Monday, March 31, 2008

Old Dogs and New Technologies

Last week I found this post comparing email to wikis as a collaboration device, via Stephen Downes, who in turn found the post from Miguel Guhlin. Earlier in the week I had seen a presentation on campus by Amy Bruckman of Georgia Tech, where in the first part she talked about Wikis as a good collaboration tool because:

(1) novice users can at first try out editing a page anonymously (without logging in) to see if they like doing it before making a larger commitment to participate, and

(2) using the wiki creates a sense of collaboration that the students don’t know otherwise and a depth of engagement in the subject which is facilitated by having the pages about the subject matter, not about the authors.

I note that neither of these factors enters into the diagram linked above, but the factors do support the conclusion that wikis are good for collaboration. I wasn’t entirely happy with that conclusion, but I let that simmer over the weekend. This morning I thought about it some more and a few other questions came up:

(A) How many people are involved in the collaboration?

(B) Do those people know each other ahead of time or do they establish their relationship by doing the collaborative work?

(C) If they knew each other beforehand do they already have established work patterns in place?

(D) Is there some deadline that needs to be met to deliver the fruits from the collaboration?

Before I turn to answer these questions I want to note that I’m very tied to email and rely on it for a great part of my work. I know there are those who’ve been arguing that email is dying, that the Net Generation is into IM, texting, and social networks and email is a dinosaur, so we need to switch. I definitely don’t want to do that. So, for the record, I’m the old dog in the title of this post.

And I’m mindful of some conversations that I’ve had within the last couple of months to wit that some instructors embrace older technologies to good pedagogic effect, but the learning technologists in the crowd seem to want these instructors to abandon their approach in favor of newer technologies, e.g., wikis. What are we to make of that situation?

I’m involved in a variety of collaborations at present. The ones that are on campus almost invariably entail face to face meetings at the coffee place and those are supported with email for documentation, scheduling, and follow up work done asynchronously. The ones at a distance have phone calls instead of meeting over coffee. In a couple of those related to the Learning Technology Leadership Program, we use Google Docs during our live calls and make changes in it on the fly and as a living archive of the work after the fact. We also use email in between. We need to alert each other that some work has been done and now the ball is in the other’s court. Email is right for that. There is also a lot of sidebar commentary and for that we use email too. I dare say that everyone else with whom I’m collaborating is comfortable using email this way. But we’re all digital immigrants.

I’ve not really worked on larger scale collaborations. I’m on a variety of listservs where there is some element of collaboration, but when there is drill down on the work, that happens outside the list. And I’ve not done much with collaboration of late where there the work partners were fundamentally new to me. I’ve always had face to face meetings as a way to make progress on the relationship front, so there’s been some personal feeling for the work partner. I’d find it hard to collaborate otherwise.

Specifically on using wikis, there have been many flavors used here. My officemate Norma likes PBWiki and I know some of the folks who used to work under me when I was with Campus IT liked that environment too. And there have been projects elsewhere using MediaWiki. Recently there has been some embrace of Confluence, which can be hosted locally in a way that conforms to the Campus information security policy. I’ve found that environment clunky, at least when the various plugins are not installed. I found it disappointing that it didn’t take some standard html tags. Blogger is more flexible from my point of view and I could do better collaboration on a group blog than in Confluence, though a blog marks individual contributions more sharply and that can be a minus in some circumstances.

I suppose it’s safe to conclude that if we old dogs interact only with each other then we’re ok to use whatever tools we like for collaboration and likewise for the Net Gen. But I wonder if generational differences are the right way to focus the question. What if instead the focus is on the nature of what’s produced, who produces it, and how long that takes?

The success of Wikipedia (I, for one, increasingly use it as a reference in these blog posts) encourages some to attribute the success to wiki technology per se. But I wonder if the lesson translates to work related collaborations that entail a fixed number of people operating under a deadline. And even for those who really like wiki software, don’t they need to satisfy the issues of timing and sequencing for which I use email? I could see doing some of that with IM instead, but certainly the wiki alone is not sufficient for the collaboration, is it?

Since I cover this paper when I teach econ principles, I’ll bring up Paul David’s Qwerty article here because I think it’s relevant. It shows that in some way we’re all old dogs. And the question is whether the lesson is limited to only a few core technologies, the keyboard being one of those, or if cuts across many other domains as well, some which might cause learning technologists to become disheartened because they underestimate the nature of the lock-in.

My understanding of the primary complaint by the net gen against email is that it is just too slow. But how would one measure that? The net gen, by their comparative youth if nothing else, are relatively time abundant compared to those of us digital immigrants who still like email. So while they *multiprocess* they are actually ready to devote some time in the very near future to the issues that are at hand. When time is scarcer, there may have to be a substantial lag in dealing with issues simply to juggle other priorities which have taken precedence. Further, as one gets older there may be a preference to single process issues at greater depth and linger on the single issue for a greater period of time rather than to bounce from one issue to another.

So it is at least conceivable to me when the net gen kids hit the big 4-0, perhaps earlier and maybe even much earlier, that they’ll begin to see a reason for email and other slower technologies, just as children begin to appreciate their own parents more once they themselves have children. We’ve not been around long enough with Internet technology to know this one way or another. But if this is right, email is here to stay for the indefinite future. And even if it is wrong, isn’t it true that it is rare indeed for one technology to completely trump another for each and every user? So why argue for the inherent superiority of one technology over another?

The learning technologist is just looking for us old dogs to bark at him.

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