At the cutting edge

Is this part of your day: do you switch on your PC some time in the morning, log in and check your email? Do you perhaps access a news site to catch up with the latest developments? Do you Google something you want to find? Do you send some emails, and work on a document in Microsoft Word or a similar program?

Is that you? You do know, I hope, that you are a complete and utter dinosaur. Much worse, you are so last year. The kids on the street make jokes about the likes of you.

Seriously, the online word is changing at an extraordinary pace, and those of us whose task it is to teach the young are often seriously out of step. The intercultural boundaries between the young and the slightly-older are constantly being redefined, and create barriers with serious implications.

Last week I attended a workshop in the United States in which we were told that young people, including students, no longer much bother with ‘the internet’. For them going online means going on Facebook via their iPhones. If they need anything else, it will be on one of Twitter, Wikipedia or youtube. Some are toying with Foursquare. But the very idea of messing around in the undefined prairies of various dot.coms and whatever it is you do on Outlook or Thunderbird strikes them as totally bizarre, and nerdy in a pipe-and-cardigan-and-slippers sort of way. Owning a PC, to many of them, is like owning a steam threshing machine, and laptops are rapidly going that way also. It’s all on the iPad or other tablet, or their smartphone; or it’s nowhere.

The impact of technology change and convergence is something we now seriously under-estimate. Many institutions are busily trying to upgrade from the day-before-yesterday’s technology to yesterday’s, and the gap may be widening. It’s not just the cost of constant changes, but getting into the mindset of how all this develops.

We can still insist on the use of certain technologies for students. In fact, two US academics at the workshop argued that professors need to lay down the ground rules, and that students ned to deliver their work accordingly. But if our ground rules seem wholly out-of-date as far as the students are concerned, it has implications. For better or for worse, we ned to keep pace with the world in which our students move, and we need to engage with it even when we think it’s going backwards.

It is indeed not always easy to see how intellectual inquiry can thrive in the Facebook world. But in the end, Facebook is just a medium, not a message, and we need to adapt to its idiom. In fact, we must stop always just catching up; we need to be ahead of the curve.

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16 Comments on “At the cutting edge”

  1. wendymr Says:

    By that logic, we should also be accepting and adopting the use of netspeak and l33tspeak for communication.

    I stand by my previous arguments on this topic: when this generation goes into the workplace, they will be expected to be conversant with the technology and communication culture there. I don’t think educators would be doing them any favours by not continuing to encourage the use of professional communication formats and media.


    • I think the argument at the workshop was that when this generation goes into the workplace, they will change the workplace, Or rather, the workplace will have changed, because companies will be falling over themselves to adapt communications to the market. Here are all the old fuddy-duddy academics insisting on steam powered communications, while the IT companies are busy changing everything already. An executive from HP who was present gave some support to that, saying that in 5 years the technology will be wholly different.

      • Al Says:

        Was this conference like the one for county councillors ran in killarney recently… This one escaped the media attention!
        I don’t buy the need to stay ahead argument, but acknowledge that one can’t fall behind.
        This edutainment can often be a substitute for educational depth and real skill development.
        We leave future generations worse off with these pc notions, spundoctored pitches about the future, etc.
        Everyone has to serve their time, and not waste it on fb.

      • wendymr Says:

        I don’t buy that argument at all. Sure, some workplaces will use whatever is cutting-edge, because they themselves are cutting-edge or they need to hire the brightest young things to stay ahead (the Apples, Googles, Microsofts and so on of this world). But many ordinary businesses are far, far behind that – believe it or not, many companies haven’t even migrated to Windows XP and still have CRT monitors. My other half works for a software house whose customers are banks, and their software has to be capable of running on XP and IE6 and 1980s versions of UNIX.

        There are all sorts of reasons besides this why newer platforms won’t be adopted in workplaces: concerns about confidentiality is one, clients’ ability to keep up (not just commercial customers, but individual people accessing services) is another. And then there’s the whole reliability thing: it’s bad enough at present when internet services go down, but if just about every activity is internet-dependent (Facebook, cloud computing etc) it becomes far, far worse. Plus many of these technologies have yet to prove their durability over the long term. About a year ago, the local chapter chair of my professional association wanted to move all our communication to Google Wave. Just as well we didn’t now, wouldn’t you say?

        And, of course, there’s always the risk that, if their favourite platforms become mainstream, young people will leave Facebook etc in droves to find something new – after all, why would they want to share their space with the ‘fuddy-duddies’? That’s just so last year…


        • Wendy, one of the biggest business trends right now in certain sectors is to move sales, marketing and discussion of product development on to Facebook.

          On a related note, I remember visiting the US in 1996 on vacation and being struck by how companies and also government offices were advertising their websites (ungeard of back in the UK then). When I got back to Hull I mentioned this (1) at a local chamber of commerce meeting (and was told that nobody would ever buy on the web), and (2) at my Faculty board (and was told that no serious approach to teaching could ever involve an online element).

          • wendymr Says:

            Of course some technologies and platforms will become mainstream over time. I certainly never intended to deny that. They just won’t necessarily be all of the platforms or media you refer to. And, in fact, the adoptions you refer to almost prove my final point: websites and so on are now so completely mainstream that the young people of whom you speak wouldn’t dream of using them…

  2. jfryar Says:

    Well I think there’s a ‘cyber-cool’ section of society who love to tell us how we’re going to live in the future and are almost always wrong in their predictions. The problem is that there is a gulf between ‘what I have access to in my free time and consider communications’ and ‘what I need to do my job’. Companies are sick and tired of people spending hours surfing the web, writing blogs, checking the facebook status of friends, reading tweets, etc. If our ‘youth’ consider this essential, well they’ll be in for a real shock in the workplace when companies tell them ‘these are utterly useless in terms of you fulfulling your contractural obligations’.

    Most companies will not adopt iPads for employees over cheaper, more functional laptops. Most companies will not suddenly abandon email because they can control it. We’ve seen issues with data protection, lost laptops, usb keys, etc so the reality is that we’ll probably see fixed, rigid, boring systems in the workplace for decades to come.


    • I suspect it will be somewhat different. The next generation of iPads/tablets will be much cheaper, and much cheaper than laptops. We were shown a list of companies who have *already* decided to adopt them within 18 months for internal use and communications.

  3. anna notaro Says:

    ‘two US academics at the workshop argued that professors need to lay down the ground rules, and that students need to deliver their work accordingly. But if our ground rules seem wholly out-of-date as far as the students are concerned, it has implications.’ This seems to be the crux of the argument: do we engage in a kind of techno-savyness ‘race’ with our students, in the futile hope ‘to be ahead of the curve’, or do we lay down some ‘ground rules’ which allow for the use of ‘old’ and ‘new’ technologies in an educational environment, expecting our students to become conceptually literate not only in the cutting edge ones? Let’s not forget that no ‘old’ technology is entirely erased once the new ones appear, the relationship among them is rather more nuanced. In Remediation: Understanding New Media Bolter and Grusin (1999)proposed a theory on media evolution that attempted to break with the myth of the newness of new media and the linear supersession of older media by newer ones. While I would agree that universities are places where cutting edge knowledge should flourish, I think that we should consider very carefully the ‘implications’ of engaging in the race for the latest technology application, the risk is that the so called digital born generation won’t be able to distinguish between education and entertainment (already some version of ‘edutainment’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edutainment is what we are expected to deliver. Also let’s keep in mind that differently from the American academic environment the economic digital divide is still an important factor here, out of 68 students in my Media theory class only 1 could afford a smart phone!

  4. anna notaro Says:

    Small Appendix to the above: ‘It is indeed not always easy to see how intellectual inquiry can thrive in the Facebook world. But in the end, Facebook is just a medium, not a message, and we need to adapt to its idiom.’
    This statement is rather problematic as it seems to endorse an acritical adoption of new media simply in order ‘to be ahead of the curve’. The old McLuhan dictum that the medium is the message might be intellectually passe’ in 2011, still there is validity in considering the medium more than simply some ‘neutral’ tool (on the alleged neutrality of technology there is a lot of literature, of course)so we dont need to ‘adapt to its idiom’, just like there is more to learning a foreign language than just mastering the vocabulary, it’s the whole culture that the new language opens us up to that counts…if we simply ‘adapt’ the risk is that education itself might become some version of the often diluted idea of ‘friendship’ available on Facebook


  5. There is a shift away from the web and onto Facebook and this is by no means confined to young people. FB is an agreeable and useful “place”. Lately a great deal of my debate has shifted to FB. A big diasadvantage is the small amount of text that is permitted at first. However, once the “conversation” is up and running, post size seems to be unlimited. I think that FB etc. – like all media – will be used by both interesting people and boring people.

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    Before we struggle to “catch up” or “keep pace” should we not ask ourselves, as educators, whether these new technologies are at all worthwhile? Or is it now just taken as given that is implies ought? If so, how very unmodern are the roots of this need to keep up.


    • Ernie, can I explore that a little more? Should we stick with bakelite telephones then, and decline to use the new(er) digital technology? Or maybe, should you stop keeping up with new research output in your area? After all, shouldn’t you avoid the compulsion to keep up?

      • kevin denny Says:

        (For once) I agree with Ernie. Ferdinand, your telephone analogy is mistaken because digital phones are clearly better than what preceeded them: they do the same thing only better.
        But that does not necessarily apply to new technologies: for communicating with students I am satisfied that email and (heaven forbid) actual conversation is better than Facebook notwithstanding their ancient-ness. So technologies have to be assessed on their merits not simply on their novelty.


        • Honestly, I’m not making a judgement on whether Facebook is good for these purposes. But I *am* saying that we cannot live in a parallel universe to everyone else. If there is a general trend away from email etc – and I don’t just mean students – we cannot just say ‘Nothing to do with me, guv’. We have to adapt.

          As it happens, I believe the Bakelite telephone was *much* better than what came next. But I don’t use it.


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