Q & A

A few weeks ago, Jim and I took a last-minute road trip to Fairfax to attend the DC Area Technology and Humanities Forum at George Mason University.

Depending on whom you ask, Fredericksburg may or may not actually count as “DC Area,” but it didn’t matter because when I checked with the folks at the Center for History and New Media (who were co-sponsoring the event) they said all were welcome — even the geographically-challenged.

The speakers for the event included Bryan Alexander, whom I’d never met or heard speak before (I was home with a five-day-old baby when he made an appearance at UMW’s Faculty Academy a few years back). I’ve been an avid reader of Bryan’s blog for a while, so it was great to hear him in person. Not surprisingly, his remarks on “Web 2.0 and Digital Humanists” were a pleasure to listen to as he took us on a whirlwind tour of webtwopointohy “stuff.”

From CHNM, Dan Cohen demonstrated (and shared the development of) Zotero, a Firefox plugin for research and developing citations/bibliographies. I’ve had little opportunity to use Zotero for any authentic project, but I’m aching to try. It’s a tool after my own heart.

Finally, Edward Maloney from Georgetown discussed that institution’s brand-new “Digital Notebook” project. During his background introduction when he explained how the folks at Georgetown were finding themselves increasingly frustrated by the current CMS practice of using courses at the unit of measurement instead of people, I was hooked. The project is so new, he didn’t have much to show us yet, but I eagerly await an opportunity to see what they produce.

All in all a small smorgasbord of delicious things to ponder, and the Q and A reflected how well the speakers had piqued the audience’s interest.

Now, I’m notorious for not wearing a watch (although, last week my husband did give me a lovely new one as a Christmas present, so I guess that’s about to change), and when I raised my hand to ask the question that was on my mind, I didn’t quite realize that there was only 5 minutes left in the session. As a result, I was somewhat taken aback by the general laughter that greeted my inquiry–but, upon reflection, my question was probably a bit too broad for the time allotted. That said, I still think it was an important question to ask.

Here it is (well– a much longer version than what I actually asked): I hear a lot of talk about how Web 2.0 is changing everything — how social networking, folksonomies and tagging, and user-created content have the potential to radically alter the way we’ve been approaching teaching, learning, and the influence of technology in those two endeavors. I get that it’s a big deal to us as teachers, learners, humanists, scientists, researchers, technologists, administrators, and, well, people.

What does it really mean for higher education? Because underlying all of this conversation seems to be this undercurrent of fear about being “left behind.” We have to figure out what to do with all this stuff because we can’t afford to be left behind. Educational providers (colleges, universities, K-12 publics and privates) must adapt. But what does that really mean? What does it mean to be “left behind?” Are we suggesting that some colleges and universities are going to have to close their doors if they don’t adapt? That’s a pretty big suggestion. At our institutions, do we believe that the upper-level administration is facing that reality? Or am I simply overblowing the possibilities?

I’m not so sure. I’m really starting to think that fundamentally the changes we’re witnessing and affecting aren’t just about a better approach to course management systems or ePortfolios or enterprise blogging or browser plugins or harnessing MySpace or infiltrating Facebook. Because, ultimately, I think it has nothing less to do with the technologies that are exposing the new ways in which people want to live, learn, and work. I think it has to do with why people want to live, learn, and work this way–and how “this way” is different from the old way.

I’m not saying all of that great stuff doesn’t matter. I’m just saying it’s not what matters most. Does higher education have to fundamentally change? Does a college need to evolve into something new? If it does, the changes that need to be wrought are about so much more than technology. They signal vast, cultural changes in our institutions of learning.

If CMSs are off-base by valuing the course as a unit of measurement aren’t they really just guilty of reflecting what’s valued by the institutions? When are schools going to start to value people over courses? How is that change going to be felt? If we really believe that change is inevitable, how do we sell it to the people in charge? How do we affect it across the institutions we work at? — institutions, which, let’s face it, are generally notorious for moving at glacially-slow paces.

I don’t mean these remarks to disparage in any way the vital, fascinating, and valuable work that all three of the speakers are involved in. I’m just interested in the parallel conversation about the bigger picture of education, a conversation that contextualizes their excellent work within an awareness of the deeper, cultural transformation that is going to occur.

Needless to say, it was too big a question to ask in the last five minutes of Q and A. 🙂