• Digital Tweed

    Digital Tweed® is the work of Kenneth C. Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project. If successful, these posts will inform and entertain, and at times also annoy. A little dissonance can be a good thing.


Can You Explain IT to Your Mom?

Here’s an interesting challenge for many of us who work in and around technology: can you explain your job – what you do – to your mom? What about the concept of Cloud Computing? Bonus points if you can help mom understand the link between Base 2 and Assembly Language?

October 3, 2010

Here’s an interesting challenge for many of us who work in and around technology: can you explain your job – what you do – to your mom? What about the concept of Cloud Computing? Bonus points if you can help mom understand the link between Base 2 and Assembly Language?

Like many (alas, aging) boomers, I am a child of New Math. Sputnik went up and “New Math” came down… on us! I have distinct memories of Mrs. DeWalt, a sweet if stern, gray-haired lady in her early 60s (or so it seemed then), telling me and my third grade classmates that we had to learn Base 2 because “that’s the way computers work.”

Looking back, my guess is that Mrs. DeWalt probably had as little understanding of the real relationship between Base 2 and computer code as I did. But that’s probably what she was told in the in-service courses that prepared her to teach New Math some fifty years, so that’s what Mrs. DeWalt told us: computers were the future, and if you wanted to know about computers, you had to know and understand Base 2.

(On the chance you missed the New Math experience or want a quick refresher course, click here for the famous Tom Lehrer song of the same name.)

In hindsight, metaphor could have been a powerful tool for teaching Base 2 and its link to computers. The ubiquity of westerns in movies and television in the mid-1950s meant that most children – both boys and girls – probably knew a little something about Morse Code, and that the combination of dots and dashes that represented letters and numbers. Had Ms. DeWalt and her counterparts leveraged the math of Base 2 with the metaphor of Morse Code, it would have been much easier to understand why Base 2 was linked to computers: zeros and ones are like dots and dashes; they combine to make “words” the computer can understand.

The opportunity to leverage metaphor was lost again in the wave of consumer market books published in the early and mid-1980s to explain “how computers work” to civilians suddenly eager to understand the arriving microcomputers. Almost every book I recall from that era began with bites and bytes: four-bit bytes vs. eight bit bytes? A PacMan analogy might have expedited understanding and saved thousands of trees: a processor is like PacMan, “consuming” bytes of date: some are larger, some are smaller.

Why does this matter? And what do New Math, Pac Man, and metaphor have to do with explaining your technology job to your mother?

Well, dear reader, it is not so much about mom, but about others who may not share your expertise or enthusiasm for so many things technological: senior campus administrators and faculty leaders; trustees and the off-campus members of campus advisory groups who do not work in the technology industry; and elected officials in your state legislatures and elsewhere.

Alas, it’s too easy to cite the memorable line from the classic 1967 Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke: “we have a failure to communicate.” But truth be told, we have had – continue to have – a significant failure to communicate.

Truth be told, we in the campus and educational tech community have done a poor job of explaining technology to others, most often to the individuals on- and off-campus whose support for administrative and instructional technologies – and the money to fund technology initiatives – is essential. Implicitly and explicitly, we have fostered great expectations about what technology can to do enhance instruction and improve operations. Unfortunately, we have not delivered much of the easily inferred gains in instructional outcomes and operational improvements.

Admittedly, this is not a new problem. But the communication problem seems to be getting bigger and more complex: good will and great aspirations no longer suffice in our conversations and proclamations about why we need more money to support IT, particularly given the current financial challenges that beset state governments and all sectors of American higher education.

Case in point: of late I’ve been hearing a rising “Geek Chorus” of campus IT officers lament that they – senior campus officials in other offices, members of the legislature, and significant off-campus others – just don’t understand the really pressing technology challenges that confront colleges and universities and the campus IT officers tasked to address these challenges. Campus administrators and elected officials respond that there is no money anywhere, and oh, by the way, what about all the money we’ve given you for IT over the past five years, ten years, and two decades.

Given the two recent cycles of budget cuts affecting higher ed and campus IT efforts over the past 10 years, it comes as no surprise that campus IT leaders view budget cuts and the concurrent rising demand for IT resources and services as the Scylla and Charybdis of their existence.

No question, IT budgets have suffered through two, almost back-to-back economic downturns (2001-04 and 2008-present). Concurrently, campus IT officers confront rising demands for IT resources and services: more technology for instruction, expanded wireless services, faster campus networks, better user support services, the rising cost of mission-critical ERP and LMS licensing agreements, mobile applications for smart phones, the de facto requirement after the tragedies at Virginia Tech and elsewhere that campuses have an IT-based emergency notification system…and more!

We need a better – a clear, cogent, and compelling – statement about the benefits of technology in education. And it needs to be simple and direct, and one that resonates with the CIAs – “civilians with authority” – on college campuses and in state legislatures. Technology advocates need to explain in clear terms, and without pandering or impatience in our voices and our documents, why and how technology makes a difference.

Again, this is not a new issue for the campus community. But as elsewhere across the campus and political landscape, there is growing impatience with imprecise explanations. We need a clear rejoinder to the aggressive clarity of the j’accuse statement: given the billions of bucks spent on IT in education over the past three decades, why have test scores been stagnant and why do educational organizations fail to make effective use of IT resources for operations?

The analogs for the effective deployment of IT resources are common across the consumer economy. But that’s not necessarily the case on campus: costs have not declined; performance (“productivity”) has not improved.

Please understand: I’m an advocate for the effective deployment of IT in instruction and operations. Like you, dear reader, I’m a believer. I know from my personal experience that this stuff makes a difference. But like the CIAs – civilians in authority – I too would like better data and compelling documentation, less epiphany and more evidence.

What say ye, dear reader? What evidence can the advocates provide to address concerns of the CIAs about the impact and benefits of technology on instruction, learning, and campus operations? Can you explain IT to your mom? And can you explain IT to the elected official who represents you in the state legislature?


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