours and lavish them with apple pies and heaps of praise…).

The onus of support is up to your department, and well it should be. Expertise cannot be limited to its use, but its overall maintenance and support. Only then will you be free of an unhealthy dependence on over-taxed IT professionals.

This is a key concept—distributed IT support—in the PSU Long Range Technology Plan.

Note to Daughters on use of mySpace

Dear Daughters,


I know you like It’s an online place to share things about yourself—your wit, charm and good looks—and to meet others. Tell a little bit about yourself, post a picture, and give just enough to let others want to know you. It’s also a place to scope out friends and what silly and provocative things they put out. So you’re attracted to the older high school guy, the one who seems so mild mannered and shy in person, but dons an entirely new profile online. I can (gulp!) live with the notion that you might be attracted to his shaved head, rippled stomach, half-mast pants, multiple nose studs and alluring tattoos that complement his wicked grin.


At least you can see this guy. I worry more about are the ones you can’t see. For everything cool about the online world, there is an equal and opposite seamy side. Your generation is so trusting, so quick to share details of yourselves and lives online. Yet while your intent is frolicsome, you’re often sharing yourselves with the world. Beware the dementors of the internet. Every generation has its share of lurkers, perverts and miscreants; it’s just that the online world provides them easy access to you.


You’re not alone. is the craze for college students. It’s cool to a point, but when students start posting pictures of themselves with kegs in the background, smoking a bong or showing some skin, they’re finding out quickly how things travel at the speed of internet. College officials and police find indisputable evidence of underage drinking. Students are sucked into their campus judicial systems for slandering faculty and fellow students. Racy pictures take on a life of their own. Busted!


Once you post things online, there’s no turning back. Web pages are searched and archived daily by internet robots. The pages are there forever, on someone’s server, whether you decide to delete it or not. You are suddenly Googleable!


It’s becoming common practice for employers to Google job applicants. Think about that. You spend a lot of time preparing for a job search by polishing your resume, dressing for success and planning your interview questions. Then, after you do so well, the hiring manager tells you they found your profile online. That little ditty you wrote 3 years ago, the one you thought was so cute and clever, especially by adding a picture from Girls Gone Wild. Well, they decided you weren’t quite the professional profile they were looking for.


Don’t roll your eyes at me, girls. It happens. Just remember this. Have fun, get to know others, but use this tool wisely. Don’t give out any information that would identify you, your address or other vitals. Your first name is fine, a nickname is better. Keep yourself mysterious. And on the internet, start with a position of distrust.


And like a very traditional notion of managing yourself in public, think about what your mother and father would think if they saw your postings online. In many cases, we will.

More on classroom technology

This from a reference in today's Chronicle.
There are three elements of learning technology that have become mainstream in this time frame:

  • First, classrooms and campuses have continued to incorporate more and more technical infrastructure in terms of networks, Internet connections, smart boards, etc.
  • Second, course management systems (CMSs) have been widely adopted at an institutional level providing, for the most part, an online communications hub for posting of class materials, syllabi, etc.
  • Third, for those institutions, or operating divisions within institutions that have a mission of outreach, there has been a rapidly growing number of online courses and programs that are taking the place of, but better than, older alternatives for distance learning.

Of course, many ideas and predictions have not become mainstream realities. Among these are:

  • Students did not rush to consume new forms of online digital content for studying.
  • Institutions did not jump on the bandwagon to allow commercial benefits (either to themselves or third party vendors) from student portals.
  • The very large majority of faculty have not opted to become “course developersâ€? and develop online courses using the CMS.
  • Use of digital content and third-party digital courses by faculty has remained in a small minority.
  • Portals attempting to aggregate courses from multiple institutions have mostly failed with a few limited exceptions.
  • High production value courses, sometimes featuring leading authorities or fancy problem-based, interactive learning approaches, have seen several dramatic flops with only a few limited successes in niche areas, such as remedial math.
  • While use of PowerPoint, and in some cases the Internet, has become mainstream, in general faculty don’t feel that all the technology in the smart classrooms has significantly improved the teaching or the learning experience.

Technology in Classroom: Who's Driving?

There’s lots of buzz about the millennial student, the net-genn’ers who are turning teaching and learning on its ear. Well, maybe.

The core issue pertains to how students learn best in light of the fact that they have vast amounts of information at their fingertips. How can we capture their attention when they have so many connected devices? Should we cater to their shorter, multi-tasking spans of attention or help them adapt to our traditions of teaching and learning? Better yet, how can we best prepare them for the work world they are about to enter?

Teaching a class online, I find that students are circumventing the required text. When I post discussion questions designed to elicit concepts from the text, I get responses with reference to Wikipedia and a host of other online resources. The online discussion is designed to get them to synthesize content around core concepts. My first reaction is to send them back to the text, but then I look at the course objectives. We may discuss the validity of the material they produce, but in the end, if they meet the objective, should I care whether they read the text or not? Frankly, if they can retrieve the material and synthesize it well, I don’t really care if they get it from another source. But they do need to be discerning on their information sources.

The classroom environment is another story. How is an instructor to deal with students who have internet accessibility on laptops, phones or other devices in class? If they are text messaging, emailing or surfing elsewhere from the topic at hand, should we care? On the other hand, if an instructor is lecturing on, say, the origins of the species and a students pulls up some additional information and/or related questions from the web, is that a problem?

Some interesting comments from faculty…

“Naomi S. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, says she too feels pressure to meet the demands of Millennials: "It is very common to hear people say, Here's the Millennial or the digital generation, and we have to figure out how they learn. Poppycock. We get to mold how they learn." (subscription, also available in the Chronicle issued October 7, 2005)

That ship may have already set sail, Naomi.

Michael Bugeja, of Iowa State, wrote recently; "If professors don't want their students to have access to the Internet during class," Hughes adds, "they can remove wireless installations or ask their students not to bring computers to class." (subscription, also available in the Chronicle issued January 27, 2006)

Not so fast there, Michael. If your IT department will let you, that’s one thing, but students are surfing on their cell phone provider’s networks, over which you have no control.

UK: Students Forced to Sign 'I'll Try Harder' Contracts
Oxford is to become the first university in Britain to protect itself from litigious students by introducing legally-binding contracts requiring them to attend lectures. Undergraduates will be told that they risk being in breach of contract if they fail to attend lectures and tutorials in a move certain to be copied by other universities, worried that the introduction of £3,000 annual tuition fees from next September will usher in an era of student litigation.

OK, now we’re playing hardball.

Frankly, much of this relates to classroom management. However, if we as educators cannot keep pace with new methods of teaching, acquiring information and learning, then I’m with the students. Engage me or lose me. If I’m in meetings that are not well run, or listening to someone blather on while reading from PowerPoint slides, I’m surfin’! I have a limited span of attention and an internet wanderlust. If someone is talking about something I can find just as easily—and quicker—online, why bother attending. For that matter, why bother paying for classes?

We as educators need to think of ways to engage students through the use of information. Encourage students to surf on ideas and concepts, have them offer up ideas to provocative questions. Point them to audio and visual resources online, then have them discuss their impressions. Gone is the sage on the stage; we are the guides on the side. Facilitate their learning and we will do students a much greater service in the long run.