"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another." The wisdom of William James, who is sometimes called the father of American psychology, is more applicable than ever in today’s busy web-powered world. During development of my book, The New Digital Shoreline, I had the opportunity to talk with many professors and administrators and hear their views on technology’s influence on their careers and classrooms. As you might guess, our discussions ran the gamut from those being heavily involved in new media literacy to those nervously wondering whether they should attempt anything different at all. Since that time, a few colleagues have quietly taken me aside and earnestly asked: What basic set of Web tools does a person really need in order to be effective in their academic career?
The reality of new media emerging from Web 2.0 technologies, the mobile revolution, and the integration of people into social networking makes this question a significant career concern. While there is no "right" answer, the perspective of our students provides valuable guidance about finding a reasonable balance. Here are four ways students view academics:
View #1: Professor Luddite: Professor Luddite's arrival to class is predictable since a small swarm of graduate assistants enters the room about two or three minutes prior to take attendance. His primary tool for course delivery, besides his resonant voice, is the whiteboard, which he grudgingly accepted when the last chalkboard was removed from the building. On rare occasion, he has engaged a graduate assistant to project an overhead slide onto a screen, but generally provides handouts instead. Professor Luddite wishes the Internet were a fad and would fade into the mists of time. When he misses important information sent by e-mail (which he rarely uses -- having assigned a grad student to print out anything of value to be placed in his departmental mailbox), he generally finds a way to recover. He has no intention of changing.
View #2: Professor Emulate: Professor Emulate is in transition. She imagines her students are stunned to learn she is not more Internet-savvy but has little time to retool herself and fully integrate new technologies into her classroom. She attends conferences and workshops where the new technologies are lauded and terms like Reddit, Qoop, and SpringPad are thrown around. She has seen a number of demos and would like to try some of these things in her class but generally runs short of the time necessary to have them ready before the next semester rolls around. Professor E, as her students call her, is well-liked and wants to move into the future but is doing so carefully and slowly since her classes have always gotten good ratings and she has won teaching awards. She learns a little more each semester but is careful not to look dumb and sometimes, over a glass of her favorite pinot noir, admits how far behind she is when it comes to "Internet stuff." To prevent being relegated to Professor Luddite’s peer group, she has started to use a couple of new things like the university’s learning management system to post class documents and PowerPoint slides. She has started a discussion board and has a class blog. Professor Emulate would like to really use new media in her classroom but has only managed to substitute a few tools for existing learning methods.
View #3: Professor Digital: Professor Digital is a maven. He loves tinkering with applications and developing new, exciting ways to introduce technologies to his students. He sometimes gets carried away with methods and temporarily loses sight of the material he wants to teach. His students ascribe this to his enthusiasm and are forgiving of this professorial trait. Professor Digital recently used new media literacy as a baseline for re-evaluating teaching and learning. He deconstructed his class, then rebuilt it from the ground up. He wanted to take the strong collaborative possibilities found in Web 2.0 and leverage his students’ educational experiences to provide both better knowledge of subject material and ways the world will communicate, collaborate and work in the future. Professor Digital still lectures during class time because he believes in face-to-face interaction, but has developed a learning community to help his students to collaboratively and collectively discover and understand new material, and to do their homework, projects, and studying. He has helped them develop a classroom wiki where class notes, together with other important information regarding their exams and assignments, can be collectively constructed. He encourages students to tag useful articles and readings with Digg, Diigo, and other social tagging software. He has shown them how to integrate RSS feeds into their classroom wiki and provided incentives (with grades and classroom peer encouragement) for participation. Many student projects involve creating resource material for those outside the class. Professor Digital has adopted a new paradigm based on emerging collaborative technologies and believes that collectively, his class can produce far more intellectual content than can individual students.
View #4: Professor Overenthusiastic: Professor Overenthusiastic is continually trying new technology but quickly tiring of it and moving to the next big thing. This rapid and random movement doesn’t consider an overall plan. He adopts every new technological innovation without considering relevance to pedagogical goals of his courses or his career goals. He confuses the students and often abandons specific tools in favor of something different midstream. Students dislike the uncertainty and start to doubt the promise of Web 2.0 in higher education.
Professors and administrators are both excited and scared by the prospect of incorporating Web 2.0 ideas into their careers and teaching. I am NOT saying that new technologies should be used in all settings. In fact, just because these tools are out there doesn’t mean we should change for the sake of changing. The smart use of new technologies should result from the reformulation of our classes and job activities. Perhaps one of the worse approaches is to use these tools as a substitute for something that works well in its current form. Instead, consider taking the following steps:
Use socialization tools. With the emergence of social interaction tools on the Web, it makes sense that universities leverage collaboration to get stakeholders involved in projects, initiatives, scientific research and studies. Artifacts from meetings, classroom learning and assignments can become persistent and useful in more ways. Our “throwaway” approach to doing committee work, classroom projects, and other university activities can be reformulated to create lasting value.
Promote new media literacy. Teachers and administrators should look for opportunities to incorporate new media into their careers and classes. Students will use these tools in both their careers and their personal lives.
Create sticky learning experiences. Teachers and administrators have an opportunity to create a stickier educational experience by adding lifelong learning partnerships -- that means allowing students to return to the classroom as participants, mentors, committee members, teachers, and learners throughout their lives. Social media including blogs, microblogs, social networks, videocasting, and communications tools can provide a venue for this interaction.
Put play to work. Tech-savvy millennials have spent their formative years observing a different world -- a world of unlimited choice and digital abundance. Help guide them in putting their play to work. Teachers and administrators can guide student search engine use and help them recognize reliable source material as well as demonstrate how mobile smart devices can be used responsibly in professional settings.
Promote know-where and learning-to-learn. Teachers and administrators can work with students to provide examples of connectivity in action. Student learning will be leveraged if they become an active node on the Web and develop a reliable network of resources in their interest domain. They will soon realize their accessible knowledge extends far beyond what they learned in the classroom. This know-where becomes a valuable tool in a lifelong process of building a personal learning network.
Expect ubiquitous learning. We live in a world with abundant information. Podcasts, videos, tutorials, high-quality research papers, and incredible amounts of scientific fact and theory are all being posted online at an exponential rate.
Understand how boundaries have been redefined. In today’s wired world, an administrator or teacher can work 24/7 and never feel finished. We need to plan for balance and a schedule that permits time for family, friends, hobbies, and exercise. In the long run, a balanced life will become a more productive and effective career.
What does all this mean? Go back to the advice of William James. Our greatest weapon against stress is to choose one thought over another. It is impossible to be an expert on more than a small fraction of the emerging Web 2.0 tools. Instead, explore, rethink a couple of approaches that leverage collaborative technology, mobile devices, and new media, then make an informed choice. It will be good for your career and reduce your stress levels.
If you have any general questions about this topic, please send them to me and I’ll try to answer them in the future. In my next article, I will “name names” and provide a suggested set of basic new media literacy tools for academics.