Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Reconsidering the 21st Century: Academic Year 2011-12 Technology

I've been blogging for the better part of a year now and have since joined Twitter and set up a really extensive web site/archive for my intro course, and so it seems like the moment has arrived to reflect on my digital usage.

Blogger: I'm really enjoying blogging so far. That said, this has evolved much more into a series of reflections on life on the tenure track rather than about my intellectual life. I'm still struggling with how to balance the desire to produce that latter kind of content with the kind of time investment that it would take and the nagging sense that if I'm going to put in that kind of time, I should just go all the way and publish it properly in some form, be that for an academic or a general audience. This is definitely an area where I'd love to hear suggestions/thoughts/personal narratives from other academic bloggers. How do you balance writing good content with not putting too much time in or scooping yourself? So in sum, this is still very much a work in progress, which is not a bad mirror of the bigger project itself.

I'm also using Blogger to build an attractive-looking course web site/repository for digital resources for the team-taught intro course; the main advantage to using Blogger for this is that we use Google Apps for Education here so it's is integrated seamlessly into the suite that we and our students are already using. It should make it easier for students to use the site actively (leaving comments, using discussion boards) rather than just passively (downloading readings).

Twitter: Still a novelty, so far. I was mostly drawn in by the Dorothy Parker possibilities of the #hashtag. I've still not graduated into real punniness, though, what with the sight of #afewwordsstrugtogether enough to kind of crack me up still. Time to get moving in the intelligent witticisms department, as digital slapstick isn't really going to hold its own much longer. (Actually, I'm not sure the form is much good for humor: John Cleese isn't terribly funny on Twitter, and I sort of think that if he can't manage it, then there's no hope for the rest of us.)  I do know that using hashtags, which are meant to be like post labels, as a comedic device isn't really the right way to be utilizing that piece of it. Not sure if it's better or worse to march to a different drummer on this one.

One friend suggested that using Twitter would give me better insight into my students by better understanding the kinds of technology they use. I've not yet had an opportunity to see if that's been the case since I started Tweeting at the end of term; and I suspect I'll have made a decision about the ultimate fate of the experiment, one way or the other, before I start teaching again in the fall of 2013. I haven't had any big epiphanies, student-wise, since starting to use the service. I suspect that the tempermental gulf between me and most of them is too great to be able to bridge it with more tech-usage or -savviness* on my part.

To be fair, though, Twitter seems like a reasonable place to have a sort of intermediate web-presence. By that, I mean that I'd be comfortable with my students following me even though I follow a few knitters and sometimes let my hair down a bit more on Twitter than I do elsewhere, in a way that I wouldn't be comfortable being Facebook friends with my students. I'm aware that lots of British academics tweet with their students, and I'm not sure I'd love having a Twitter relationship be quite as informal as some of those, but I think there are some possibilities here. A colleague has a theory that it's better for classroom management if your students know a little bit about you as a human being; I'm definitely not the share-in-the-classroom type, so if that theory is actually right, this could work to my advantage. That said, none of my students has found me there yet, so we'll cross that bridge when we get there.

I'm following a whole lot of medievalists and finding some useful and interesting events and articles, so that's been a concrete benefit, smallish though it is. I've just gotten added to a medieval list, and more medieval folks are starting to follow me, so we'll see; it may just be too early to determine whether this is useful or just entertaining. Following different authors and literary magazines been really helpful in keeping up with interesting essay-writing. The one definitively useful thing I've done with Twitter was to get some information from a boutique in San Francisco about how to replace a drinking glass that my cat broke. But then again, neither of those is a very medievalisty sort of thing to do.

Java: I've totally fallen down as far as my learning to program goals have gone. I was going to take on this coding-lesson-a-week program, and have managed not to do a single one. The email notifications of the weekly lessons are lurking in my inbox, unread, reminding me of my total failure. I'm not sure if I can catch up at this point, so I'm hoping they'll run it again next year. I'm using Blogger to develop my course web site, and that's actually a better decision anyway both for the aforementioned seamless integration issues and also because it's plug-and-play enough that it means that, with a careful set of directions written out, I won't have to be the webmaster for this course for ever and ever, even when it's not my turn to teach it.

iOS: I bought an iPad. I bought this as part of a grant to develop teaching materials for the intro class. I had a sort of epiphany when I used a video in class one day, the day that we were talking about paper as a commodity topic, and just the fact that I was using something that seemed like technology to my students made them much more open to talking about the idea that the advent of paper and the codex as technological innovations. And it was great — the students themselves were drawing connections between modern and pre-modern vocabulary (hey! we scroll through documents too! just like with scrolls!) and between different type of innovations (so, having books was as big of a deal as getting an e-reader!) Enough students have iPads that if I'm using one I can develop course materials that take advantage of the format, I can have students bring their iPads to class and share and thus be able to maximize how I'm using the technology. I just got it yesterday, so more on this as I develop the materials and activities.

As I was setting it up, and clicking, no, I don't want to use iCloud and have all of my personal photos, music, and email wirelessly delivered to this device, and no, I don't want to turn dictation or location services on, I realized that I'm making totally luddite use of this piece of technology. I want a lightweight, portable, high-res medieval manuscript that my students will think is cool and interesting.

I'm pretty excited about it as a manuscript reader, too, though. With the retina display feature, the embossing of the type that comes through from the back side of this pages is completely legible; I can't wait to see what it can do with challenging-to-read manuscripts:

High-tech medieval manuscript or low-tech iPad?:

So, that's my technology roundup for the academic year.

*The putative tech-savviness of the Millennials (of which I am allegedly one, but have trouble conceiving of myself that way) deserves its own post.

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