Thursday, November 29, 2007

Commentary: Sotir: How Did I Become a Techie?

The concept of what technology is to education is often baffling to technologists and educators alike. I see myself as both, bridging the science of technology to the art of education. Of course, my career started as an educator. Technology was but a twinkle. Yes, we had the Sputnik fears and new math of the 50s and 60s, but 'technology' in schools was confined to items like filmstrips, 8mm projectors and punchcards, and of course the ubiquitous mimeograph machines (do any of you remember permanently stained purple fingers and the glorious scent of freshly printed mimeo copies?) Children, however, were basically taught as their parents were taught. Books. Blackboards. Lectures.

In the late 70s, the idea of personal computers took hold. We were fascinated as a society by the promise of computers to make work easy and efficient. Expensive calculators were all the rage, and they performed all the skills that the average 3rd or 4th grader knew: addition, subtraction, multiplication and division. Debates raged over the horror of students using calculators. Eventually, once the newness wore off, people realized that children could still learn math, despite the curse of calculators. Towards the end of the decade, the word 'computer' was buzzed around schools. Of course the 'buzz' was from the adults. Teens were already using computers they built in their basements and garages, and learning programming language on their own or at Homebrew Computer Clubs. I started to think about reshaping my career.

The 80s brought the issue of computers and education to a head. School boards were debating the value of adding them to the curriculum. Many students wanted them. Many teachers feared them. But slowly, courses such as 'keyboarding' replaced 'typing' classes. Yes, many of the keyboard classes used typing texts, but the momentum was building. It wasn't as much a revolution as an evolution. But it obviously could not be stopped. On January 3, 1983, the Personal Computer was the first non-human to be announced as Person of the Year by Time Magazine. And Apples started to reshape my career.

In the 90s we had the IBM clone companies: Compaq, HP, Gateway and Dell. Everyone wanted their own PC. Windows hit the marketplace, making Apple only a minor player. I researched the newly developing technology and wrote and developed a grant to become a 'Center of Excellence' for the Illinois Community College Board. We received the grant, and a flurry of activity ensued. We were awash in equipment. PCs and laser discs and massive (and extremely expensive) software applications. 'Media' was not enough. I requested 'multimedia'. I still remember an IT director who asked why I needed it. Sigh. I had now catapulted from a purely educational vision to an educational technology vision. I left the classroom and entered the newly created computer lab. I hired other educators who were not afraid to take on the challenge of the future. And PCs started to reshape my career.

By the mid 90s, hardware was was losing ground to the Internet. I had used the Internet for a while, in the form of a BBS (Bulletin Board System). I didn't really know what it was in the early 90s, and needed my daughter's boyfriend to explain it to me, set it up and answer the thousands of questions I had. My languages of comfort were more that of Shakespeare and Middle English, not programming languages. But slowly I developed a respect for them, and could upload to my BBS page with some ease. And the Internet started to reshape my career.

The late 90s saw the WWW take hold. The cumbersome language of BBS was but a memory, blurred by the rapidly developing Web. We developed Web pages. More programming issues. By now, I knew enough about programming to get the job done, but just enough. I never lost the focus of what I wanted technology to do, which is to help students learn. And the WWW started to reshape my career.

We survived the Y2K crisis without ever looking back. While hardware dominated the 80s and software the 90s, the 2000s are all about the Web. I became the queen of Blogs and later Wikis. I look at my lab today, and see that we still have a lot of software integrated into our curriculum, but the focus is moving more towards the Web. Web 2.0 draws us into and further defines the art of education. My new favorite language includes words such as Gabcasts and Mojitis, Twitters and Wikis, Hotlists and Blogs. And for the record, while I haven't abandoned PCs, I am back to my old Apple roots. They're just easier to use when working in the 2.0 environment.

I never set out to be a technologist. I just like to teach, and like to define the process of teaching. I'm not sure how I got to where I am, but I am quite pleased with how it turned out. Along the way, my staff and I learned together. I am thrilled that their passion matches mine, even if it is a click or two behind. I revel in the 'collective intelligence' that reigns supreme in the AELC. We've proven that technology and education can coexist elegantly. And we'll always be experimenting and learning.