Why moblie isn’t always the answer.

Another disconnect surfaces among IT professionals and faculty when specifying essential technologies in the classroom. IT staff believe that mobile devices hold a much larger potential than faculty do. For example, whereas 44 percent of IT staff identified the smart phone as essential, only 12 percent of faculty chose that. –Dian Schaffhauser

This is from the end of an article entitled “The Problem with Classroom Technology? Faculty Can’t Use it.” I don’t think can’t is the answer. From that sentence alone, it looks like a faculty choice. It brings back the old saying that “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I’m sure that faculty have good reasons to not adopt new technologies, outside of reticence or fear. Let’s look at how teens (current and future undergraduate students) use cell phones:

Some of the more public-facing features are used the least, including general internet use, social networking and the severely-underused-by-teens feature of email. All of the most-used features tend to be personal or private. Among adults, Pew finds that almost 1/3 have smartphones, 87% of them email, and 68% of them go online with it, although 59% of smartphone users go online mostly with another device. The user groups skew towards younger adults, with higher incomes and higher levels of education. There are two factors going on here: use and access. Teens use mobile devices for private communication, and that trend likely applies to adults as well. Secondly, data-enable mobile devices are expensive, so access is not universal. Stepping into a classroom and requiring an expensive device already alienates those who do not have them. Beyond that, it asks students to use a personal communication device to become part of a public project. Why is this such an issue? Consider danah boyd’s research on teen’s understanding of privacy. Keep in mind that they will be adults someday.

Throughout these conversations, teens consistently come back to the importance of control and personal agency. They believe privacy has to do with their ability to control a social situation, how information flows, and where and when they can be observed by others. –Social Privacy in Networked Publics: Teen’s Attitudes, Practices and Strategies. pg.5.

Personally, I do not know many faculty or staff who communicate with students over personal channels, instead, we all tend to rely on institutional ones (campus emails, office phones, after class, during office hours). Because of these well-established social norms, asking students to engage the class on a personal mobile device seems out of line. Only 12% of faculty choosing to be more open with their understanding of the social norms of online communication is understandable. It is not that they cannot use them. Instead, they choose not to.

Form and Content, Briefly.

Bad spellers are a breed apart from good ones. A writer with a mind that doesn’t register how words are spelled tends to see through the words he encounters — straight to the things, characters, ideas, images and emotions they conjure. A good speller, by contrast — the kind who never fails to clock the idiosyncratic orthography of “algorithm” or “Albert Pujols” — tends to see language as a system. Good spellers are often drawn to poetry and wordplay, while bad spellers, for whom language is a conduit and not an end in itself, can excel at representation and reportage. (NYT via The Awl)

This is an old form vs. content debate, although I don’t think that anyone will completely deny the importance of one part or the other. Rather, we all tend to drift to one side or the other. Like any other technology, writing provides many interesting cases for extremity, but also many balanced examples as well, although many of them are quite mundane. In 2006, Kitty Burns Florey put together an interesting homage to the lost art of sentence diagramming, Sister Bernadette’s Barking Dog, and brought to light the joys and idiosyncrasies of a highly technical approach to language. While the book’s  illustrations of how the division of form and content slowly erodes legibility are hugely entertaining, the whole project is driven by the idea that it is no longer acceptable to say something interesting in a boring way.

Consider Snail Mail My Email. Their stated mission: “In a culture overrun with instant gratification and on-demand services, this project cultivates appreciation for the lost art of letter writing.” It’s a super-warm-and-fuzzy idea, and likely cultivates the appreciation for that art, but looking at the examples, they read like emails, not like letters. It’s a difference that anyone can experience firsthand, and SMME acts as a strange hybrid. It makes sense that the project is only a month long: that’s all you need to make the point. It is entertaining, but it also moves too far to the pole of “form,” if only because the tension it sets up is part of the project’s mission. It makes me wonder about how we teach information literacy, which is all about the form of information resources, but never consider the way that the form and the content relate to each other.