Computer Lib or Computer Fib?

We have been reading about visionaries who have (correctly) forecast some amazing things that computers can do. Most recently, we read how Ted Nelson described (in the 1970s) how computer images on screens could be resized, how people will uses their fingers instead of styli or other pointers, and how these technologies will make it possible to greatly expand and create novel ways to learn and teach.

I’m not sure I buy the hype.

To be sure, I enjoy using my iPads and iPhones, and indeed, they have enabled me to do things that I couldn’t do previously. (My favorite use of the iPad is to read the newspaper while exercising in the morning—even before the printed newspaper arrives on my driveway.)  And I truly enjoy the ability of using my computer devices to retrieve information easily.  (I now don’t need to walk to the library and spend hours locating print or microfilm journals every time I want to get an article.)

In other words, I have clearly benefited from some of the more prosaic uses of computers that many of the early pioneers imagined—namely the ability to obtain, store, and manipulate vast amounts of information using these new tools.

But have I used these new tools to enhance my teaching? I certainly have cut down on the amount of paper I distribute to students, as I put my syllabi and teaching and reading materials online.  That’s nice.  And I communicate with students by email in ways that helps me ensure that (at least theoretically) everyone knows about upcoming assignments and other events.

But I don’t think that many of my colleagues (Professor Amy Nelson at VT serving as an obvious exception) have yet taken the leap to use the new technologies in ways that truly exploit their potential. And the reason for the poor record of adoption of the new technologies is, perhaps, because they still remain so difficult to use.  To develop her incredibly innovative new-media Russian history class, Dr. Nelson obtained a grant that bought out some of her teaching time and provided funds to purchase specialized software.  Without these extra resources, would she have been able (or willing) to experiment with the new technologies?  I doubt it.

And in many cases, some of us are not trying to get students to be truly creative and innovative thinkers. Rather, we’re trying to get them to develop the elementary skills they need as a prerequisite to become creative and innovative.  By this, I mean that we sometimes have to teach students the basics—not the creative stuff—such as how to write simple and grammatically correct sentences.  We may have hoped that such learning had already been accomplished in the elementary and secondary public schools.  But too often, students come to college without these skills, and we spend inordinately too much time re-teaching them.

Perhaps in this realm—of teaching basic skills—we can envision and profitably use computers, though not in terribly creative ways. Without much assistance from an instructor, computers can perform repetitive (and mind numbing, but mind reinforcing) exercises with students so they learn, once and for all, the various forms of the verb “to be,” for example.  By doing so, they can avoid using the verb excessively and happily escape writing in passive voice—a real no-no in the field of history.

So, maybe there really is value in using computers in education—though not always in ways that expand the horizons of learning. And thank you, Amy, for showing us that you can really do some amazing things with computers in (and out of) the classroom.

But for me, it still seems that computer visionaries—Ted Nelson included—have not yet created a technology that is designed well enough for the ultimate users. As I’ve noted elsewhere in the blogosphere, too often computer technologies are designed with the designers—and not the users—in mind.

To claim that the current uses of computers is lib—as in liberating—is therefore a fib, as in a small or trivial lie. The potential for liberation and intellectual creativity is there, but for too many of us who are hampered by poorly designed computer hardware and software, the potential has not yet been achieved.

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