That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To

“Hey can I ask you a question?” I ask the unsuspecting student working behind the counter at the USF library.

She gives me an unsuspecting stare.

“Do you know if the new iPads that everyone seems to be checking out have a library app?”

“You mean an app for our library? No. Not that I know of. You just have to get on the website.”

“Aha. Thanks.” I walk away with my books, confused as to why, exactly, so much money was spent on a whole slew of touch-screen, mobile devices that serve no different purpose than the laptops you’ve always been able to check out.

Using an iPad without an app is, in a lot of ways, like making toast on a stove-top. Sure, it’ll work, but it takes longer and you might get burnt.

This is a typical problem, not just at USF, but one that’s observable most anytime new technology is introduced somewhere. The logic is simple: New technology may be all great and powerful – much like the Wizard of Oz – but if it’s not used for it’s potential, it’s introduction is undermined immediately. Like the man behind the curtain, the user finds that the smoke, fire, and other aesthetic wonders are just a gimmick.

Others, like Steve Wheeler, have said this better than me:

“The technology in any given school can be as high quality, shiny and compatible as you like. Technical support can be second to none, and all the support in the world on offer, but if the teacher is not convinced of its usefulness, forget it.”

If I had a dollar for every time he was right about technology and education, I wouldn’t have the immense amount of debt that I do today.

What he’s suggesting doesn’t just apply to teachers – it goes for University systems, administrators, and students commissioned to put technology in the hands of people who may need simple guidance on how to use it efficiently and advantageously.

Why not commission someone to design a USFLibrary app for the new fancy armory of touchscreen, easy-access tablets that countless tuition dollars were spent on? How about something that helps people navigate the stacks of (often) scrambled collections? Something that lets people collaborate with others in the library quickly? Place an order at Starbuck’s? Track the RFID’s that are already in all of the books, so they can be found when they’re lost in the oblivion of the sorting area? How about a real time map for the Bull Runner bus service? Or a weather tracker for the folks locked away in the upstairs dungeons studying hard for exams? How about a badge system that would encourage people to be better students, go to the writing center, or find other students in the library working on a similar topic so they could work together? Certainly USF has the financial and human resources to put something like this together without much effort. Certainly they have programming-savvy grad students who will kindly offer their indentured servitude for a deadline extension or a vitea line.

If you want to be a technology leader among Universities, that little extra push to make something work like it ought to work is what it takes.

iPads and phones – and other types of mobile technology – are not just about the “bells and whistles” or keeping up with the appearances; they actually do offer extended capabilities to students, staff, faculty that could so easily (and cheaply) enhance learner capacities, save time and energy, and disseminate information – which, lets be honest, would cut back on everyone’s stress level. Why take advantage of automation id we use it against ourselves?

All it takes is a little direction, a little know how, and a little digital literacy. Before you know it, the entire enterprise of going to a library, which is already disorienting and intimidating to many students, will change.

This much I know: Show anyone how to use an iPad once, and they won’t forget; provide them iPads that can be used the way they were intended to be used and you’ll start to leverage social media to an educational advantage.

How do I know? It’s already being done. Elsewhere.

Creative Commons License
That Extra Little Push: Providing Technology That Does What It’s Supposed To by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

Advertisements

PLE’S Help Yourself: 9 Things Academics Can Do With Social Media

This one is specifically for my academic friends. Although, anyone who thinks of themselves as a lifelong learner should read on.

Last time, I spoke about being mindful of the Internet, tipping my hat at Howard Rheingold‘s Big Idea. There is a lot out there to be overwhelmed with, that’s for sure. We should all be taking advantage of the Interwebs – without question. There is knowledge at our fingertips.

Don’t misread that statement as zealotry – I certainly don’t mean to say that laying off the Facebook and Twitter feed is bad thing. By all means, strip down and go to the woods as much as possible. And bring people with you, too.

“Living with” technology is different than “living for” it. We all might want to understand the difference.

I’m not quite a techno-cheerleader. On the other hand, I’m definitely not a Luddite. In fact, I strive for a certain technological balance. I like my media the way I like my relationships – particular, personal, discrete – overall, complimentary to my lifestyle.

Rather than catapulting into the typical excursion about human and non-human relations, I’d like to make a few practical observations about the way I use social media. In general, it helps me maintain an aura of conversation and interaction with others throughout my day – people present in both real and cyber space. These conversations hang together as I work and play at different times and in different places, for different purposes and in different spaces. My thinking has developed in revolutionary ways, as a result, and I think (I’m not sure) that social media doesn’t have to be overwhelming. It can be managed.

We don’t have to count social mediation out of what we do and we definitely don’t have to assume it’s beyond our understanding – a perspective I’ve learned many academics have about technology, overall. I wonder if the first people who put language into use felt the same way? After all, language is the paramount technology.

Many all but scoff at the Facebooker, Tweeter, Blogger or texter. Any mention of social media in conversation gets an eye roll or puckered lips. These same folks usually struggle with the most basic technology functions, missing out on great resources, passing up opportunities to extend their own learning and research. So many people are more and more likely to jump to irrational conclusions about the “good, bad, and the ugly” of social media (like the ones put forth by Sherry Turkle). For so many, it’s because they’re unsure about how to manage a digital reality.

I have to admit, translating all of the data we could be exposed to on a daily basis takes a lot of effort. Although, interpretation of information has always been about how much effort you put toward it. Listening isn’t easy. Either is filtering through the crap on the web.

I don’t blame folks for dismissing social media. There is a lot to know about, and a lot to learn how to do. The unknown has always been a major source of anxiety for people. Not knowing the “what’s” and the “where’s” of social media is one thing. The popular press helps us keep track of that, so there is little reason to use everything out there. There’s little value in being “cool” or “trendy”. However, not knowing the “hows” of technology is a different issue all together. Rheingold calls this sort of know-how “digital literacy” – comparable to any other type of literacy – and necessary for living in a digital world.

Knowing how to do social media is “second nature” for many, and not natural at all for others. Still, anyone and everyone can be familiar with how technology works and what others see as valuable about social media. They don’t have to use it, but they should have some know how before passing judgement. In the end, the reality of a digital world is that technology is – contrary to popular belief – always at a person’s discretion.

9 Things Academics Can Do With Social Media

The following outlines part of my Personal Learning Environment (PLE). A PLE is a relatively new idea developed by interdisciplinary scholars who see the web as a rich source for learning and wish to move toward an open, global, collaborative education system. What I’ve laid out below is a short list. It’s the basic tools that I use everyday to curate content and tame the digital behemoth into an analogue companion. These tools both satiate my attention deficiency and relieve some of the socio-economic pressures of the academy. While PLE’s are supplemental to higher education – not an alternative – they can certainly be prudent additions to a person’s cache, which lead to more engagement, more conversation, and more thoughtful hours of the day.

Tablet PC: I spent the money a few months ago on a Tablet PC. I got the ASUS Slider because it has a keyboard that slides out and props the touch screen up on its own (hence the name). The touchscreen sold me because of its immediacy and convenience. I read more now than I ever did – and that’s a lot in your third year of grad school. Personally, I have a lot more fun reading, posting and scrolling on a touch screen than a laptop. On a University campus, connectivity is never an issue since wifi is everywhere (seemingly). “App culture” is not just a new fetish but a way to pool the resources I use to work and play. I have to say that the interactivity of reading on a Tablet is so engaged and tactile that it is more than “reading”. How about “treading” as a combination of “touch” and “reading”. Ya, that’s actually pretty accurate. The 500 bucks was well worth the money, by the way.

Google Reader: 90% of my daily readings are blogs. This means that, sandwiched in between all of the reading I’m supposed to be doing for class, I’m also reading the work of my peers – graduate students, younger scholars, leading researchers in technology, programmers, and comedians (because I like comedy). A little secret – I cite things from scholarly blogs on the reg-u-lar because, lets be honest, sometimes their actual published papers are long winded and boring. Most scholars who blog are covering the same issues in a 150 word version on a daily basis. Google Reader is great because the blogs I like are delivered as a feed to me whenever they’re updated. Better than reading the morning paper, I do most of my blog reading over coffee or whenever I have ten free minutes (wherever I may be).

Samsung Galaxy S Smartphone: I dislike Apple products. Android isn’t much better, but, alas, the “third form” (open source software) has yet to develop a phone operating system (OS) that actually works. The touchscreen is essential, and like the Tablet, I chose my phone because it has a good’ol fashioned keyboard that slides out. Call me old skool but I still like buttons (and I really think autocorrect should be renamed “autoincorrect”). More significant than the tactility is the corresponding OS platform between my phone to my Tablet. Having both my mobile devices on the same OS makes every function so much easier and takes less mental effort. Also, I have a Sprint plan because they give me unlimited Internet access and texting for under 100 dollars month. The service is spotty, but you can’t beat unlimited. For Tweeting, Fbing, email, taking quick pictures and recording interviews, classes and important dialogues with other like minded people who collaborate on work with me, having a solid smartphone is absolutely necessary and worth the money. I see it as a gateway to productivity.

Tape-A-Talk Audio Recorder: I use this app because it’s simple, it has big buttons and it keeps track of my recordings by date as a default function. Most of my recording is done while I jog (because I have the best ideas when I exercise). I can keep the app running in the background while I jog and listen to music or a podcast. The buttons provide a large enough display that I have no trouble finding without looking, even when I’m out of breath, sweaty and fumbling. There’s also an option to turn your camera button into the record button, so your phone will work like any other dictation machine. The quality is exceptional, too. The free version is great and the pro-version is worth the money for the added functionality, too.

Stitcher Radio: I’m a big fan of radio. Always have been, But for some reason the radio transmitter in my car doesn’t work and it’s not worth the money to fix. Instead, I’ve taken to listening to podcasts. I started with Marc Maron’s WTF podcast (frequently the number one comedy podcast on iTunes) and This American Life (which is syndicated on NPR). When I found out that Stitcher collects the best podcasts from the web, I downloaded it and never turned back. It works a lot like Google Reader, except I can make different “stations” and categorize podcasts into categories. In a single day I’ll listen to an hour long interview with a famous comedian (usually something about their personal struggles with relationships and substance abuse), a 15 minute monologue by Garrison Kelleor from A Prairie Home Companion, a 30 minute story on Radiolab about fistulated stomachs in both people and cows, and a 10 spiritual exegesis from the one and only Alan Watts. My favorite podcast recently has been a free class from Yale University on the Continental Foundations of the Social Sciences, which compliments the Interpretive Social Sciences I just took this past spring beautifully. I’ll know more about Hobbes, Locke, Marx and – everyone’s favorite Durkheim – by the end of the summer than I ever wanted to know. This is a world class education people. From a senior lecturer at Yale. For free. Podcasts have truly changed the way that I learn and listen, and, in my humble opinion, have helped me turn workouts and drives into prime time educational experiences, re-extending my technologically impaired attention span.

Dropbox: There are a lot of different “clouds” floating around the Internet. I suggest finding one that works for you because it makes traveling to-and-fro so much easier, especially if you’re an absent minded academic like I am and frequently forget your flashdrive in your computer’s USB port, or fail to email yourself the necessary files for the next days’ presentation. It’s also an easy way to share files with colleagues and professors because you can upload as big a file as you want.

Tweetcaster, Freindcaster and Spotify: For all of your social media needs, Tweetcaster and Friendcaster are much more functional apps for sharing content across platforms than the traditional apps provided by Facebook and Twitter. Facebook mobile tends to crash mobile devices and Twitter’s app is pretty difficult to navigate. The caster-apps make micro-blogging a breeze and are more customizable. If you don’t know why you should use Twitter, you should try it for a few days and then see how you feel about it; it’s a bit like having a personal CB radio that other digital-truckers tune into as they drive through web traffic. You never know when someone will be able to help you find your way through to a gold mine of knowledge you didn’t know existed right under your nose. Facebook, of course, is the great social stethoscope of our time. Your Facebook page can be the pulse of your PLE if – and only if – you manage it properly. Taking the time to manage your network will generate more opportunities for conversation and exposure to new ideas than you ever imagined possible. Finally, if you like music and you haven’t heard of Spotify, visit the site and download it already. These designers really have solved the music piracy problem, and this is coming from a person who’s been swashbuckling digital data since the Internet was delivered over a phone line.

WordPress: I blog, obviously, because I have a lot to say. More than giving me an excuse to be long winded, my blog has made me a better writer. It also gives me a voice in ongoing conversations about issues that other people think about, care about, and want to know about. For all intents and purposes, my blog is my corner of the web where I get to host the ideas that matter to me and it gives me a good excuse to invite others into the conversation for support and criticism. It’s perhaps the most formidable way to develop an academic voice outside of publishing in journals, where making concise arguments in writing is a key skill and making connections between your thoughts and those of others is still the best way to maintain a strong ethos. Most people who claim that the web isn’t peer-reviewed probably don’t use technology an haven’t heard of peer-to-peer networks. Where self-publishing is lacking in “rigor” it certainly empowers the author to write what they want to write, when they want to write it, for people whom they are interested in having read it. Of course, business folks write shorter blogs and find value in the the super-hyperlinked variety of web writing that makes bold claims, reaches as large an audience as possible, and is more concerned with attention seeking than thought development and careful examination of nuanced arguments. Academics, however, write longer blogs (it seems) because this genre of speech is a provincial way for them to work through thick thoughts, deep theories, and styles of writing that lead to fresh perspectives. Like stand-up comics who appear frequently at open-mic nights to work on new material, blogs are the open-mic of the academic who is diligent about refining their craft. For me, the real challenge in blogging isn’t procuring a readership – you can use your other social media channels for that; it’s sticking with it each week (or month) and finding something to talk about that is of some value that takes determination and stamina. For the contemporary scholar, there is really no excuse not to blog. Search for your favorite living theorist on Google – chances are, they blog. You should, too. Remember that you blog for yourself. I find that it really matters little if others read what you write. The point is not to seek approval, it’s to practice your professional craft and develop mental and rhetorical skills. Readers are nice, though, especially when they comment (hint, hint).

Creative Commons: All people in the world of publishing and producing original content (which includes nearly all those who would ever self-willingly don the label ‘author’) need to familiarize themselves with the Creative Commons licensing initiative. Ever worry that you shouldn’t’ use that random picture you got off Google because someone might sue you? Ever had a concern about putting a new idea online and having it “stolen”? Creative Commons gives you a way to copywrite your work in cyberspace. It’s brilliant, it’s easy, and it works. The best thing is – a lot of people not unlike yourself have made it their life work to ensure that the CC licensing holds up in court. Check it out – it’s worth knowing and spreading the word to your colleagues, coworkers and students. Protect yourself and protect your right to share what you write.

My hope is that some of this is new to you. This list only scratches the surface, but it’s enough to give you sense of how technology can serve the contemporary academic, intellectual, or common person’s agenda. All it takes is a little bit of know-how. Social media can be used to filter out the crap on the web, which could certainly lead to some peace of mind and who knows – maybe even a better way to live.

Creative Commons License
PLE’s Help Yourself: 9 Things Academics Can Do With Social Media by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.

Doing Away with Discipline: The Way of the Digital Scholar

In his 6th chapter, “Interdisciplinarity and Permeable Boundaries” in Digital Scholar: How Technology is Transforming Scholarly Practice, Martin Weller (2011) anchors the idea of Interdisciplinarity in digital practices that reshape society. Drawing from Chris Anderson, the current TED curator, he claims that “lightweight and unrestricted forms of communication found in many Web 2.0 tools may serve the needs of Interdisciplinarity to overcome existing disciplinary and geographical boundaries” (p. 2).

Weller suggests that open, digital, networked technologies are, in many ways, responsible for an “unexpected collision of distinct areas of study” (p. 2). To an increasing extent, digital culture permeates the walls of the ivory tower as technologies enable new practices, which “create[s] a common set of values, epistemological approaches and communication methods” that “override those of separate disciplines” (p. 3). Approaches to research emerge that refigure what it means to be a researcher as academic behaviors encompass more and more digital practices. Researchers adhere to new, emergent norms of discovery in their work, which often run counter to the traditional, fragmented, departmental models of an analog past. As a result, new pathways leading to different-yet-viable methods of knowledge production are formed, reshaping institutions and disciplines as they crystallize via publication. As scholars tread grounds beyond their familiar intellectual territory, pursuing innovative ideas outside of their academic home, they form alliances with others by way of new media. Blogs, social network sites, and Wikis evolve with scholars’ ideas as convergence cultivates creativity, play, and other forms of generative learning that cut across disciplinary boundaries.

This is a big deal for an academy structured around a model of institutionalized knowledge, which developed a fragmentary schema of disciplined study sometime in the mediaeval period. In the cliché words of Bob Dylan, “The times they are a changin’.”

For Weller, Interdisciplinarity goes beyond the physical constraints of pre-networked society where “Journals need[ed] to have an identified market to interest publishers, people need[ed] to be situated within a physical department in a university, [and] books [were] placed on certain shelves in book shops” (p. 2). Digital practices lead to virtual spaces where cultural norms and standards adhere to new possibilities, enabled by global networks of scholars who reform the functions of their trade and find innovative uses for new media tools leant to research efforts.

Problems in the academy arise when a clash of realities between digitally-oriented and analog-secure scholars lead to disagreements about rigor and relevance. Many scholars oriented toward tools of a pre-network society (i.e., analog technologies and traditional means of gaining public notoriety) remain unconvinced that digital practices can be rigorous or salient. As skeptical reactions toward Wikipedia’s credibility illustrate, many academic professionals who hold sway over tenure promotions and search committees remain suspicious of digital practices, distrusting the viability of knowledge that emerges through work that is digitally prodused under the cultural auspices of openness, free access, and quick turnover.

Interdisciplinarity is at once condoned when tied to emergent digital practices. Weller’s discourse frames the “schizophrenic attitude toward Interdisciplinarity” (p. 1) as a problem of exploding traditions.

He exposes a reality in the academy where scholars of an “old guard” who seek to defend the boundaries of institutional disciplines clutch to analog tools and methodological constraints of an old paradigm. The compendium of digital scholars entering the academy, as both students and new faculty, are forcing those who protect the standards of traditional approaches to yield their posts as they crash institutional gates with smartphonestabletsGoogle AnalyticsBlogger, and Twitter – all tools that diversify research audiences, amplify scholar’s messages, and ensure that scholarship has a larger impact when published.

In short, the digital difference in scholarship is Interdisciplinarity since digital practices break down barriers. With digital tools come digital practices and standards that academic institutions must take into account as they move into the future. Academic definitions of knowledge and discipline are forced to shift with a paradigm of practice that threatens the authority of institutions everywhere (see Weller’s discussion in Chp 3 regarding the music and newspaper industries).

In Weller’s view, Interdisciplinarity doesn’t only apply to academic work. In reference to blogs as a genre of writing that leads to inquiry, Weller suggests that the “personal mix is what renders blogs interesting” as he explains that, in one of his favorite blogs, the author “mixes thoughts on educational technology and advice on the blogging platform WordPress with meditations on B-horror films. The mix seems perfectly logical and acceptable within the norms of the blogging community” (p. 4). The takeaway here is that digital culture remixes other cultures, including the intelligentsia, and this leads to new social formations. Scholars reinforce altered practices of engagement, learning, and knowledge production with their research, regardless of its focus or content, as they use digital tools to conduct it.

This means that the academy is changing from the inside out—a centrifugal force pushing out old hierarchies as it makes way for new networks. As Benkler (2006) suggests in Wealth of Networks, there is value in these networks, which is derived from the network itself and the swarm that embodies it. New networks have their own energy, which establish new modes of evaluation, new means of discovery, and new ways of making meaning through human action that gnaw at the edges of disciplines keeping old hierarchies sturdy and analog identities intact.

As Weller notes in his 3rd chapter, “Lessons from Other Sectors”, academia should take note of alternative resources that lead to new forms of research and learning before it loses its institutional hold on knowledge as an ideological authority. While this may seem a bit pretentious, the everyday experiences of academics who utilize digital tools frequently reveal the pertinence of such a warning. As digital culture subsumes disciplinary culture, Interdisciplinarity becomes more of a reality and ideological apparatuses are reshaped to fit “the social classes at the grips in the class struggle” (Althusser, 1970). The “weakness of the other elements in the ‘university bundle’ could become apparent, and the attractiveness of the university system is seriously undermined” (Weller, 2011, Chp. 3, p. 8) if traditions remain carved in blocks of stone.

Digital practices chip away at those stones.

The networked foundation for digital scholars’ work gives them the stability and solidarity to tackle complex, societal issues in ways that “old guard” academics never imagined possible. As a result, they may find their efforts having a greater practical impact outside of academia because institutional standards fail to adapt. This is a dismal attitude to take towards schools, which have made technological development and intellectual growth possible for an eon. However, as Weller warns, we should not confuse “higher education with the university system” (Chp. 6, p. 1); people will find a way to accrue new knowledge in any way available, and if that means subverting the dominant, traditional university system, so be it. The integrated perspective of Interdisciplinary pedagogy that Weller draws from Ernest Boyer, which makes “connections across the disciplines, placing the specialties in a larger context, illuminating data a revealing way, often educating non-specialists” (p. 1), is more hopeful than the critical view taken by many scholars caught up in the current system. This may be because hard working academics who strive to climb social hierarchies do not stand in solidarity together.

It is no lie that many graduate students and untenured scholars are bent on dismantling the good work of their brethren, who have spent a lifetime building the best stocks of knowledge they can in contribution to their discipline. In the end, these scholars belabor tired points in graduate seminars and faculty meetings, more concerned with asserting their self-centered agendas and personal politics as a way of accruing social capital, rather than fostering ongoing dialogue amongst their colleagues that would lead to new ideas and innovative inquiry. Digital practices tap networks that provide academics with outlets to collaborate unilaterally and avoid the traps of corporate machinery embedded in the institution, nullifying the need to burn bridges and step on toes as one makes their way in academia.

The limiting scope that arises when scholars squabble over methods of research, play tug-o-war with the line over authority, and willfully thicken tensions that arise between “hard” and “soft” sciences is perhaps the very reason why Interdisciplinary work evokes a laugh when suggested as a bonafide approach to research. Weller sees diversity as nothing to fight over. The habits of discipline are hard to break “and interdisciplinary work requires transcending unconscious habits of thought” (p. 2). Scholars who commune through digital practices begin speaking new, integrated languages that bridge gaps between research agendas rather than widen disciplinary lacunas. This is because, in their practical nature, digital technologies dismantle boundaries of institutionalized thought, not thoughts of institutionalized scholars.

So what would Weller’s Interdisciplinary model of higher education look like?

I asked my girlfriend this question after I finished reading Weller’s book. We both have different opinions about what counts as research. You might say that we both have trouble transcending disciplinary habits. While we both attended liberal arts universities in our undergraduate studies, our affiliations as graduate students differ. I study Communication, so I consider myself a humanities scholar; she dons the tag “social scientist” as she studies Applied Anthropology.

In our conversation, I envisioned a school where scholars work together to diversify fields of interest and broaden student perspectives. Explaining my ideas, I began brainstorming for a curriculum that put Interdisciplinarity at the center of pedagogy, instead of the margin.

At first she was intrigued by my excitement.

“Could you imagine it? … What if, as an undergrad, you could take classes that blended different areas of study? Something like, “Environmental Ecology and Spirituality”, “Statistics and Performance”, “Graphic Information Systems and Food Cultures” or “Creative Writing and Biochemistry”. How cool would that be?”

Her expression went from hopeful to disturbed. “Everyone would be really confused,” she said.

Perhaps.

But I don’t see that as a bad thing. Then again, I’m a digital scholar.

Creative Commons License
PLE's Doing Away with Discipline: The Way of the Digital Scholar by Nicholas A. Riggs is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at nicholasariggs.wordpress.com.